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Plan B: Makers Shift Strategy in the Age of COVID-19
Plan B: Makers Shift Strategy in the Age of COVID-19 avatar

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Specialty Food asked three makers to detail the hurdles and opportunities their businesses faced during the pandemic.

Whether they launched a new offering in response to consumer buying habits, pivoted their strategy in the face of business interruptions, or pushed through with their initial new product plans, these makers displayed agility amid COVID-related disruptions.

Q: What challenges and/or opportunities did you discover while launching a new product or innovation during the pandemic?

Kasia Bigda, Marketing and Communications Director, Mr Lee’s Pure Foods Co.

Damien Lee founded Mr Lee’s Pure Foods Co. in 2016 after winning a cancer battle and changing his diet. He made a pact with himself that when he got better, he would create a global brand offering premium, guilt-free instant noodles with real ingredients, not dust like many other brands.

After launching in Europe and Australia in previous years, 2020 was supposed to be groundbreaking for the company as it entered the U.S. We planned a nationwide launch with Whole Foods Market many months before, including how we could most efficiently enter a new market, in a new continent, on a budget.

Days before we were to announce the launch, California, the home of our packing facility, went into lockdown just as we were about to start production. Delays in shipping disrupted our seasoning delivery from Europe. Also, the production facilities in California had fewer people working at the time, so we were worried that production would be delayed. Somehow, we managed to overcome the supply chain issues on time for the launch, all from the U.K., but our original marketing strategy had to change.

We redirected the budgets that we had allocated to events, store-redeemable coupons, and in-store sampling to the channels which bring the highest ROI. We started pushing people to our web shop via social media ads, which proved to work amazingly well, and focused on digital marketing and influencer partnerships at a time when shopping in supermarkets was problematic for consumers. Overnight, our online shop became the main source of income. We had to quickly refocus our attention to make sure our e-shop was optimized, and our fulfillment system was spot on. We had to become e-commerce experts overnight. Now, months later, we’re slowly transitioning to more offline activities and hope to execute our initial launch plan after all.

Mark Engel, Founder, Fifth Taste Foods

Following months of painstaking market research and product development, I took the entrepreneurial leap at the very time America was being sideswiped by a global pandemic. The first pallet of oo’mämē, a line of premium global Chile Crisps, dropped on my doorstep on March 17. Luckily, we planned from the start to build our brand digitally. For the time being, brick-and-mortar specialty food stores would have to wait as many stores were closed and sampling was out of the question. With a strong pivot to online sales and marketing, we could successfully ship from our well-stocked inventory.

When stores reopened several months later, we found that some were able to increase business significantly, as customers were more comfortable in a smaller format and had more money to spend with much of the economy still on pause. We continue to push forward with virtual sales calls, but absent the opportunity to sample, it is sometimes hard to make headway. oo’mämē is a distinct product that celebrates the aromas and tastes of Szechuan, China, and Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s a ready-to-eat condiment, with crispy chiles, crunchy nuts and seeds, and a sweet finish.

Lack of sampling remains a challenge not only for wholesaling, but for the retailer to present to consumers, many of whom are still ordering online. We are working on creating smaller sample size jars so we can affordably ship to potential specialty stores.

Joanne Lacina, Executive Vice President, Sun Grove Foods

Being both a manufacturer as well as retailer of olive oil, we saw a dramatic shift in operations at the onset of the pandemic. Our bottling operations quieted, but our e-commerce business boomed. Not only did we see an increase in online sales in general, but also a significant shift in consumers’ online purchasing behavior toward larger format packaging.

With supermarket shelves empty and stay-at-home orders in place, we witnessed a substantial increase for olive oils packed in 3- and 5-liter tins as consumers looked to stock up on their pantry staples. To meet this demand and shift, we decided it was an excellent time to work closely with our producers to introduce the bag-in-box as a bulk packaging option—a size that was already taking off in popularity during the peak of the pandemic in Italy.

While tins offer a great value for buying olive oil in bulk, the bag-in-box is a superior packaging for olive oil. It is less prone to dents and damage during shipping, and it protects the oil itself from its two worst enemies—light and oxygen—during storage and use.

Today we are successfully working with six producers from Greece, Italy, and Spain who pack extra virgin olive oil in bag-in-box, which we offer in 3-, 5- and 10-liters for both retail and wholesale customers.

Julie Gallagher is managing editor for Specialty Food.

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