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Foodservice Designers Adapt to New Working Conditions in COVID-19 World

While not immune to some of the COVID-19 related factors that impact other parts of the foodservice industry, design firms continue to trudge forward working remotely. Exactly how long this will be the case, though, remains anyone’s guess.

Specifier ImageSo far, business has held steady for many foodservice design firms. Most report an occasional cancellation or an owner hitting the pause button on a project but nothing too drastic. Yet. “We are busy,” said Leonard Condenzio, CEO of Ricca Design Studios. “I lived through 9/11 and the recession of 2008, both of which shocked our business. But we bounced back both times after that because of what was in our pipeline.”

The good news is that, for the most part, work that’s been in designers’ pipelines continue to move forward. “We have some projects scheduled for summer construction that have not cancelled, and we are finishing up documents for them,” Condenzio said. “We see pretty generous activity when it comes to requests for proposals. Some of those are getting approved and proceeding to design. We are seeing proposals in all segments. Based on our percentage of market capture, all segments are sending us a relative amount of RFPs. But anyone who says their business is as robust as last year is not telling the truth.”

Make no mistake, though, designers feel a slowdown will eventually hit their segment of the industry. “Things are not necessarily getting cancelled, but we could see some things change,” said Costel Coca, a principal at Webb Foodservice Design, a California-based firm. “It’s hard for us to gauge because we are busy. On the other hand, we know there will be a decline but when that will happen, we don’t yet know.”

Exactly when and how will vary by operator segment, geography and other yet-to-be-determined factors.

Some higher education operators continue to assess the virus’ impact on their specific campus. “It’s just a matter of them taking stock of how much did all of this cost in one way or another,” Condenzio said. “That’s something we are all going to do. And some of those projects have come to a screeching halt this week.”

Some designers report healthcare projects starting to go on hold as hospital leaders guide their operations through the COVID-19 crisis, which also includes the loss of revenue from postponing elective surgeries, among other factors. “All of that is definitely impacting their business,” said Steve Carlson, president of Rippe Associates, a Minnesota-based foodservice design firm.

“It’s been challenging. In the past we thought of ourselves as recession proof,” Carlson continued. “During the recession in 2008 and 2009 casinos took a hit, but college and healthcare were strong. Now the casinos are closed, as are colleges and universities. I can’t think of a segment that’s not impacted with this. I don’t think anyone has seen anything like this before. You hope people don’t start to panic and they will make decisions on sound financial analysis.”

From Challenges Come Opportunities

The COVID-19 crisis does present some unique opportunities to work with healthcare operators. For example, Rippe worked with one health system to help launch foodservice operations as it reopened a shuttered hospital. The Rippe team worked on the schematic and the operator is working with a local equipment dealer to get it up and running. In addition, the Rippe Associates team has fielded calls from other healthcare operators looking for ways to protect cashiers in retail operations.

There’s no question foodservice consultants continue to maintain a realistic outlook about the future. “I fully expect that we will have to take a step back at some point. There’s no way we can shut everything down like this and everything comes back normal. It will come back slowly. But that’s ok. We’re set up for that,” Coca said.

Webb has some clients in San Francisco, which was 1.5 to 2 weeks ahead of Southern California in terms of stay at home and other social distancing orders. This prompted the Webb team to start thinking about what was about to happen in their area. “When we saw that, we started preparing to work from home. So, when the order came, it was pretty easy,” Coca said. His team is now in its fourth week of sheltering in place.

For foodservice design firms like Webb, video conferencing was on its way to playing a more prominent role in how they manage projects and work with clients. “If you would have asked me a year ago, I would have told you everything is going toward video conferencing,” Coca said. “So, connecting with clients has been easy. What’s harder is connecting to your team. Our team leaders are meeting with their groups every day and then we have our weekly meetings.”

The bigger the firm, though, the greater the challenge in staying connected. Ricca Design, for example, operates six design studios in the U.S. and three abroad. To keep everyone connected, the company hosts weekly town hall meetings. “We try to keep it fun and lively and make sure everyone is good,” Condenzio said. And in between those calls, associates stay connected through email and chats. “Everyone is fine. Nobody’s family members are ill as of yet,” Condenzio added. “We are all used to working with webinars, but we are not used to working in complete confinement.”

The Ricca team has created a safe haven in the company’s Denver office. Only one partner and associates from IT and finance now go to the office, just to keep the company infrastructure working. Everyone else is working remotely.

“It was an easy transition, maybe two or three days to get people set up at home,” Condenzio said. “Folks used to working off their desktop computers had to adjust, and we had to adjust to people’s home internet speeds. I think everyone is experiencing similar things like these. But with today’s tools that has everyone working in the cloud that has made things pretty easy for us.”

One positive side Coca sees from all of this is it gives members of individual teams the opportunity to build stronger one-on-one connections. “It’s been nice to see people checking in on one another. Some of the habits we are creating remotely can be a benefit once we come back into the office,” Coca said. “Yes, we have team building exercises, but we don’t always connect one on one.”

Carlson asked the Rippe Associates’ team to share a picture of their home office chairs. “Boy, there was some grim chairs,” he said. And then he had them take a picture to see who had the best view from their home offices. A Rippe associate who lives on a farm won that one.

These may be welcome diversions, but such tactics also serve another purpose. “These are the people you used to see every day and now you have the chance to learn more about them in a different way,” Carlson said.

This time is also a chance for foodservice designers to assess how they will work with their customers once things start to return to normal. “We are taking this time to anticipate customer expectations and anxieties in the future,” Carlson said. “We’re used to spending two days a week on a plane and I don’t think anyone misses that. But we are wondering if our clients might want fewer in-person meetings? We’re not sure but I think there will be a lot more video meetings. But we’re not entirely sure how this will impact client behaviors.”

Despite the present-day challenges, foodservice designers continue to maintain a cautiously optimistic outlook. “I remain hopeful and want to believe the CARES [coronavirus aid, relief and economic security] Act is the stimulus that we need and will carry over to this industry and keep us going,” Condenzio said. “The downturn is based on a virus and not a weakness in the economy, like ones caused by technology or real estate. I am hopeful but not naïve about the reality of what we face.”

In addition to the short-term challenges, foodservice designers continue to assess the future, too. “You can look at the doom and gloom of all of it, but you can also look for the opportunities that are out there,” Coca said. “And you have time to consider what kind of company do we want to be when we come out of this.”

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