Chefs discuss ways they've adapted during COVID-19 at a United Fresh LIVE! education session June 15. ( Amy Sowder )

In today’s COVID-19 pandemic-filled business world, adapting is crucial, according to chefs who shape the menus of restaurants, retirement communities, school systems, hotels and quick-service restaurants.

At a June 15 “Foodservice Insights from Visionary Chefs” session at United Fresh LIVE!, six chefs and a nutrition specialist discussed the ways their companies have shifted to survive mandatory closures.

The chefs are among the honorees of the 2020 United Fresh Produce Excellence in Foodservice Awards Program, in its 13th year.

“We all know how difficult our industry is in regular days,” said Greg Corsaro, president and chief operating officer of Indianapolis-based FreshEdge, sponsor of the foodservice award program. “It’s long hours, it’s hard, things keep changing and nothing seems to go right. But everything in our society involves food.”

Chef Randy Weed, vice president of culinary at Plum Market, Farmington Hills, Mich., said the company replaced its buffet-style centers with another format to serve customers, including new packaging that works under heat, packaging with safety seals and more take-home meal kits, such as taco and Korean barbecue kits.

“We reinvented ourselves and changed the way we do business overnight,” Weed said.

Daniel Bruce, executive chef of the Boston Harbor Hotel, said his area’s restaurants will be allowed to open for outdoor seating at 50% capacity only.

“That’s going to affect us, of course,” Bruce said. “We typically do 1,400 people a day, and we’ll be lucky if we do 300 now.” The hotel has an indoor restaurant, bar, in-room dining and catering.

Guests will use personal devices to order food to minimize contact, and the menu is mostly fish and produce because of supply chain disruptions. 

“We’re certainly going to feature local produce to support local farmers and be as seasonal as we can,” Bruce said. 

Mike Yip, district chef of Union Public Schools, Tulsa, Okla., set up three strategic sites with grab-and-go meals.

When Yip saw that the line for meal-pickup stretched for a mile, he opened a fourth site and increased daily meals to three by adding dinner. That meant 15,000 meals a day.

“Within 24 hours, that’s a lot of meals,” Yip said.

The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma hired some restaurant staff to create the adult grab-and-go meals.

To keep the older population safe and socially distanced, kitchen staff developed a system to deliver breakfast, lunch and dinner to residents’ rooms, said Laura Gomez, executive chef of The Stratford, Carmel, Ind., a retirement community with independent and assisted living options.

Gomez said her kitchen is serving 600 meals a day seven days a week, but “it was not really impossible. It was fine.”

She started a grocery store on the property that delivers to residents so they can get basic necessities without leaving their homes or rooms.

Marissa Thiry, nutrition specialist for Taco Bell, Irvine, Calif., said her company saw a big uptick in group orders once stay-at-home rules took effect, so in addition to the taco 12-pack they already offered, they added a Burrito Cravings pack and other combo packs.

Taco Bell also started selling at-home taco bar kits, which meant selling customers bulk ingredients.

“It’s a fun way to bring a little light to the situation we’re in right now,” Thiry said. “I think we’re definitely adapting as we go.”

Travis Peters, executive chef of The Parish, Tucson, Ariz., said when the quarantine began, he wrote a Facebook post asking local media to band together and create a branded message that restaurant food is safe to eat and support was needed.

That post was shared about 13,000 times and prompted media and food bloggers to meet. They created a video of Peters and three other chefs telling locals that they take the pandemic very seriously, yet “local restaurants are very fragile, and it doesn’t take much to hurt us, and we’d love if people ordered takeout once a week,” Peters said.

The video went viral and was picked up by several TV stations.

“It gave the public an idea of the importance of supporting local business. It really helped build some sales,” he said. 

Joey Martin, senior executive chef at University of California-Los Angeles, said demand dropped from 32,000 meals to 2,400 meals when quarantining began, so he partnered with a hospital and essential workers still at the school.

“It helped us get rid of some of our product, but it also developed into helping the community. Good things came out of this,” Martin said. “Right now, fall is uncertain and we’re trying to figure it out. We have plans for every scenario; we just don’t know which one it will be right now.”

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