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Ford-mini-market-broad-view.jpg Ford Motor
Ford is piloting onsite mini markets similar to what many hospitals have set up to give staff quick-and-easy access to grocery staples.

Dining at Ford Motor Co. copes with coronavirus now and down the line

Box lunches, micro markets and preorder are among strategies used by major auto manufacturer Ford Motor Co. to keep working staff fed while it looks to transition long term to a still-to-be-determined post-COVID world.

Like most other industrial firms, Ford Motor Co. was heavily impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, with most office workers delegated to working from offsite while manufacturing operations were either suspended or quickly retooled to making products like ventilators and masks to deal with the crisis. Meanwhile, the company’s in-house foodservice operations found themselves without most of their customers and restricted in how and what they can serve even when customers were available.

To top it off, Ford was in the midst of consolidating vendors for its dining operations across its North American facilities from about a dozen to a single provider, Aramark, when the pandemic hit. That presented quite a challenge, says Mark Freeman, global foodservice strategy manager for the company.

“We were and still are in the middle of the transition even as this pandemic is causing havoc with existing and incoming suppliers, so it’s gotten a little complicated,” he admits. The transition process involves about 140 commercial (office) and industrial sites across North America, with onsite foodservice ranging from simple coffee shops up to more elaborate cafés.

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Mark Freeman oversees dining operations for Ford around the globe as global foodservice strategy manager.

With the coronavirus shutdowns and restrictions, dining operations at the sites still open had to pivot to alternative modes of service. At commercial sites, where most of the staff was working from home, the cafés were naturally closed down until a few weeks ago, when Ford launched wave 1 of its return-to-work plan that involved bringing essential workers back into its buildings.

For these returned customers, the dining program is offering an online order box lunch program supplemented by micro markets where available “to fill the gap with sandwiches, beverages, etc.,” Freeman says. “The app that Aramark manages lets them order a week at a time if they want, and it helps with [streamlining] production and [procurement]. Because there aren’t that many people on campus, it’s more of a convenience now than anything.”

Meanwhile, on the manufacturing end, when the pandemic hit Ford converted some of its plants into producing ventilators, masks and other items needed to deal with the emergency. In those facilities, dining provided free boxed lunches to the workers, who were there on a volunteer basis, in order to support the effort.

“Even now, one or two I think are still operational and we continue to provide the free boxed lunches to them,” Freeman says. Other plants that have gone back to producing vehicles and the company’s other traditional products are making do at present with vending and micro markets for onsite foodservice as cafés remain shuttered, waiting on the next step.

“We’re starting to plan now on what wave 2 looks like, but nobody has a clue on when that’s going to be,” Freeman offers. “In our case, it’s dependent on [the policies of] different states and even counties, so it’s hard to get a beat really on how were going to return. We still may open the cafés in some fashion when we return in wave 2,” he adds.

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Dry goods on display at a pilot Ford mini market.

Nevertheless, “micro markets may make more sense in this world than to have people line up,” Freeman concedes. “In the manufacturing world, it gets to be especially challenging because the worker has 26 minutes to get their food, eat it and get back to the line and so time is of the essence.”

He looks at micro markets as a possible solution in those environments as well, along with some more out-of-the-box possibilities. “Before [the COVID pandemic] even happened, I was considering how to do some kind of delivery service to their workstations so that they can order it online and then have us deliver, be it with a robot or a bicycle or some other kind of vehicle,” he suggests. “We’ll be in discussions about things like that, but first we have to let things settle.”

Another possible high-tech option is a POS system from Aramark that uses a camera to read the items on a meal tray and tabulate payment. It’s the kind of touchless solution that may be especially resonant in a post-COVID world.

A more conventional possibility is the kind of onsite mini market that many hospitals have set up for staff to give them quick-and-easy access to grocery staples.

“We have a couple of those in pilots right now,” Freeman says. “They’re marginally successful but they may be attractive to the workers who are coming in on our wave 1. I’ve been listing in on some webinars and hear how hospitals have embraced this and find it really successful, so we’ll continue when we’re past this mess. So were trying things and seeing if they catch on.”

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