Home Month and Year May 2020 Food: It’s All About Access

Food: It’s All About Access

How companies large and small keep us fed during a crisis


If COVID-19 has taught us anything it’s the importance of moving food (and apparently toilet paper) from one location to another, be it across a border or across town. Business in Edmonton talked to several innovative companies to see how this is done in the middle of a crisis.

Loblaws, which includes Real Canadian Superstore, No Frills and Extra Foods among other grocer partners, saw their PC Express (order online and pick up at the store) program increase dramatically in March.

“PC Express was first rolled out in 2014 and has grown to become the largest network of Click & Collect locations with more than 700 pickup sites across Canada,” says a company representative. “Our PC Express business has more than doubled in recent weeks as the numbers of Canadians shopping from home continues to spike. This is driven in part by the encouragement to social distance, but also because we’ve dropped fees to make sure those who need the service don’t face cost barriers.”

The rep continues, “Our distribution centres are moving food and products through quickly, and more governments are making changes to ensure trucks can get to stores more frequently. We have an entire team dedicated to this, and while it evolves daily, we have plans in place to address a number of potential future scenarios. This is about making sure every community is served.”

An early adopter of the online order/home grocery delivery model is Edmonton’s own The Organic Box.

“We provide online grocery services direct to customers, connecting the end consumer with the farmer that grew their food. We also work directly with other businesses, big and small. Whether it is providing logistics and warehousing support for small business or packing meal kits for a multinational company, we get this all done with a small but very skilled team of food industry experts,” says Matt Paulson, co-president.

As Albertans grew concerned about the food supply in March, sites about small scale gardening increased in online traffic. However, The Organic Box is far ahead of the curve. For more than 10 years it has been bringing locally sourced foods right to Edmontonians’ doors.

Paulson says, “Working with local producers creates bonds in the community that goes well beyond the exchanging of goods. People, in general, have a desire to connect with food. Satisfying this desire is difficult when you enter a grocery store and see the same products day after day, year after year. Buying local breaks that monotony by forcing us to understand seasonality, weather constraints, and the hardship that are faced by the farmers in the production of our food. This connection is powerful and meaningful.”

“With the pandemic,” he continues, “Home delivery of healthy ingredients is more important than ever. What makes our operation well suited to assist in getting food out to the people, especially those that are isolated, is the fact that we can scale very quickly. We can pack orders 24 hours a day if needed and deploy a large fleet of drivers to get deliveries out. The technology we use for picking our orders in the warehouse is all about minimizing team member steps, which also happens to reduce close employee interactions and helps to maintain social distancing.”

He concludes, “Being agile has led us down the path of becoming more involved in providing services to other food companies that operate in Alberta and British Columbia. Expansion is a big part of our future strategy.”

It takes a lot of guts to take on a corporations like Starbuck and Tim Hortons, but that’s exactly what Perks Coffee House did in 2013. By 2015 Perks also had a red London-inspired double decker food truck on the road and a kiosk in the Queen Street medical centre. A Stony Plain location and a patio café (2016-2019) at the University of Alberta Botanical Gardens followed. Plans are now underway for a dedicated drive through.

Before the pandemic, Perks had an online ordering system that was mainly used for serving local teachers. Within days of the pandemic shuttering businesses and forcing people indoors, owners Ken Turlock and Shantell Lewis scaled up their online ordering and delivery to ensure essential businesses and residents could get the coffee, fresh baked treats and healthy soups and sandwiches they loved – and they did this with their a unique system, side stepping apps like SkipTheDishes.

“Our point of sale system has always been capable of accepting both online orders as well as offering delivery,” they note. “Prior to upgrading to this system, we did lots of research to ensure it would work with all of our future locations including drive through and the utilization of online ordering, self serve kiosks, and a mobile app. We know the margins in most restaurants are only 8 per cent; we could not see how it was possible to pay a delivery service like SkipTheDishes 25 per cent of our sales.”

Perks is as famous for it’s community support (fundraisers, donations, hosting artists and artwork, etc.) as it is for its coffee and food. Now, with the community in crisis, they are seeing that support returned.

“Support is important more then ever,” the owners admit. “Unlike larger franchises (even if they do have a local owner) they have the backing of a large corporation to help them implement new technology as well as offer financing when a situation like this happens. Most small, independent companies have their entire life savings invested in their businesses. Because of the small margins/profits, obtaining a traditional bank loan is usually next to impossible. The only way these businesses can survive is through support from the local community.”

The seeds of The Lunch Lady started in 1993, but it wasn’t until 2001 when it was offered as a franchise. Now, thousands of children across Canada have an alternative to the fast food usually seen in hot lunch programs.

Kim Guay, registered dietician and the owner of The Lunch Lady Edmonton/St. Albert explains, “I am a registered dietitian and loved the idea of healthy, great tasting lunches from a trusted brand. The recipes are kid tested, the food meets the Alberta nutrition guidelines and is the right food for learning and performing well in school.”

When the pandemic closed the schools, The Lunch Lady got creative.

“I am hoping to have a meal delivery service set up shortly,” says Guay. “Parents will be able to order individually prepared chilled meals to heat up at home. Meals can be eaten fresh or frozen to use at a later time. Parents will be able to either have delivery to their homes or curbside pick up at the kitchen. We are in the process of adapting our system so parents can order online for this service.”

With a commercial kitchen and stringent sanitization protocols in place long before COVID-19 came about, The Lunch Lady Edmonton/St. Albert is well positioned to transition from feeding kids to feeding families.

She concludes, “During this uncertain time, it is more important than ever to look after ourselves and our children. Trying to create a routine where you are regularly communicating with your children about what is happening in the world is important to alleviate fears they may have. What better way to do this than to start to have mealtimes together? Use this time to reconnect with your family. Healthy food can be a part of this.”

Food is about nutrition; community local support for producers, farmers and bakers; and family connections. Thanks to those, from the large corporations to the small diners, that being innovative during the crisis, we all have access to the food we need.