Canadian food and beverage businesses continue to adapt during pandemic
In honour of Canada’s Agriculture Day, Agriculture More Than Ever joins the country in celebrating the ingenuity of the Canadian food businesses that adapted during a difficult year due the pandemic.
From coast to coast, businesses retooled their operations to fit a quickly changing environment and also to meet the national request to produce more hand sanitizer. Their efforts also supported their local communities with ongoing employment. The challenges were met with innovation, resilience and agility, the hallmarks of Canadian entrepreneurs.
In Neepawa, Manitoba, Lawrence and Chris Warwaruk, brothers and owners of Farmery Brewery knew they needed to make some quick changes to their beer business.
“We've come to realize that the key to success may not be predictable or well planned, but rather how easily and how well we are able to adapt to change,” says Lawrence Warwaruk.
When everything shut down in March 2020, the Farmery Brewery team retrofitted the business’s online store to continue to meet its customers’ needs and stay viable. They eventually opened a fulfilment centre in Winnipeg to fill all their online orders. The brothers also got into a new business, hand sanitizer.
“We needed to shift towards hand sanitizer production, and quickly. Of course, this was not easy and there was a short and steep learning curve if we were to ever meet our obligations,” says Warwaruk.
“At the height of the unknown, we hired more people, we added two shifts and seven days of production to our schedule. With the help of dedicated employees and the concern for the well-being of our province we did not go back to beer production for over two and half months.”
Warwaruk acknowledges the difficulty of staying in business right now.
“There were many sleepless nights with this risky and volatile type of production, but we were determined and somehow pulled it off. I'm glad we did and we're all better for it. The reality of the situation is that it was a blip in our timeline that focused Farmery to 'step up'. And, here we are today, still dealing with the uncertainty of the future.”
Hand sanitizer is now a permanent and robust fixture of the Farmery Brewery brand and product line.
Located 3,000 kilometres away in Knowlesville, New Brunswick Zak and Karen Hargrove have also been putting in long hours to weather the storm created by a worldwide pandemic. Zak is a third-generation maple producer and third-generation electrical engineer.
Zak and Karen started South Ridge Maple Co. Ltd. in 2015 as a stand-alone new business focusing on innovative sap collection, processing and value adding with a focus on export sales. While most maple syrups are blended from different regions, South Ridge maple syrup all comes from trees on their farm, delivering a sought-after consistent flavour. The arrival of the pandemic meant anything but consistency, coinciding with the busiest time of the year in the maple syrup business.
“At the time there was a lot of unknown, and we knew we needed to knuckle down and take our crop off. Karen and I committed to making sure our employees were as safe as possible,” explains Zak Hargrove.
“It meant long hours and limited exposure to the rest of the world and the community. We worked 12 to 14 hours a day. Our employees stuck with us. We never had an employee quit due to COVID. We’re extremely thankful to our employees in the local area for marching through this.”
Concerned about the safety of their employees, their community and the viability of their business, the Hargroves answered the call to use their facility and equipment to make hand sanitizer. In 2 weeks they converted an offsite warehouse into a complete bottling plant. They used local mechanical, electrical, plumbing and carpentry contractors. They also hired additional staff to keep the area separated from the maple facility to keep potential COVID spread to a minimum. Everyone put in long hours to make it happen.
“In the early days the whole world needed hand sanitizer and we had surplus filling equipment so we knew we could sell the hand sanitizer. We wanted to use the sanitizer as a temporary stop gap to keep our local people working who had been laid off or were unable to attend university due to the pandemic.”
The Hargroves knew filling the need for more hand sanitizer would only be temporary, so they also adapted to the new way of the world, figuring out how to make their maple syrup products thrive, by building their online presence and focusing on their branded products.
“We replenished our stock and put a lot of effort into online digital sales and marketing. We really were pleased to have support provincially and federally, it really enabled us to shift quickly with the times,” explains Zak.
“For example, international major food shows are all online so we invested a lot of time in a virtual booth,” Zak says.” We had solid leads by attending these large food shows virtually and started shipping more internationally.”
Other sales completely fell off, like the travel retail sector.
“For example, airport business disappeared overnight. There was a void there. We knew that was 100 per cent out of our control so we identified the areas where we knew the business was going to go, which was online sales.”
Maple syrup sales are up globally which the Hargroves’ attribute to renewed interest in the alternative sweetener. Their family operation is now focused on continuing to deliver for their customers and their community.
“We’re focused on the crop. We have 265,000 trees tapped that we’re going to begin harvesting sap from in the next three to four weeks. Our employees are healthy and everyone is accepting of the circumstances and performing extremely well. We’re trying our best to be ready and be good corporate citizens locally with respect to employment and take this crop off as safely as we can, and we hope it’s a big crop because we have the sales to support what we produce.”
“There are lots of lessons learned in the past year. We feel like we’ve grown quicker than we would have without the challenges COVID brought,” Karen adds. “We are trying to make good things out of a very unknown situation. Try your best to make your plans but understand that they don’t always work and sometimes you need to roll with it.”
This February 23 is Canada’s Agriculture Day when across the country Canadians will celebrate the importance of the agriculture and food industry in delivering strength to Canada’s economy and the people who continue to rise to the challenges of a quickly changing world.
For ideas on how to celebrate Canada’s Agriculture Day, visit AgDay.ca.
Agriculture More Than Ever is an online platform with the goal of improving perceptions of agriculture in Canada. Agriculture More Than Ever partners with industry groups and agvocates to enhance public trust in Canada's food system. Visit AgricultureMoreThanEver.ca or following along on Facebook, Instagram and X.
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