Rob Collier says he will always remember where he was when stage-three COVID-19 restrictions were introduced.
The CEO of Australian dairy supplier Riverina Fresh “quickly got a war room together” to deal with a huge number of cancelled orders over 24 hours, from the 5,000 cafes they typically supply.
They began discussions and, within a weekend, the “small-to-medium-sized player” was delivering dairy products to 137 Woolworth stores in Victoria and all stores across New South Wales and the ACT.
“The restrictions came at short notice, and we took a bit of time to absorb the impact it would have on our lives and our business,” Collier tells Smart Company.
“We contacted Woolworths who were facing congestion within their Victorian distribution centres, and they said yes, we have an immediate need for milk, but we need you to respond quickly.”
Having to recalibrate delivery routes, change manufacturing lines and ramp up production, Collier says there was little time to “dot the i’s”.
They dispatched everything they could and worked around the clock to deliver their products.
“We usually deliver a pallet of milk [to supermarkets] three to four times a week but, during this period, we were delivering twice a day,” he says.
“We moved quickly, in good faith, and with an understanding that we could make corrections when we needed to.
“Fortunately, we were big enough to scale our activity, but small enough to be nimble and agile.”
Not its first pivot
About seven years ago, Riverina Fresh changed its business strategy.
The organisation, which employs about 160 staff and works with 20 dedicated dairy farms in the Riverina area, was performing strongly in regional and country areas. However, it was struggling to achieve the right sort of return for its size.
It kept its retail footprint but worked closely with cafes in order to create a point of difference.
“Back then it was hard yards in the fresh milk space and we needed another reason to be,” Collier says.
“We decided to engage with speciality coffee roasters who were aware of the functional benefits of our milk. It has a fat, protein, taste and texture profile that perfectly suits specialty coffee blends. About 98% of coffee is drunk with milk in Australia and, while coffee is the hero, an average or inconsistent milk can undo a lot of that work.
“We sat with roasters every week making adjustments until we got it right, [and have] now reached the point where the winners of the last three World Barista Championships have used our milk.”
As Riverina Fresh pivoted towards the big supermarket chains amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it has continued working with cafes, many of which are operating as takeaway outlets and local grocers.
It has provided front-of-house fridges and supplied dairy products that customers could buy as pantry items.
“I’d describe this period in three stages,” Collier says.
“There was the crisis which led to our pivot, then the recovery as restrictions are eased and customers feel comfortable buying coffee while maintaining social distancing. As a result, these cafes are slowly coming back to life.
“The next ‘business in action’ phase is hard to predict, but I think the connection that has been forged between customers and local cafes bodes well for the future.”
While home delivery has proven to be popular, Collier is uncertain as to whether demand for that service will continue.
“It’s a good time to open our eyes and see if there’s a material change in the way we consume,” he says.
“In times of crisis, it drives you to look at these types of opportunities.”
98 years and counting
Now that the panic-buying has settled down, Riverina Fresh is no longer supplying to Woolworths in Victoria.
However, it has expanded its distribution in New South Wales from 200 supermarkets pre-COVID-19 to over 250 across the state.
“A silver lining has been a higher level of support, goodwill and collaboration within local and regional communities. It is greater than I have seen for a long time,” Collier says.
He adds that Riverina Fresh’s regional base, 98-year history and high-quality products have struck a chord with consumers.
“Australian ownership and 98 years of history are really important in this current environment.
“There has been a lot of debate about food security and local manufacturing capabilities recently, so this has been a great opportunity to showcase the strength of our farms and regional players,” he says.