Over the past three decades, Baldor Specialty Foods has made a name for itself as a wholesale supplier of groceries for restaurants, stores, and food service throughout the Northeast region of the U.S.
But as the novel coronavirus started changing just about every aspect of U.S. life this spring, this longtime Bronx, New York-based member of WeWork Food Labs found many of its regular customers closed due to shelter-in-place edicts that shut down most in-person businesses. Baldor quickly pivoted to a business it had never anticipated: delivering groceries directly to consumers.
While home delivery is a shift for Baldor, the ability to adapt, innovate, and persevere is just part of the company’s DNA, says Ben Walker, Baldor’s vice president for sales and marketing.
“What do we have to lose?”
Walker says the idea for the pivot came from friends and family who started asking him and other executives about food. Already the company had seen the strain on the retail supply chain: It lost about 85 percent of its business when shutdowns due to the coronavirus began. But that also meant that about 80 percent of its 400 trucks and 2,200 employees were left unused and thus available to serve in a different way.
“We knew we could put our resources to good use,” Walker says. “The business figured, ‘What do we have to lose? Let’s go for it.’”
Nothing is business as usual at Baldor anymore. The company’s employees typically deliver large pallets of food to the same regular longtime customers. Now those same employees provide smaller orders to new residential customers from the New York area as well as Philadelphia, Boston, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C.
Once it had the idea, Baldor moved quickly to make it happen in just 48 hours.
“We’re most excited about keeping our employees working,” Walker says. Baldor is doing everything possible to keep its team members—most of whom have been with the company for 15-20 years—safe. Sales staff members are working at home. At the warehouse, employees have personal protective equipment and sanitation equipment. For a business that’s used to high standards for food safety, a lot of coronavirus precautions were already “business as usual.” And all employees also have 100 percent paid benefits.
“We’re a family,” Walker says.
Serving vulnerable customers
Every day, Walker says, the company needs to smooth out different operational challenges—like onboarding new customers quickly and plotting out new delivery routes for its trucks.
The product mix Baldor offers has also changed. In the pre-coronavirus days, Baldor’s business was about 65 percent produce sales. But now that it is serving consumers directly, the company is offering new products, like seafood, that meet home shoppers’ needs. That, in turn, means building relationships with new suppliers.
Yet for a company in uncharted territory, Baldor has found its footing remarkably quickly. It’s a time when vulnerable consumers, many isolated in their homes, are looking for this service. It’s helped that the chefs Baldor works with, and media outlets like Forbes and The New York Times, have helped spread the word.
Home delivery orders are regularly selling out, and the company continues to add capacity. For customers, there is a bit of a learning curve to ordering from a wholesale grocer. Some have posted their mistakes on social media posts, laughing at themselves for accidentally buying 50 pounds of flour.
Staples like chicken and pasta and produce like broccoli, asparagus, and avocado are popular, says Walker, but customers are also excited to discover foodie finds like ramps, Spanish octopus, and muscat grapes.
“Everyone’s so thankful,” Walker says. “That’s part of the fuel to keep us going. People are just so appreciative that we’re doing this during this time. We’re serving a lot of elderly people who shouldn’t be leaving their homes.”
Customers aren’t the only ones benefiting from Baldor’s pivot. By starting home deliveries, Baldor has helped its farmers and other suppliers stay in business.
“Be bold. Take risks. It’s going to hurt.”
While Baldor’s pivot was unexpected, it’s very much the result of the culture it’s been building for a long time.
“We’re a South Bronx, hard-knock, do-or-die kind of company,” Walker says. “And when our backs are against the wall, we’re going to make it out.”
The company isn’t afraid to take risks. Walker says that a lot of people thought the wholesaler was silly to invest as much as it did in its website a few years ago. But in recent months, that website has been the very thing that’s helped keep Baldor alive.
Baldor Foods is a member of WeWork Food Labs—a community of entrepreneurs, industry experts, and investors addressing the biggest challenges facing food today, and in the future. Many Food Labs members have pivoted their business models in light of the pandemic.
Walker is eager to share what he’s learned in this moment: “Be bold. Take risks. It’s going to hurt. There are going to be challenges. Things are going to break,” he says. “But stay positive. And use this opportunity to make yourself a better company.”
Everything Baldor is doing now won’t just get them through the current crisis, Walker says. It will strengthen the company in the long run by improving service, technology, and communication.
“We have a saying here: ‘Baldor strong,’” he says. “We’ve been through 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy. This isn’t going to stop us, either.”