Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA (MZB) is a vertically integrated coffee company with roasting facilities in Suffolk, Va., and Moonachie, N.J.; four distribution hubs in the US; a coffee plantation in Hawaii; and both retail consumer brands and foodservice distribution.

It is because the company “straddles both sides of the industry” that it faced both sides of the COVID challenge, said Vice President of Research and Development Charles Cortellini. About 95% of the company’s Suffolk facility produces retail product, while its Moonachie facility is primarily foodservice. So, while Moonachie had to reduce its workforce by 75% during the pandemic, its Suffolk plant increased production by 30% to 40%, Cortellini said.

This is primarily because the foodservice lines of Moonachie were not compatible with retail packaging and could not be converted. Even the labeling of the systems are different, as the foodservice bulk product is used in the back of the house and does not need to be attractive to consumers or carry the same labeling as is required for consumer product.

As relates to the MZB’s implementation of employee protection practices during the pandemic, Cortellini said, “I’m a firm believer that if I am not an expert in an area where there are people who are experts, we will follow most of their recommendations. We don’t want to put people in jeopardy.” Included in the company’s practices were:

  • “Respect the Box.” To institute social distancing, “we mapped out boxes that are six feet apart,” he said. Work routes were redefined around these, so that where a worker may previously have walked next to someone to get to or from a workstation, new routes were mapped to further distance and provide for one-way aisles.
  • Health and Hygiene. Wellness checks with health questions were implemented and workers received increased training on hand hygiene, personal wear, and other personal safety practices. Additionally, MZB receives ½ pallet of hand sanitizer each week for employee use.
  • Clothing. Employees are not allowed to enter the production facility wearing the clothing they wore outside. Instead they bring clothing in a plastic bag and change in the locker room.
  • Visitors. No visitors were allowed in the facility, unless needed for an emergency situation (e.g., EMTs).
  • Work Schedules. Shifts and breaks were staggered to better enable distancing.

In relation to the Suffolk plant, where the state has seen a less severe situation, Cortellini said the company has had no COVID-19 incidents. “We’ve been extremely successful at avoiding situations,” he said. MZB has co-manufacturing in Chicago and New York that have had situations, and had to quarantine the work team. Additionally, he said, “If the situation were reversed (with the company’s foodservice production in Virginia and retail production in New Jersey), Moonachie would be tougher than Suffolk.”

As it is, “Our attendance has been high. Our people are supportive,” he said. And the support for the virus protection effort has gone all the way to the top. “Our CEO embraces that fully,” Cortellini said. “None of this has been a fight.”

In April, recovery efforts also started to be part of the conversation at MZB. The discussions focused on what is essential and non-essential, Cortellini said, with the initial plan being that those who can work from home would continue as long as there are restrictions. A secondary phase had the gradual return of essential workers who were out. “But we’re not going from zero to 100%,” he said.

Beyond that, Cortellini said, “I think there’s a good part of this that we’ll maintain.” Practices such as rerouting for one-way traffic aisles are likely to stay, and “may even help avoid forklift issues.” He would expect that 25% to 50% of that which was implemented will stay. The visitor ban will likely go away, but wellness questionnaires may stay. Perhaps not forever, as it is part of a normal warming/cooling cycle of people’s attitudes. “Maybe we don’t have to do it all, but why not keep some of it? What harm is it to do the right thing for the environment?” he said, adding, “If we find there’s no value in a policy, we won’t keep it.”

One area for which Cortellini expects to see long-term change is that of handshaking. “I expect it will go by the wayside. We bump elbows. It’s become a natural thing.”

And Cortellini’s perspective on the pandemic has changed over time. “I was one early on saying, ‘Come on folks, it’s the flu.’ But now I think it is a brave new world. I think it will become more normal,” he said. “Before 9/11, we didn’t have an antiterrorist group. Now we will have to have an anti-pandemic group, ready to implement new rules.”

“I did not think we’d be able to shut down as much of the workforce as we have. In some areas it has been successful, but our economy cannot withstand this for much longer,” he said. But, he added, recovery needs to be phased in. “It can’t just be a lightswitch.”