In normal times, Vancouver wholesaler SteBo’s Food Service exclusively sells bulk food for delivery to restaurants and stores. But like so many other businesses in the coronavirus era, the company has had to adapt to changing circumstances.
Last week, SteBo’s began opening its warehouse at 3800 N.E. 68th St. to the public for limited periods each day, offering cash-only sales for families and individuals who have had trouble finding groceries elsewhere.
It’s certainly not intended as a permanent change, but SteBo’s president Steve Weiss said he sees it as a way to leverage the company’s supplier partnerships to help the community weather the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Our plan is to do this until we all get through this,” he said.
Restaurant sales down
The food business landscape has changed dramatically in the two weeks since Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all restaurants to temporarily close their dining rooms to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Restaurants are allowed to remain open for drive-thru and delivery service, and many have chosen to do so, but Weiss said there’s still been an unavoidable decline in demand. SteBo’s most popular french fry product, for example, used to be ordered by the pallet.
“Now we’re bringing them in by the layer,” Weiss said.
There’s one exception: takeout containers. Weiss said the company ordered an extra two-month supply of to-go boxes several weeks ago, anticipating a greater need. Sure enough, he said, restaurants have substantially increased their box orders even as their own customer traffic has dwindled.
“(Restaurant) sales are way down, but everything going out has to be in something,” Weiss said.
SteBo’s bulk food sales to restaurants are down about 75 percent by volume, Weiss said, but the company has a diverse customer base to fall back on, including assisted living facilities and other locations that still need to continue full-scale service.
Convenience store orders have also remained consistent, he said, particularly in rural parts of Clark and Cowlitz counties with less competition from fast food chains.
Weiss said the idea of individual retail sales began when contacts at some of the company’s existing local business clients began to inquire about purchasing products for themselves or their families.
With restaurant orders down, SteBo’s had plenty of supply on hand, and the company had room to put in orders for products to fulfill common individual requests, such as flour.
“Most of our supply chains are intact for food service,” he said.
The company team quickly realized that they could open up the concept to the general public. On March 21, SteBo’s posted a Facebook message declaring that the warehouse would be open to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, offering cash-only sales to individual buyers.
SteBo’s also began pushing out regular Facebook posts advertising “deal of the day” products such as raw meatloaf, chicken pot pies and cheese ravioli. Weiss said he was even able to source some toilet paper, although SteBo’s had to sell it with a per-person limit.
Individual customer traffic was relatively low for the first week, Weiss said, but it’s been gaining steam, particularly among large families and people who live in the more rural parts of the county. Some customers just come in for the deal of the day, he said, while others seem to treat it more like a full grocery shopping trip.
“They were used to going to Costco,” he said, “but at Costco (due to COVID-19), they limit things, the lines are long and they run out of stuff.”
SteBo’s is a family-owned business co-founded by Weiss and Bob Schafer. Both of them had built careers working for major food wholesalers, Weiss said. About seven years ago, they decided to leave their jobs and start their own company.
SteBo’s focuses on supplying local restaurants, gas stations and mom-and-pop stores, generally in Clark and Cowlitz counties and the Portland metro area. The company supplies bulk food products to about 200 clients, according to Weiss, typically running between five and eight delivery trucks per day.
“Most of them are between Wilsonville (Ore.) and Castle Rock,” he said.
The company has grown consistently in its first seven years — it’s currently on its third warehouse — but Weiss said the local focus has remained. In addition to restaurants and stores, SteBo’s also serves a few institutions with kitchens such as assisted living centers, churches and private schools.
Weiss said the company had to lay off about a quarter of its staff when the outbreak began impacting restaurant demand, and he hopes the new individual sales might make up enough of the difference to start bringing those workers back, even if they can’t completely close the restaurant gap.
“It’s definitely not going to make up for it,” he said, “but it helps people out and it helps us out.”