MEXICO CITY — As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic affects people around the world, global bread manufacturer Grupo Bimbo is experiencing the crisis firsthand in nearly every corner of the world.

Baking & Snack editor Joanie Spencer had the opportunity to speak with Jorge Zárate, global vice president of operations at Mexico City-based Grupo Bimbo about how COVID-19 has impacted the company’s operations, distribution and internal policies in its business units around the world, including the hardest-hit regions such as China, Italy and others.

In 2019, Baking & Snack presented Grupo Bimbo with the magazine’s first-ever sustainability award, in part for its focus on wellbeing, planet, community and associates— all of which are impacted by this global crisis.

Baking & Snack: Bread aisles are being emptied in supermarkets across the United States. How is it impacting production for Bimbo Bakeries USA? How is this rush different from those you typically see during Memorial Day or 4th of July? Is distribution the bigger challenge in this case?

Jorge Zárate: Bimbo, and BBU in the United States, it’s providing superior quality products all the time and everywhere in all societies we serve. Definitely this COVID-19 situation is impacting our business across the United States and has been impacting other countries as well; supermarkets trying to serve their customers and distributing homogeneously conveys in high sales orders through our sales force and systems, demanding higher production orders to each one of our bakeries in a way it’s challenging to fulfill that demand in sort of a short notice.

This is much higher than a traditional seasonality we have experienced, with the big difference of not having enough planning time to face it. The whole supply chain is a challenge sourcing of raw materials (our suppliers also are experiencing high demand unbalancing their own supply chain), manufacturing itself but also sanitizing and maintaining our lines running properly, and of course distributing all those goods to our customers so they can serve the consumers, the whole supply chain associates are heroes of this crisis. Kudos to them.

What are the operational and logistical challenges that come with the COVID-19 crisis, and what measures has Grupo Bimbo taken to increase production?

Operationally we have to shorten the response times to fulfill sales orders by better scheduling each one of the needed items to the market, avoiding downtimes or any production interruption, ensuring our people’s safety as well food safety with a superior quality. To increase our production volumes, we are increasing the production times while strategically also scheduling cleaning and maintenance time. There’s no time to waste to serve our customers and consumers. The name of the game is to transport and deliver as fast as possible our goods to every single customer.

How are quarantines and other social distancing tactics impacting bread sales in other countries that Grupo Bimbo serves? Do you have best practices in a particular region that helps your strategies elsewhere?

The countries where we have experienced this crisis already like China, Italy, Spain and France taught us that social distancing is the best way to reduce the impact of this pandemic, so any job or position that can be done from home were asked to do home office (mainly administrative ones). Plants, logistics and sales were asked and retrained to reinforce their self-protective measurements, including frequent hand washing, continuous use of sanitizing gels for contact surfaces and avoiding close personal contact with their coworkers. Definitely our operations in China reacted very consciously, and besides the government guidelines our people were very disciplined, associates didn’t come back from Chinese new year holidays, keeping themselves and their families safe at home; those we needed at the bakeries or sales centers were scanned daily to check body temperature, and they voluntarily notified if they felt sick or suspiciously infected to be put in quarantine.

How is the crisis impacting foodservice accounts with so many restaurants and schools closing?

You can imagine, in those countries — and more to come — the government guidelines and recommendation is not to gather in public areas, neither going out to commercial centers, and schools are going to break in advance …  not to mention quick-service restaurants demand of food is on hold.

How is COVID-19 affecting Grupo Bimbo’s food safety and worker safety practices?

This is absolutely helping our associates to really enhance all learned practices regarding personal safety and food safety among good manufacturing practices; therefore, in this regard, it is helping us to change our people´s mindset.

What do you predict will be the long-term effects of the crisis on the baking industry?

Hard to say, but inevitably there will be a financial impact to the bakery industry and also a priceless experience on how to react to a severe crisis. Our crisis committees are acting to better serve the society. We will have ready protocols in the whole value chain to react to any other similar crisis in our industry.

How have Grupo Bimbo’s sustainability pillars — well-being, planet, community and associates — prepared you for increased bread production during this global crisis?

All the pillars in place act as north star for our daily action and decision-making process among all the Grupo Bimbo business unites. It starts with our associates, making sure they are healthy and safe in their roles they are playing during this crisis. It impacts the superior quality of our delicious and nutritious products with our well-being pillar. We are better serving the community through our products and our distribution to their preferred places to shop, and our operations are always taking care of our planet no matter what we are going through, especially during this COVID-19 crisis.