Tales from the Front Line is a series from Independent Processor magazine. In each article or video, a small processor discusses their business in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic – what has changed, what has been successful, what the future holds.

This week, Erica Hering of Ralph’s Packing talks about how the company changed its policies and kept up with an increase of shoppers at its retail store.

“We closed our retail store to walk-in traffic and changed to curbside pickup only on Tuesday, March 17. In order to do this, the first few days we stationed a couple of guys out front with walkie-talkies so they could radio in orders to us. We also had a pretty decent campaign on Facebook for the first couple of weeks (we took pictures of all of our freezer/cooler case doors so our customers could “virtual shop” with us) explaining this new service. We added a “Covid-19” https://ralphspacking.com/pages/covid-19-protocol page to our website, explaining call-in and pick-up procedures to our customers, as well as adding additional messaging to our “on-hold” phone system. We made sure to have plenty of signage in the windows of our Retail Store, so our customers who don’t use social media much can still understand and use our new procedures. Our employees who deliver products to our customers’ vehicles are also wearing face masks and washing their hands frequently. We have extra hand sanitizer available for them as well. For the largest part, our customer base has appreciated our new procedures.

Ralph's Packing COVID

“We’ve picked up a lot of new customers, and customers who don’t shop with us on a regular basis. I would estimate our retail sales are at least double every day, if not triple their normal amount… yes, every day. Some customers are still buying in their normal pattern (these are usually our normal customers), but many of the new customers, and some regular customers, buy in larger bulk quantities. We’ve noticed any time the media airs a story about a large meat plant temporarily closing due to workers being out with COVID, we’ll receive a bunch of orders and calls the next day. The primary question on the calls is ‘Do you still have meat for sale or are you out?’ There are always large spikes in sales after these news reports.

“Also, most of our new customers are so used to purchasing their meat in a grocery store setting, they’re not aware of the variety and customization a butcher shop can give them with meat products. Almost all of them have said they’ll definitely be back when things return to normal, so they can actually come in to our store to see all of the different products we make. As for products, the primary products we’re selling are ground beef, roasts, chicken breast, pork chops, bacon and cube steak. Since the weather is getting warmer, we’ve also started selling a lot of smoking and grilling cuts and sausages.

“On our wholesale sales side, we’ve lost many of our restaurants, cafes and schools, simply due to the shutdown of these types of businesses. They’ve all said they will be back, when they’re allowed to re-open. However, our wholesale sales to grocery stores have remained consistent with where they should be, with several stores increasing their orders.

“As for our employees and internal operations, we provided face masks to all of our employees. We also implemented taking daily temperatures of all employees with an IR thermometer several weeks ago. Our Food Safety Coordinator also does extra sanitizing in common areas throughout the day, and our cleaning crew has implemented extra cleaning/sanitization procedures every night. Our delivery drivers have been given hand sanitizer for their delivery trucks, as well as extra disposable gloves and face masks.

“Our governor has allowed certain businesses to re-open today, April 24, and restaurants/cafes to re-open next Friday, May 1. Even though our store was never required to close, we’re still hesitant to re-open immediately. We’re looking at a soft opening on May 4, and allowing a limited amount of customers at one time in to our store for the first few weeks. Dad is currently working on some Plexiglas shields to add to our retail checkout counters, to not only protect our staff and customers, but to make them feel safer as well. We still plan on offering the curbside pickup for the next couple of months, for those customers who do not feel safe inside the store. This is something we’ll obviously monitor over the next several weeks, and could change on a daily basis if needed.

(Editor’s Note: Ralph’s opened its retail store to limited customer traffic on May 6. The company asked its customers to limit traffic to no more than six people in the store, and no more than one person per family if possible. The company is continuing its curbside delivery for high-risk individuals who still need the service.)

“I’m not sure what the next year is going to bring for our business or the country in general. I hope things go back to some sort of normalcy soon. Hopefully we’ll all be safe enough to travel to Des Moines in July. We’re really looking forward to seeing everyone at AAMP, and hanging out with our friends/family!”