Food Providers across Oregon Pivot to Success


Three food providers across the state share their wins: keeping their staff and customers safe while they do business

STATEWIDE – As Oregon counties begin to reopen with Phase 1 and 2, many Oregon grocers, restauranteurs, and business owners have felt that they were starting from scratch. But three food providers from across the state have found success in the midst of a pandemic, while also keeping their customers and staff safe.

Ashland Food Co-op – Ashland

“The great thing to see has been the teamwork. Everyone is supporting each other to find new ways to make this challenging situation work for our customers, our staff, and the community.”

– Rianna Koppel, Sustainability Coordinator at Ashland Food Co-op

As it continues to serve the needs of its members during the COVID-19 crisis, the Ashland Food Co-op has taken many steps to safeguard employees and customers. “It’s completely changed the way we work.”  The Co-op has added masks and hand sanitizer, one-way aisles, floor stickers for social distancing at checkout, plexiglass shields at checkout, and senior shopping hours in the morning.  

The increased demands on the staff present some of the greatest challenges.

“For example, we’ve always focused on self-serve bulk products, but now everything is packaged. This is something we never did before, and we’re not staffed to do it.  Everyone is pitching in.”

Koppel has noticed that fewer customers are coming into the store, but they are buying a lot more at once. This has put pressure on the Co-op’s inventory. Combined with delivery shortages and delays, the Co-op has had to ration purchase quantities on some items. Working and shopping during the COVID-19 crisis is demanding great patience, consideration and courtesy among all.

Perhaps more than ever, the Co-op’s commitment to its zero-waste goals is making a difference in the community.

“The pre-consumer scraps program continues to provide barrels of scraps every day to local farms to feed the animals. And imperfect produce and other remaining items are picked up every night by the Ashland Food Angels, the local volunteer organization that collects and redistributes food to increase local food security for those in need and make sure no good food goes to waste.”

Hot Mama’s Wings – Eugene

“We feel lucky to have business so that we can employ some people and provide food to the community.”

– Michael Marzano, who co-owns Hot Mama’s Wings in Eugene with his wife Angie.
Michael Marzano / Hot Mama’s Wings

Like so many restaurants across the state, Hot Mama’s has shifted its entire business to offer only take-out meals. The Marzanos say they feel fortunate that they’ve been able to continuously adapt and pivot. “It’s tough, a continuing work in progress, but we’re figuring it out,” Angie adds. They cut the menu in half based on what they could do with proper social distancing in the kitchen and what would work best for takeout. They initially struggled to get enough to-go containers and all-natural chicken wings.

As they worked through to find solutions, “it was nice to find out the new menu matched well to what customers really wanted,” Michael reflects. He has also been delightfully surprised to find that Hot Mama’s new menu is generating virtually no food waste.

From early on, Marzano focused on increasing comfort and safety for customers and staff.  He created clear signage for customers, and had all staff members wearing masks and maintaining social distance. He slowly increased his volume to where he is now at full capacity for what he can do with social distancing.

“The irony is that, while it’s tough now, it will get more difficult when we open back up,” Marzano muses. “We’ll need to rethink everything all over again.”

Although it has certainly been stressful, Marzano has enjoyed the challenge to be creative and roll with the punches. And he’s been rewarded by the community response.  

“Customers seem grateful and want to help neighborhood restaurants.  We couldn’t be more grateful to them. As a neighborhood joint, we’ve seen a lot of beautiful support from the local community.”

Tortilleria Y Tienda de Leon – Portland

“I’ve never seen this in my lifetime. It has been shocking to see how this virus can affect our whole world.”

– Lucy De Leon, owner of Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon
Lucy and Fidela prepping food at Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon

Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon is a restaurant and market that has served up authentic Mexican food for decades and partners with school districts and organizations dedicated to feeding children, families and seniors. 

“At first I woke up every morning wondering how I am going to do this?” De Leon explains many of her 25 employees are single moms who depend on this job for their family’s livelihood.  

“They were my #1 priority, to keep them employed.”

De Leon, whose restaurant caters to retail and wholesale customers, immediately set to retool and refocus.  She found herself scrutinizing every cost and doing whatever it takes to accommodate customer requests as they emerge.  She is preparing pre-wrapped items and family platters for stores that sell her food to-go. She continues to fill orders for hundreds to thousands of tamales to school districts that are providing lunches while schools are closed.  And when one school district wanted to reward its employees for their extra work when so many others were out sick, de Leon and her staff prepared and delivered 100 combo plates and burritos to four different schools with just two hours notice.  

After laying off nearly a third of her staff immediately following the COVID-19 outbreak, De Leon has been able to hire everyone back thanks to both a pivot to take-out and access to emergency loans.  

“This is not easy and there is no simple solution. Many great businesses are in trouble through no fault of their own. But I come in every morning feeling so grateful, ready to work.  People tell me ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ My answer is – we have to, we have to keep going. It doesn’t do us any good to feel down.”

Indeed, in addition to supporting local community organizations through donations and maintaining her consistent wholesale supply, De Leon says she’s been busy adding new tamales to her already beloved menu of bean and cheese and chicken varieties. “We’re working on a new one. I have three boys and they taste test for me.” In addition, she’s encouraging customers looking for more meal flexibility to freeze her tamales. “The tamales store well, and I’m seeing higher demand for frozen tamales and prepared foods.”

About Author

Elaine Blatt is a Senior Policy and Program Analyst at Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

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