We’re grateful to our customers, suppliers and employees - we're all learning to adapt to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 04/23/2020
In these challenging times, we thought our customers would appreciate an update on how we are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and our views on what the future might bring. Brad Lemley spoke with Vital Choice founder Randy Hartnell and President Dave Hamburg at the company headquarters in Bellingham, Washington, about this unique chapter in the company’s 18-year history, and what customers can expect in the coming months.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic first impact Vital Choice?
Randy: We had heard of it like everyone else in February, but it became much more real on March 23, when [Washington State Governor Jay] Inslee ordered Washington residents to stay home, except for those engaged in what he called “essential business.” We were relieved to be classified as one of those essential businesses that could continue operation.
But obviously, your business needed to change both within and without. What did you do first?
Randy: First, we had everyone who could work from home do so. Among the people who still needed to come in and work in groups, we instituted mandatory wearing of masks, enhanced sanitation procedures several times a day, and we changed our workflow to make “social distancing” easier. I am pleased to say that so far, we have not had any confirmed illness in our warehouse operations either in Washington or our east-coast warehouse in Richmond, Virginia.
What happened regarding demand from customers?
Dave: We got a tidal wave of orders in mid-March. It was frankly overwhelming. We ended up running out of some stock. We discovered that not only were our existing customers doubling or tripling their regular orders, but we had a big wave of new customers. We’ve been running hard trying to catch up, and now, we are indeed getting there. Like many other online companies our business is up substantially as more people than ever are seeking an easy, safe and reliable source for healthy food they can prepare at home.
Randy: So we’ve been increasing our staffing to help keep up with the demand, which is gratifying because the shutdown has put so many people locally out of work. We are happy to be helping the local economy by being able to maintain employees and even hire. For the first time in the history of the company, there are people working for us I haven’t met! We’re grateful to have them and I’m working on fixing that.
So what happens next?
Dave: Sales of wild salmon represent the majority of our business, so a big question mark is the coming season, which will begin with the celebrated Copper River salmon fishery in May. In June, thousands of people, mostly from the lower 48, fly into the Bristol Bay region every year to put in an intensive month of fishing and processing work. But this year there are obvious concerns about people flying in and bringing the disease along with them. Residents up there are understandably nervous. At the same time, the salmon season is the backbone of the economy, so I suspect the people will find ways to make it work. For example, I have heard that many crews will sequester themselves for two weeks to see if any sign of sickness develops – only after that will they go out on the boats.
So you anticipate no supply problems?
Randy: I think we will be okay. Bristol Bay is the largest sockeye salmon run in the world, but even if it cuts back or shuts down, there are salmon fisheries in other parts of Alaska. Millions of sockeye salmon are expected to return to Alaska’s many pristine rivers this summer and we are confident that some of them will be caught!
Besides that, we are thankful to have fiercely loyal customers. They deeply value our service and products and are willing to pay accordingly for them. This means we can pay what we must on their behalf to source from the available supply, in contrast to more price-sensitive buyers. Should this season’s smaller catch drive up prices, we should still be able to get what we need for our customers.
What kind of change do you see in the coming years?
Dave: This is obviously a challenging time for all of us, but I have a sense that both Vital Choice and its customers are taking this opportunity to focus on what really matters. At the end of the day, our health and the health of our families is paramount, and we’re proud to provide products that help our customers optimize that. I suspect that the people who are coming to us for the first time now will soon become part of the family, and we’ll continue to work hard to supply them with the best quality seafood that we can find. I’m confident we will be able to meet demand in the months and years to come.