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Columbia-area food suppliers adapt as restaurant sales drop

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EZE Farms

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When the COVID-19 pandemic first started to affect restaurants, Zach Senn saw business drop at the West Columbia produce company Senn Brothers.

“When it initially hit, business kind of took a steep drop at first, about a week or two later we started chasing different avenues,” offers Senn, a manager with the produce company.

Typically, the company distributes to restaurants, schools, military bases and prisons, per its website. But with COVID-19’s continued emergence, the Senn Brothers found a new boon: delivering $30 vegetable boxes directly to consumers.

The company is selling about 500 of its weekly produce boxes at $30 a pop and partnering with organizations like the nonprofit organization FoodShare SC for other similar efforts.

“We’re just kind of taking it day by day and playing it out and seeing where it leads take us,” Senn says.

To curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Henry McMaster shuttered South Carolina dining rooms on March 17, leaving restaurants to rely on carryout and delivery business — Free Times reported last week that many Columbia restaurants were seeing lower sales, which, in many cases, has left hospitality workers without a job.

That leaves restaurant suppliers — farmers and distributors — like Senn Brothers scrambling to find new revenue streams as sales to those places dip.

FoodShare SC noticed this hitch in the supply chain, says Gordon Schell, the organization’s director of operations. In partnership with Senn, they launched a riff on a produce box. The temporary program works at multiple levels: Farmer’s market employees box up produce that Senn delivers, which is then delivered to neighborhoods to be dispersed. It’s a separate produce delivery from the aforementioned Senn box, and as of March 26, Schell said they had just under 200 boxes to distribute.

Maintaining the food supply chain is important to keeping the group’s core program, a produce box for underserved communities, intact, Schell emphasizes.

“We are dependent, for our fresh food program, on a fully functional supply chain and if farmers don’t have a place to put their produce that’s going to have a long-term impact,” he posits.

For many local farms, their business has seen similar shifts towards produce boxes sold directly to customers.

Jason Roland operates Organically Roland, an organic farm near Lexington he runs with his wife. In normal times, about 70 percent of his business comes from restaurants. He mainly sells to Columbia eateries like Spotted Salamander, Motor Supply Co. Bistro, Terra and others.

“Things are actually going well, I was very concerned when all the restaurants … were like, ‘it’s probably going to go down,’” Roland explains.

But his consumer produce box has soared in popularity. His wife had the idea to start the box in January, and back then had around 15 to 20 people buying it weekly. Now that’s jumped to about 60 people buying each week, and he’s had to cap further buyers so he can keep up with the work.

Additionally, the two have started throwing in other value-added products like homemade soap.

Still, he stresses, it’s a far from ideal situation. Roland’s seen his income dip about 20 percent since the virus began to take hold, a downturn he expects to last a few months. But he’s hoping to cut his income drop in half through these efforts and, whenever the pandemic ends, he thinks his overall sales might balance to about half CSA boxes and half restaurants.

“We’re figuring out ways to make it work and add a little bit of revenue,” Roland says.

EZE Farms, a Columbia farm focused on mentoring middle and high school boys that sells much of its wares to restaurants, had to suspend its in-person mentorship program due to virus concerns and is seeing its recent harvest “wasted,” says farm manager Brett Varner.

“It’s been hard for people to adjust to the normal rhythms of getting their food,” Varner explains. He notes, though, that he’s attempting to sell the produce online and is willing to do local deliveries, too.

The farm was ramping up to launch a CSA program before the virus hit. Varner hopes it will cover the next harvest and help make up for lost restaurant sales.

“Restaurants have been about half of our buyers,” he shares. “We’re expecting to make up half of that with the CSA.”

The pandemic has also brought unpredictability to those who focus on retail, too.

Charleston’s Vertical Roots, which has a growing site in West Columbia, saw an initial 30 to 40 percent retail sales spike but then saw that dip back to average sales, details Andrew Hare. The general manager and co-founder of the hydroponic projects that sales will stay stable next week and notes that restaurant sales are almost at zero.

“It’s becoming a little more volatile and you’re starting to see those swings,” he says.

The farm had to bring on temporary workers on two-week stints to keep up with the initial surge. The company has mostly hired food and beverage workers that have been laid off, Hare says.

He speculates that the sales fluctuations are due to the public’s shifting reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first three weeks saw customers flock to grocery stores and buy shelves bare for numerous products, while now orders are back to normal levels. Hare’s uncertain what that could cause, but suggests that non-perishable goods could be a higher priority for shoppers.

“In my mind those are the factors that are going into it … [but] there’s not enough data to support one,” he says.

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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