The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit James Skinner Baking Co. hard before most businesses either shut down or implemented big changes in March 2020. One of the bakery’s longtime employees was hospitalized and died after contracting COVID on vacation earlier that year, which prompted swift proactive changes.

The company created pod programs in which workers were divided into groups, worked together and isolated from the rest of the facility. They had color-coded T-shirts, which made it easy to keep track of the groups. The bakery put up glass curtains in the lunchrooms and employed an outside service to clean surfaces every couple of hours.

“They sanitized the line, went to lunch and breaks together,” Tom Lensing, vice president of operations, said about the groups. “If someone in that pod got COVID, we isolated the rest of them from the line, so we didn’t take that entire line down. It worked well.”

He said the pods policed each other and kept infection numbers down. Audie Keaton, president and chief executive officer at Skinner Baking, estimated that just a couple dozen employees contracted COVID out of more than 800.

Because the bakery dealt with COVID early on, the company was able to share its safety program with other Omaha companies. After an early escalation, the infections dropped.

Also during the pandemic, the company reduced SKUs to pick up efficiencies and put out more cases. For instance, the company had been making 16 different flavors of coffee cakes but discontinued three.

“We consolidated some of the slow movers,” Mr. Keaton said.

This article is an excerpt from the September 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on James Skinner Baking Co., click here.