Improvising in the face of disaster

by Dan Malovany
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Tribeca Oven’s owners didn’t immediately comprehend what hit them after Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast in 2012 and flooded the Carlstadt, NJ, operation. However, one thing was certain: The timing couldn’t have been worse. The late October storm knocked the artisan bakery out of commission right before the holidays. Much of Tribeca’s production was down for a month. To make matters worse, the company had only two weeks’ worth of par-baked products in inventory.

No matter how you do the math, things weren’t going to add up. Marc Essenfeld, Tribeca’s chief executive, didn’t try to sugarcoat it. “One of the first things we did was contact customers, tell them we’ve been hit by the storm, we’re assessing the damage, we’ll provide you details of what to expect as soon as we have more clarity, we have this much inventory in stock, we can find partners who can support your inventory needs … although they will not be the same quality, there will be bread on your shelves for the holiday season,” he said.

Some customers had enough inventory in stock while others took up the offer to temporarily switch to another provider. Tribeca still had to spend several months rebuilding relationships, but there’s something to be said about honesty and transparency. It builds trust. In a disaster, the last thing someone wants is an unexpected surprise. If you can’t exceed expectations, at least meet them. Never disappoint.

“We followed up with them multiple times per week to tell them what was happening and what we could deliver,” Mr. Essenfeld said. “We were in constant communication, and we did what we said we would do. Maybe there was a little empathy. It was a tough time for everyone. People are willing to work with you if you tell them what you are going to do and you do it, and in the end, relationships get stronger.”

A lot of people talk about customer service, but Mr. Essenfeld defined it this way. Bakers and snack producers have four fundamental options to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. “You can offer quality, price, service and marketing,” he explained. “We opted to be the industry leader for quality and service — that’s where we want to focus our energy. We’re adding more depth to our customer service team and rolling out a wide variety of performance metrics to ensure we deliver on a higher level of service.”

Tribeca demonstrated its commitment to service in the most difficult of times. It also learned a few other lessons, such as having four weeks of inventory instead of two. And it’s made a number of changes just in case another 100-year flood occurs, which Mr. Essenfeld hopes it isn’t anytime soon.

“We put in some disaster plans to turn it around quicker, but I don’t want to ever go through it again,” he said and then laughed. “That’s the last thing I ever want to do. They say thorough preparation makes its own luck, so I want to believe luck will be on our side in the future,”

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