( Produce Marketing Association )

Communication is the essential first step in dealing with foodservice staffing and labor challenges, according to Alex DiNovo.

DiNovo, president and chief operating officer of DNO Produce, Columbus, Ohio, spoke at a July 20 Produce Marketing Association Foodservice: Delivered session on staffing and labor challenges with The Packer’s editor Tom Karst and retail editor/PMG editor Ashley Nickle.
With the disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic — changes in work hours, childcare issues, fears of catching the virus and more — DiNovo said the need for clear communication is high.

“From the very beginning, one of the things that we encouraged as a company was to be open and honest with our associates, and expect the same in return,” he said.

Allowing staff to work from home has been one adjustment. Virtual company meetings, frequent company communications, providing added financial incentives when possible and expressing care and concern for employees all play a role, he said.

“I think that one thing has been really important is just to constantly remind all associates that they’re playing a role, playing a part, in something larger than themselves, that they are helping to feed the country and are part of that critical infrastructure,” he said. 

DNO checks temperatures and asks employees about their health in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

“We remind them constantly that if they feel sick, please don’t show up to work,” DiNovo said. 

The government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has been useful in weathering the crisis, DiNovo said.

After 20% of the company’s staff was initially furloughed when the crisis began, he said the PPP enabled DNO Produce to repay all of the furloughed wages that had been lost.
DNO Produce, fresh-cut processor, also works with a contractor in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

Although not all school districts have announced how they will resume classes, DNO Produce expects to play a role in providing “grab and go” fresh produce for student meals, he said.

Because cash is tight, being patient with receivables in sales to foodservice operators is a reality, DiNovo said. Helping restaurants save on labor and inventory costs by providing value-added produce and just-in-time delivery is a plus, he said.

Social distancing restrictions have created a number of adjustments by restaurants, including more takeout ordering, fewer menu options and, in some cases, higher prices.
DiNovo suggested that the government could create a type of “food stamp” program for the restaurant sector.

“What if they did something creative, like form some sort of food stamp program but for the restaurants where they (give incentives) for consumers to go out and go dine out?”

That, he said, would restore confidence in the sector and inject much-needed revenue into the food service supply chain.

“What form that does that take? I don’t know, but I think as an industry, we need to be ringing the bell, ringing the bell loudly and saying, ‘Hey, we need some help.’”

Plantings by some Ohio vegetable growers were cut by perhaps of 15% to 20% in March and April, particularly for leafy items.

“There’s is no playbook for what we’re dealing with,” he said.

DiNovo said he hopes that the COVID-19 crisis is completely over by the summer of 2021.

“I want to see everybody out having a good time. I want to see everybody in restaurants, enough of this kind of crazy time with a lot of division,” he said. “I’d like to see a lot more unity, a lot more positivity, and a lot more produce being consumed, at restaurants and at home.”

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