COVID-19 has forced many food operations to turn to delivery or pickup only—or shut down completely. But that’s not the case for foodservice contractors like Unidine, whose clients are at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus.
The Boston-based provider has long served a manufacturer that provides essential equipment and supplies for the healthcare industry. Which means that these days, the client is busier than ever. “They made the decision to stay open, so they need us to operate. At one point they were running three shifts a day,” says Unidine Founder, President and CEO Richard Schenkel.
Photo: A kitchen staffer prepackaging breakfast items.
For Unidine, continuing to serve meant making significant changes to reduce person-to-person contact and minimize the risk of transmission in the dining area and the kitchen. It also meant having more food available to keep round-the-clock employees fueled.
Back in normal times, the client held a single, multi-hour lunch service where employees could drop in at their convenience. But that resulted in several hundred people flooding the dining area all at once, with groups of 10 or more congregating at most tables. That’s all since changed to promote social distancing. Now Unidine schedules 30-minute windows for each department to come down for meals. “Now we have 30 to 40 people coming in at a time instead of 200 or more,” says Ryan Ruthinoski, Unidine corporate culinary group district manager. The majority of the client’s employees choose to pick up their food and take it back to their desks. But for those want to eat among their co-workers, Unidine created more distance in the eating area. “We put spacers at our tables and little cards that saying the table is reserved for just three or four people at a time, depending on how big the table is,” says Ruthinoski.
Food is served differently now too. “From a menu perspective we haven’t altered it much. But it’s a different execution,” Ruthinoski says. In early March before the situation escalated, Ruthinsoki and his team strategized ways to eliminate touch points throughout the dining area without actually changing what was being served.
Unidone opted to offer more pre-packaged hot meals. “Customers come in and make a selection, but all of the food is fully packaged and sealed and put at a pickup point at a safe distance,” says Victoria Vega, Unidine senior vice president, specialty group. “That way our team member isn’t passing the food directly into the hands of employees.”
Still, many customers liked having the option of customizing their meals. To continue making that available, Ruthinoski swapped out some of the self-service bars for attended ones. “Every morning we have a hot cereal and fruit bar. Rather than penalizing customers who don’t want pr-epackaged everything, we repurposed our lunch service deli location, which is behind protective glass,” Ruthinsoki explains. “Instead of a customer grabbing all the tongs, we have one team member that will rapidly take your order.”
A switch like that could normally slow service. But long lines haven’t been an issue since mealtimes are being staggered by department. “When you start changing how many people show up at once it’s manageable,” says Ruthinoski. An additional team member was also hired to speed service even more.
With the manufacturer running round the clock, Unidine recently added service for second-shift employees around 4 p.m. “It’s a drop-off catering service with pre-packaged, artisan deli sandwiches, so individuals on that second shift feel like they’re appreciated,” Ruthinoski says. And because the manufacturer is currently providing daily meal stipends for employees, plenty of folks are taking advantage of the additional food offerings.
Behind the scenes, kitchen staff are taking extra measures beyond Unidine’s standard food safety protocol. Kitchen surfaces are scrubbed and sanitized every half hour instead of every hour as before. And social distancing measures are being implemented where possible. “Some of our kitchens aren’t the largest, so it’s an ongoing ballet. Inside one, if you’re not in production, they ask you to leave,” says Ruthinoski.
The enhanced safety measures have affected everyone, but most customers and Unidine staffers are taking it in stride. “I haven’t seen too many individuals who have challenged our approach,” Ruthonski says. “They know it’s for the greater good.”
As for how things will look next week, next month or by the summer? Like all things coronavirus-related, no one can say for sure. The key is keeping regular communication with the client and having the ability to quickly change course as needed, notes Ruthinoski. And of course, hoping that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. “I’m not an epidemiologist, but I believe this will end eventually and we’ll go back to operating like we did before,” says Schenkel.