The devastation wreaked by coronavirus on American business has hit contract management firms serving corporate and institutional clients that have mostly shut their doors especially hard. Case in point—Quest Food Management Services, an FM Top 50 firm based in Lombard, Ill., just west of Chicago that operates mostly in the K-12 schools market, with some business also in higher education and corporate dining, including the recently opened Farehouse Market.
Every one of Quest’s client sites is now either shuttered or operating only minimal dining services, and the company’s efforts now are focused almost exclusively on producing and distributing school meals to homebound kids.
Unfortunately, that requires only a fraction of Quest’s pre-coronavirus capabilities, which had been serving some 150,000 customers a day. The result is that the company is now generating only 7% to 10% of its normal revenues, says President Nick Saccaro, and is able to keep only about a quarter of its staff working as it had to furlough 830 of its employees in mid-March.
In response, Quest Owner/CEO Mike McTaggart announced that he is foregoing his salary until further notice and funneling the money into the Quest Care Fund that will financially assist employees in need and into food pantries set up in four school locations around Chicago stocked with shelf-stable, minimal-prep staples for employees and their families. The pantries are currently offered once a week, distributing boxes of goods based on family size.
The Quest Care Fund, meanwhile, is being fed by voluntary payroll deduction and other contributions, including a GoFundMe effort that raised $10,000. The company has also committed to continue to pay employees’ healthcare insurance through April.
Amidst all the financial and personal strain, Quest is trying to keep its head above water, an unusual position for a firm that had been growing steadily for years and was named one of six companies to watch in the 2020 Top 50.
Aside from the potential help promised by the federal government’s small business loan guarantee program, “what has been helpful is the USDA issuing the waivers for schools to be able to do this emergency feeding program for our partners who are off the National School Lunch Program,” Saccaro notes. Quest’s client base includes both public, private and parochial schools.
Quest’s school meal production initiative with partner schools and districts goes beyond simply packaging and distributing meals to kids at the schools or even on bus routes but now also incorporates a delivery program.
“Some of our school partners have families who either lack transportation or are sick themselves and can’t or won’t get out of the house,” Saccaro explains. “So either directly ourselves or in some cases through a partnership with the school district’s buses, we’re delivering right to the door of the student and their families, and we’re now also starting to include some dinner and weekend meals” in these deliveries, which generally drop a number of meals at a time so they don’t have to be made daily. “We’re trying to balance providing fresh, healthy food to people with minimizing traffic, especially around schools,” Saccaro explains, “so we’ve kind of settled into a two-to-three-days-a-week delivery model and it seems to work pretty well.”
It seems to be a needful expansion of the school meal program, he adds.
“I think the longer this goes on, the more we’ll be seeing our school partners expand the services they want to offer,” he suggests.
While the lunches for the students tilt toward staples like sandwiches and wraps, the dinners “are starting to venture into heartier, entrée types of things that folks can heat and serve at home—a pasta dish with meatballs and lasagna, for example,” Saccaro explains. Because all of the meals—as well as the lunch sandwiches and wraps—are prepared by Quest rather than purchased premade in order to keep as many staffers employed as possible, “it’s really a balancing act of how much time we want to have our teams spend in the kitchen around one another and doing full prep, versus minimizing the time they are near each other,” he says.
Besides dinner and weekend meal deliveries, Quest and a couple of its partner districts are now also putting together food pantry boxes to send with the meals, “so the entire family will have access to food and not just the student,” Saccaro explains. The districts are picking up the tab for these packages as they don’t currently qualify for any government reimbursement, he notes.
The pantry boxes combine shelf-stable items that can be combined into a meal—dry pasta and bottled sauce, for example—as well as items like canned tuna and peanut butter “so we’re not just loading people up with carbs,” plus canned fruits and vegetables—things that are both shelf stable and simple to prepare.
Even as Quest steps up to assist the communities and schools where it operates, those schools and communities have been reciprocating by assisting the company’s employees. Two locations have started GoFundMe campaigns and “one raked together a thousand dollars for each of our employees there,” Saccaro says, while another one—one of the company’s smallest clients—offered to put all of Quest’s employees at its location on its own payroll through the end of the school year. In addition, one parent at a school served by Quest who owns a distribution firm supplying c-stores offered to donate his excess food stocks to Quest’s employee pantries.
“We’ve had about a third of our clients step up and offer some of their own financial resources to help offset our staff’s loss of income at their locations,” Saccaro offers. “It varies from some clients being able to help out for a week to others that have committed to paying our employees’ full salaries through the end of the school year. It depends on the location, but it has really been absolutely overwhelming to see how many of our partners have stepped up to help, understanding that we can’t continue to pay everybody with the kind of revenue we have coming in. Whether it’s coming from the clients themselves or from people in the community,” he marvels, “we’ve had almost three dozen locations step up and offer to help out. It’s pretty phenomenal!”