© see’s candies

San Francisco-based See’s Candies focused immediately on the safety of employees and customers when the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold. “It is the company’s number one priority in making decisions as they navigate this uncharted territory,” said Vice President, Food Safety and Quality, Iris Galanis-Eshoo. In its shops and manufacturing facilities, enhanced social distancing and sanitation practices were implemented; the attendance policy was modified, encouraging sick employees to stay home; telecommuting was implemented for office and administrative staff; and all non-essential travel was discontinued.

The company then closed shops and manufacturing sites as state and local stay-at-home orders were issued. The only other time the 99-year-old company closed its doors was during World War II.

Although See’s is an essential business, it needed to be sure protocols were in place for each facility before resuming fulfillment and shipping of the product. So the leadership team worked to develop safety protocols that would allow the operations to safely reopen and service the online e-commerce business, and look for innovative options to safely serve customers at select shop locations.

“This pandemic has pushed our organization to become more agile and more adaptable to consumer demand,” said Galanis-Eshoo.

By April, See’s was fulfilling e-commerce orders and began testing a new service. At select locations, customers could call and purchase candies over the phone, then come to the shop for a contact-free pick up. Shortly thereafter, the company rolled out its first online service, “Click... Pick... & Go,” at limited stores with strict social distancing requirements.

Customers did not enter the shop as tables are placed outside the doors. Employees stayed inside and were required to wear masks and stay seven feet apart at all times. The seven-foot distancing requirement is a prime example of the safety practices that See’s implemented as it gradually reopened manufacturing facilities and shops. While general social-distancing recommendations are six feet, See’s wanted the additional foot for added safety.

To work on restoration plans for the business and develop protocols to keep employees safe while servicing customers, Galanis-Eshoo and the senior leadership team met daily to discuss safety protocols, the current state of the retail industry, supply chain disruptions, and alternate plans. They also monitored county-order updates and compliance, shared CDC and health department updates, and planned new sales strategies, she said. The company is ensuring continuous and transparent dialogue with the government by, for example, joining the LA County Department of Public Health bimonthly telebriefings for food operators. “We are all learning together,” she said.

In late April, See’s began reopening its San Francisco packing facility. “We started with one line and then opened a second — keeping one line down in between the two for spacing,” Galanis-Eshoo said. “Before COVID-19, we had hundreds of people in the facility, now we are taking our time, bringing people back slowly and thoughtfully to maximize safety precautions.”

Doing it right at See’s means not only implementing new policies, but also training employees to be sure they are aware of, and comfortable with, all the changes, including:

At the production facility, markings were placed on equipment seven feet apart to show employees where to stand, such as at packing lines where workers previously stood shoulder to shoulder. While general social-distancing recommendations are six feet, See’s wanted the additional foot for added safety.
  • Employees were called the day before they were scheduled to return. Health screening questions were asked, and the new policies discussed.
  • Wellness screenings were conducted upon arrival including employee temperature checks. If they had a fever or other symptoms, they were sent home and told to isolate, monitor, and contact human resources before returning.
  • Seven-foot social distancing and masks were enforced throughout all facilities.
  • Schedules were staggered to minimize the number of employees waiting in line for health screenings and manage break and lunch schedules.
  • Visible markings were placed on equipment seven feet apart to show employees precisely where to stand, such as at packing lines where workers were previously shoulder to shoulder. “It now takes much longer to fill a box of candy, but it is worth taking that extra time to be sure we are following all safety protocols,” Galanis-Eshoo said.
  • Following the USDA recommendations for meat facilities, dividers were placed between workers at some of the lines where social distancing is not possible.
  • In other areas where seven feet of separation was not possible, such as during team lifting of hot bowls of candy from the fire mixer, the workers were to wear face shields in addition to face masks.
  • Extra chairs in the breakroom were sealed off, and tables that previously fit four had only one chair.
  • Dedicated teams of sanitors continuously sanitized frequently touched surfaces in each shift.
  • Social distancing was enforced in restrooms and lockers as well. New signs were added to alert employees when those areas were at capacity.
  • Circular wash-fountain sinks intended for multi-use were now limited to one person per sink.
  • Manufacturing lines were retrofitted with clear curtains that were hung from the ceiling down the center of the lines which are only five feet across. This provides a physical barrier for workers because physical distancing is not achievable across the belt.
  • Managers conducted daily pre-shift staff briefings to remind them about social distancing and frequent hand washing, and ask for feedback on opportunities they see for improvement.

“See’s is innovating and operating differently, and it’s working,” Galanis-Eshoo said. “Teams across the company are coming together and collaborating to support the new protocols. There is so much an organization can learn from a crisis, and if done right, the company will be stronger and more resilient than ever.”

Additionally, everyone is being oriented and trained as though they never worked there before, “and we are explaining the ‘why’,” Galanis-Eshoo said. “Educating our staff is critical in affecting behavioral change and we are committed to keeping everyone safe.” As to employee response, “They’re excited to be back; they’re happy to be working,” she said. Some employees are understandably concerned, “but when they learn of the changes See’s has made, we are earning their trust,” she said. “Employees who have come back are calling others to let them know about the changes.”

Galanis-Eshoo sees many of the changes continuing into the future. “Our business is changing and evolving with new consumer demands and expectations. People are enjoying the convenience of calling or ordering online and with contact-free pick-up,” she said. “So I see our e-commerce side of the business continuing to flourish even post COVID-19.

“Safety and product quality will continue to be our top priority,” Galanis-Eshoo said. “We are embracing change and the new normal because it is here to stay.”