FM Top 50 firm Epicurean Group, a California-based minority- and women-owned contract food service management company dedicated to sustainable dining, has been busy over the past year rebuilding its business with a new model to adapt and to succeed in a social-distancing world while still retaining its traditional emphasis on sustainability, nutrition education and a sense of community through healthy, delicious food.
Like just about every other company operating contracted onsite dining services to businesses and institutions, Epicurean Group saw its business hugely affected when the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring. To adjust and keep the business going, it proceeded to transform its traditional cafeteria dining and catering services into one offering an online preorder, prepay system while using social distancing and plastic partitions to keep both guests and staff safe in its kitchens and manned cafes.
Among the strategies was a safety pledge developed by the company and required to be signed by all employees that outlined the steps to be taken to ensure the maximum level of safety from the pandemic’s effects. In addition to standard requirements such as the wearing of masks at all times, the maintaining of six feet of distance between workstations and break room seats, routine symptom checks before workplace entry and barring entry to any employee either showing certain symptoms or who has been exposed to a COVID-infected individual within 14 days are additional safeguards such as the cleaning and disinfecting of door handles and countertops every 30 minutes, the changing of gloves after every individual contact and a prohibition from maintaining a second job. Also, all employees were tested before they returned to work following the pandemic outbreak.
In return, Epicurean Group maintained benefits for all its employees through the past summer with the expectation that things would begin returning to somewhat normal by fall, something short-circuited by the virus’ September resurgence and which forced some layoffs, laments company founder and CEO Mary Clark Bartlett, who nevertheless remains optimistic given the availability of vaccines.
“In academia, we see more students coming on campus this spring to finish up,” she offers. “Summer might be soft again, but we’re really going to ramp up in August and September and we’re projecting that we’ll have a good part of our business by the end of September, maybe even 80% by the end of October for that last quarter of the year.”
Corporate dining business, meanwhile, will have somewhat of a slower road back and there will be changes going forward, she says.
“Most employees here in [Silicon] Valley are still working from home, but we think our clients will be back because they’ve built buildings and they plan on populating them,” Bartlett explains. “We’re in the process of building special event menus because [B&I clients] are going to start with special events in their big locations. We’re working on platforms with which people can preorder and then pick up their meals because buffet-style service has fallen by the wayside until further notice.”
Traditional company cafes will come back more slowly, however…
“We think there will be about 20% of people who will continue to work [full time] from home, but I think culture is not built at home,” Bartlett stresses. “You can only do so much on Zoom because there’s something about being together, being spontaneous, and that’s what we [facilitate] in foodservice. When scientists, engineers, students come to the café, they know it’s a different atmosphere where they can grab something yummy to eat and maybe solve a problem by just talking to someone else, and that’s the kind of spontaneity and interaction that is not happening now.”
A hybrid approach
That doesn’t mean things won’t evolve given the changes and additions such as the ability to remote order that have proliferated in the past year.
“At the college level, it will be inevitable that we’ll have to keep some sort of preorder because once you put something in it’s hard to take it back,” notes CFO Marvin Rodriguez. “We’re going to have to enhance that and offer a hybrid meal program that combines all-you-care-to-eat with flex dollars that you can use at [retail locations]. The pandemic has accelerated technology and other things that were evolving before.”
The hybrid program Rodriguez references is an outgrowth of something the company noticed about customers during the pandemic period—in locations that had previously offered counter and staff ordering, many customers continued to prefer that approach even after the remote-ordering option was implemented, so Epicurean Group developed a hybrid approach that offers both options, and where it was implemented, sales doubled or even tripled, according to Bartlett.
Photo: To help stranded college students left on campuses last year, Epicurean Group developed and rolled out a number of safe special events like barbecues, some of which were so popular that they may be retained even after the pandemic is over.
Credit: Epicurean Group
“Each client is able to customize [the approach they prefer] and we’re reinventing every business,” she says. “Some of the needs change but we’re seeing our volume going back up, we’re seeing more participation and more satisfaction as we do that.”
“I think one reason for wanting more in-person service is that students love to socialize and the fear of getting infected [is overcome by] the desire to be around people and socialize, or at least that’s what they seem to be saying with their behaviors,” Rodriguez adds. “I think while students are very good with technology, when it comes to going to school, part of what they are looking for is they also want to socialize and they’re thirsty for that.”
Over the past year, Epicurean Group has tried to keep that socialization and community feeling alive on campuses where some students remained even if classes were held online by holding safe, socially distanced special events.
“We’ve had things like outdoor barbecues and different pop-ups just to keep things really alive for them,” Bartlett says. “There have been students stuck here who haven’t been able to get back to Asia and we’ve done special things for them like pizza parties out in the gardens. Some have been so successful that we will probably keep them in the program” after the pandemic is over.
Photo: To ensure the highest meal quality, the company tries to align production with pickup to minimize the amount of time food sits waiting.
Credit: Epicurean Group
On the corporate dining side, “they’re going to require some different things depending on each of their cultures,” says Bartlett. “For example, they may start with a Friday collaboration day where they all come into the office for breakfast that can be delivered or preordered.”
Another alternative is taking home specific meals from the days they spend in the office that are then eaten collectively during online meetings as a way of fostering community.
Given Epicurean Group’s traditional emphasis on sustainable practices and fresh preparation with high-quality ingredients, many from local and organic suppliers, the COVID restrictions and limitations have posed operational and philosophical challenges.
For instance, the compostable takeout packaging it first used failed to hold up sufficiently when exposed to hot food, so it went to reusable containers in residential environments where they could be returned, but in retail locations, “we had to go with a plastic container that is so against grain for us” but maintaining food quality came first, Bartlett offers.
Photo: Originally, Epicurean Group went with a compostable takeout container to align with its sustainability values but had to default to a plastic container for retail applications when the compostable container failed to maintain proper food quality with hot meals.
Credit: Epicurean Group
The company has tried to retain maximum freshness by working to better align meal preparation with delivery to the customer to minimize the amount of time the food sits, says Senior Vice President Rey Hernandez. “Is it ideal? I don’t think so, but I think we’re doing the best with it we can under the circumstances. As our sales have shown, people are appreciative. We get lots of compliments and it’s because the chefs have taken up the challenge of still making the best meal possible whether it will be consumed in 10 minutes or 45 minutes.”
Another issue is the smaller suppliers—especially small farms—that have been a source of many of the products Epicurean Group uses in its operations, suppliers hard hit by the devastation of the foodservice industry—especially on the commercial restaurant end—caused by COVID-related shutdowns.
“Working with our usual suppliers has been a challenge because a lot of those smaller producers don’t have the volume they used to, but they’re not shutting their doors,” Hernandez says. “In many cases, it’s subsistence farming, so they need to make it happen for themselves. Fortunately, our main vendors have been able to work with those guys and group them together and make it so that they just deliver to one spot as opposed to anywhere direct, and that helps, and we’re really working with our suppliers to keep that flow going. Everybody’s down in volume so we’re trying to spread out what [procurement needs] we do have and keep those people engaged. They are still a big, vital part of our business and we’re glad we could still be working with them and keep that connection.”