Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Back in March of 2020 when the pandemic made its swift encroachment upon the produce industry (and every other aspect of daily life which we all apparently took for granted!), I was six months pregnant with my second child and was asked to begin working from home by family members within and outside of the business due to the unknown variables surrounding COVID.
Working from home… sure, I thought I could handle it for a week or two, and I’d be back in the office in no time. Well, we all know how that went. More than a year later, I find myself working a hybrid of work from home and down at the produce market, in an attempt to limit my interactions with the ‘outside’ world for the sake of my unvaccinated children at home.
I feel lucky to be able to do this, as many people have not been given this opportunity. It’s a perk of working in a family business, I suppose. While it’s been nice being able to work from home and in-office when necessary, it most certainly is anything but easy. The blur between being “on and off the clock” have all but disintegrated. I find myself working two full-time jobs — being a mom and also running my business.
I look forward to spending more time on-site and less time working from home, hopefully this will be in the near future … who would have ever thought that working on-site would mean one would see more time “free from work”?
What is missing the most is the face-to-face interactions that the produce industry was built upon, something that helps to foster, grow, and maintain long-standing relationships.
While the produce industry has certainly taken a hard hit from the pandemic, this industry has fared far better than others. After all, people need to eat. As a wholesaler during the pandemic, we saw some shifts in business away from the foodservice sector and leaned heavier into retail and other wholesale business.
We feel the pain the foodservice industry is dealing with. They are our friends, long-time customers and fellow industry-lifers. While we have seen a recent uptick in the foodservice sector, the loss they have endured is heart-wrenching and many of them have closed up shop entirely or had to re-group and re-brand. Either way, it’s a whole new landscape for the foodservice industry. Are we even there yet? Probably not. We wish them all the best as they make new sense of what life will mean after COVID.
Within our business, our top priority has been keeping our employees healthy, especially when some have fallen ill with the virus. To isolate and sanitize and isolate and sanitize some more have become the new norm. The virus created a new way of working and co-mingling with coworkers as well as with customers, shippers, and so forth. What is missing the most is the face-to-face interactions that the produce industry was built upon, something that helps to foster, grow, and maintain long-standing relationships.
These relationships have gone virtual, but there’s no real substitute for face-to-face. Even face-to-face these days in person is mask-to-mask, no handshakes or hugs to greet those whom we haven’t seen in a while. We’ve learned to read emotions behind the masks, we can tell when people are smiling by the way their eyes turn up, or we can tell when someone is unhappy as they look down and away. Maybe we’ll all be better at learning by means of listening instead of by watching, or by taking into account intonations or expressions of the eye instead of focusing on other aspects.
While I don’t think we are past COVID yet, I think we’re hopefully on the right track. Hopefully one day soon, this will all be behind us and we’ll all keep a mask as a memento in our closets. The masks will serve as a reminder to take nothing for granted; this will especially be true as we all return to a life post-COVID, which will involve in-person events and a life where we don’t have to worry every time someone within six feet of us sneezes.
Tracie Levin is General Manager at M. Levin and Company, Inc., a full-line wholesale produce distribution company based out of Philadelphia.