Upper Valley Produce Responds to New Needs of Vermont’s Food System

By Geoff Robertson, Business Assistance Director, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund

It’s no secret that the food industry has been among the hardest hit by COVID-19. The pandemic forced producers, farmers, and restaurants to adapt their business models—or close their doors—virtually overnight. In the middle of that disruption lies distributors, who in normal times connect grocery stores, hospitals, universities, and restaurants, with the food they need to serve their customers. Like those businesses they serve, distributors such as Upper Valley Produce (UVP) in White River Junction, saw their business model turned upside down as stay-at-home orders rippled across the country.

“It was dramatic and immediate,” said James Gordon, co-owner of Upper Valley Produce. “Three things happened all at once—institutional business dropped by 70 percent, demand from grocery stores surged as people stocked up for quarantine, and the need to make food available to people in our immediate community became starkly apparent.”

A Quick Pivot to Save Jobs and Serve the Community

Realizing that they would have to realign their role in the supply chain to the realities presented by COVID-19, Gordon, along with leadership at UVP and business coaches at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, got on the phone to figure out a plan.

“First and foremost, we wanted to be part of the solution,” said Gordon. “Taking care of our employees and getting food to people safely were our main concerns.”

Realizing that many people, especially the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, were concerned about exposure to COVID-19 in public spaces—including grocery stores—UVP opened curbside pick-up at their White River Junction location, offering customers who were uncomfortable shopping at the grocery store direct access to fresh fruits and vegetables, local grass-fed beef, yogurt, milk, cheese, bacon, and more. Customers can order online and pick up from UVP without ever leaving their car.

Upper Valley Produce Ron Buffa, Manager
Ron Buffa, a manager at Upper Valley Produce, delivers a box of food—including fresh produce, local grass-fed beef, yogurt, milk, cheese, bacon, and more—to a car in the company’s parking lot in White River Junction. Customers can order online and pick up from Upper Valley Produce without ever leaving their car. Photo by Erica Houskeeper.

“The idea was to help out the people in our community,” said Gordon, “and to help them feel safe and prepared as we moved into quarantine.”

Opening curbside also allowed UVP to reposition employees who had been working on the institutional side of the business and keep them employed. Although salaried employees took a pay cut and most warehouse and delivery workers have reduced hours, UVP has not had any layoffs.

Looking Ahead to a “New Normal”

UVP joins a weekly call hosted by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund to hear how others in the food industry are responding to COVID-19, and also works with a business coach through the organization to think through new ideas and challenges.

“There is a lot of uncertainty,” said Gordon, “but we have an entrepreneurial mindset and an incredible team of coaches and colleagues with whom we are sharing ideas and gathering information.”

Given the popularity of curbside pick-up, UVP is currently working on adding online ordering and payment to streamline the process. “Selling direct to the customer was not part of our plan three months ago, but we’ll keep it going as long as there is demand,” said Gordon.

Bigger picture, Gordon is thinking about opportunities to support their mission of sourcing products within a 250-mile radius. “COVID-19 presents all kinds of challenges,” said Gordon, “but it also presents us with an opportunity to rethink where and how we get our food.”

Upper Valley Produce Driver Mark Shaw
Mark Shaw, a delivery driver for Upper Valley Produce, stands outside the company’s loading dock in White River Junction. The food distribution company is thinking about opportunities to support its mission of sourcing products within a 250-mile radius. Photo by Erica Houskeeper.

As an example, Gordon notes that as a result of disruptions to national supply chains, two large grocery store chains approached UVP about supplying additional food sourced from local producers to meet demand. “That’s a good thing overall, said Gordon, “and right in line with our mission.” In particular, he noted that with meat processing plants in the national spotlight, UVP is looking at opportunities to support local meat producers and increase the availability of locally-raised proteins.

While an often overlooked player in our food supply chain, UVP’s response to COVID-19 demonstrates the ability for distributors to reshape the future of where and how we get our food. “Weaknesses in the food system have been exposed,” said Gordon, “and we have a chance to collectively address those problems to create a better, stronger, more local food delivery system for the future.”

About the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund

The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) provides business management coaching and peer-to-peer advising to help Vermont businesses accelerate growth, expand leadership capacity, and navigate critical transition periods. During COVID-19, VSJF has provided extra support to its current and former clients, bringing them together for regular calls and providing one-on-one coaching support as needed. VSJF will continue to provide these services and expand to serve additional businesses, as funding allows. Click here to learn more about VSJF’s Business Management Coaching.

Lead Photo: James Gordon, co-owner of Upper Valley Produce, quickly pivoted his company’s operations during the COVID-19 pandemic by opening a curbside pick-up service at its White River Junction location. Photo by Erica Houskeeper.\

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