BAY ROBERTS, NL — At 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, a truck arrived at the Atlantic Grocery Distributors warehouse in Bay Roberts — the first to do so in four full days.
"Now normally, that load is in a temperature controlled truck, and the urgency to unload at that second, it could wait until four or five o'clock when the people (typically) come in. Not last night" explained John Prichett, general manager for Powell's Supermarket. The Conception Bay North grocery chain and Atlantic Grocery Distributors (AGD) are part of the Powell Group of Companies.
"We know that our customers need this product. We had a quality assurance team there. We had a receiver there. We had people there to put away the load and then people to pick it and give it to the various customers that need that product, so it can get on their truck and come to them first thing this morning."
With Hurricane-force winds keeping Marine Atlantic ships docked in Port aux Basques and North Sydney since last Thursday, it wasn't until Monday morning that marine traffic finally resumed, with extra crossings ordered to deal with the backlog of passenger and commercial vehicles.
That left AGD, the largest wholesale distributor to independent grocers in Newfoundland and Labrador, reliant on whatever supplies they already had on hand to accommodate its 2,000 customers. However, advances in technology make these sorts of weather-related delays in service less troublesome than they once were.
"I would say we have taken greater care to make sure that we have that investment in technology, because there is the reality that we deliver in a three-zone multi-temperature refrigerated truck," said AGD vice president Erin Higdon, sitting across from her colleague at the Breaktime Restaurant in Bay Roberts. "That's not the case of all wholesale distributors, even on our island."
Powell's in Bay Roberts managed to keep its produce section well-stocked from Friday onward. It wasn't until Monday evening that the store ran out of bananas and peppers. AGD found itself serving produce to some stores that are part of national chains.
"So we were obviously in supply of product that others had already ran out of," said Higdon.
At the 200,000-square-foot warehouse in Bay Roberts, AGD has five unique temperature zones to accommodate a variety of food. This is part of a recent expansion at the facility.
"What a lot of people don't know is that all those (fruits and vegetables) would need to be held at a very specific temperature zone," said Higdon.
"That investment in technology, that investment in that ability to maintain that very specific temperature zone, is something that extends the life of our product, allows us to hold it at our warehouse for a longer period of time and provides a longer shelf life when it's sent to not just our customers — Powell's being the largest — but also to our customers all across the island."
"An extra 24 to 48 hours can mean the difference between a customer being able to make a fresh salad for their family and having to go to an alternative side of packaged rice or what have you that doesn't have the same health benefits," added Prichett. "That warehousing capability is really critical to where we've invested to serve our customers both in retail and food service at a different level."
AGD is just getting started on the construction of rooms where the company can utilize a commercial ripening process for bananas. That process typically starts in Montreal before the product makes it to Bay Roberts.
"It gave decent quality, but we said, 'You know what? We can do better,'" Prichett explained. "So we're actually building and have contracted the biggest and most sophisticated banana company to do a banana ripening system in our own warehouse."
An effort to educate employees and use the best technology in warehouses and delivery trucks goes a long way in helping AGD and Powell's get through the ferry service interruptions Newfoundlanders have grown accustomed to. Combined, the two businesses employ over 370.
"We've invested in education for ourselves, we've invested in technologies, all the way from where we get it, to where our distributor is, to how it gets here in the best temperature and then how we handle it here," said Prichett.
"To try to take times like this where we have to go four or five days and say, 'Can we keep the very most product in the very best shape for the longest possible time so that when we go to the final day of a delay, we're still able to offer the customer … the best product that's possible?' That's kind of the story of our commitment and journey that we've been on over 20-plus years — to refine this process and our understanding of Newfoundland to the point that we can get through four days of delay and still on the fifth day be able to provide something."
Pritchett also admitted there are limits to what a business can do with technology and other strategies in these sorts of situations.
"We were really at the end of our rope," he said of the most recent stretch. "There are certain products that just don't have the durability to stand up."
Over the coming days, AGD will look to schedule more deliveries than usual from Montreal — a move that always follows ferry service disruptions of this length.