When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic initially hit, Aladdin Bakers found itself at the epicenter conducting crisis management on the fly.

The management team at the Brooklyn, NY-based bakery met daily to hold “war room” meetings to protect fearful employees, develop an emergency contact program, stock up on scarce cleaning supplies and develop pandemic protocols for visitors or any future unexpected events, which happened daily at that time.

“We did the best we could to foresee what would come for the next hours, days, weeks, months,” noted Theresa Watkinson, chief operating officer. “We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.”

Then supply chain problems began to emerge. Ingredients ordered two weeks prior never showed up because a business temporarily closed its doors due to a COVID outbreak, or they just didn’t have enough workers or supplies to fulfill the agreement.

Just over two years later, the pandemic has waned, but those supply chain and labor issues remain, albeit for different reasons. Fortunately, Ms. Watkinson along with Joseph Ayoub, the bakery’s owner; Don Guzzi, chief financial officer; Guillermo “Memo” Flores, director of production, and others took the learnings from one crisis to help them manage others as they emerge.

“One of the biggest things for our crisis management that is changing involves our ingredient suppliers,” Ms. Watkinson observed. “We always had our suppliers and backup suppliers, but now we have a backup to our backup.”

The company also conducted a survey that now requires every supplier to send the bakery a contingency plan.

“If our suppliers can’t provide some ingredient for whatever reason, what is their plan if something happens to their plant?” she asked. “What do they do if they have a shutdown for whatever reason? It doesn’t have to be COVID. It could be a tornado. Where are you going to get your product? We didn’t focus on that element before as much as we should have, and now, where will those ingredients come from?”

And the challenge today not only involves getting ingredients but often having to work with something that isn’t exactly what they ordered. Often the next best thing isn’t good enough for many bakeries.

“If some ingredient isn’t available and they want to change our formulation, how does that impact us and our customers?” Ms. Watkinson wondered. “We’re thinking more about the finer details of the supply chain than we had done in the past.”

Since March 2020, crisis management has evolved, noted Steve Robert, global vice president of sales, marketing and product innovation at AIB International.

“Prior to the pandemic, the food and beverage industry focused mostly on recalls in its crisis management plans,” he said. “However, lessons learned from COVID-19 have forced companies to put more effort into inclusive planning across departments and now consider much more, including pandemics.”

Early during COVID, several bakeries abandoned procurement processes for supplier verification.

“There was an extreme rush to acquire raw materials, chemicals, masks, and much more, including overbuying, due to the unknown of what we were going to face with this global pandemic,” Mr. Robert recalled. “Today, I see more companies talking and planning for contingencies more widely across departments, going deeper into the planning scenarios, which is essential to keep the food supply chain moving when an event occurs that could disrupt the global process.”

However, Mr. Robert noticed that some companies now are less concerned with “the next” event. He urged bakeries to take the planning process seriously for a variety of scenarios and prepare the workforce, facilities and supply chain for the next global event.

“Make no mistake, I can say with confidence that we all recognize that we will face additional challenges in putting our plans to the test, which is why they must continually be evolving,” Mr. Robert said. “To keep things moving and to execute with precision, we need to make sure we have a supply chain that is much more ready than it was in early 2020.”  

AIB International has rolled out its Pandemic Prepared Certification (PPC) that focuses on risk mitigation and operational resiliency, with a strong emphasis on protocol management, employees and the facility. Consumers, he noted, rely on the entire food industry to deliver high-quality, safe food.

“We work with the supply chain to identify risks and provide a solutions-based approach so together we can ensure food integrity by encouraging the adoption and implementation of the most appropriate measures,” he said. “But any of this is irrelevant if employees aren’t aware of various risks or aren’t encouraged to report them quickly by taking immediate action when faced with risk of safety and quality of consumer products. In my view, it is always good practice to test how ready you are in the wake of a life-changing event, such as COVID-19.”

Mr. Robert added the PPC provides a third-party validation by AIB International’s experts, who are trained and certified to maintain an uninterrupted state of business in the face of a crisis.

“We can also help identify areas of opportunity that need to be addressed in your plan and make recommendations to help,” Mr. Robert said.

Mr. Robert suggested the baking industry try to stay current in major developments, such as changes in regulations and those unexpected situations that occur daily. 

“COVID-19 taught us that all scenarios are possible, even the unthinkable,” he observed. “Our industry must have well-thought-through crisis management plans that identify various scenarios beyond ‘food recall’ steps, and people who work in the company should know about the plan and feel confident in the leadership who developed it.”

He encouraged collaboration and interdepartmental communication with employees as crisis management plans evolve to foster a better food safety culture. 

“Companies should consider inviting a third-party to participate in mock scenarios that challenge your crisis management plan and the associated response, to avoid only having an internal perspective of risk levels and mitigation strategies,” Mr. Robert said.

At Aladdin Bakers, all pandemic health requirements are still in place, partly because local requirements are more stringent than federal ones.

“Everyone still wears a mask, whether you’re in the office or the bakery,” Ms. Watkinson said. “I am steadfast in my approach to that policy because we don’t want anything like we had before in the bakery.”

Visitors are asked to show proof of vaccination as well as fill out a medical screening questionnaire. Meanwhile, employees are monitored more closely on their medical condition.

“Previously, if someone was sneezing, it wasn’t a huge deal,” she said. “They would wear a mask, gloves and they’d be reminded to wash their hands frequently, especially if they touch their face. Now, everyone has become more sensitive to the medical conditions of their employees and coworkers.”

Ms. Watkinson concurred that the pandemic has improved communication between the management team and its workforce.

“They gained more trust in us. We really do care about their health and wellbeing,” she said. “They’re not just employees. That’s something that benefits everyone overall because when other things happen and we have to make changes — whatever the change might be — they might not be happy with the change, but they also know that we’re not just doing it to ‘do it.’ It’s what’s best for the company and what’s best for them.”

When it comes to a pandemic, supply chain or other challenges, maybe former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said it best: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."