Tech and innovations keep businesses competitive

Every aspect of our lives over the past two years has been impacted by the pandemic. The same is true for business — regardless of the industry.

For some, there were complete closures that lasted months — then reopenings — then closures again. There were new rules about occupancy and health department guidelines on cleaning protocols, masks and social distancing.

Many businesses had to make the decision to quickly transition their employees to remote operations — and figure out how to communicate with clients, customers and employees when face-to-face opportunities were lost.

There were also supply chain issues getting products to where they were needed — at a time customers were clamoring for in-demand items.

Businesses were forced to reevaluate — and in some cases — completely change their business models. And they had to do it quickly. Many implemented technology or changed their processes to accommodate the shifting landscape and their customer needs and expectations.

Now, many of the changes and innovations are permanent as those businesses that first looked just to survive the pandemic, now look to thrive.

Jersey Mike’s Subs

Gerrit Curran owns 14 Jersey Mike’s Subs locations in Pennsylvania, including the two in Berks County, in Muhlenberg and Spring townships.

Curran said for his restaurants, technology has been a big change to his business model. He said several of the innovations the restaurants made were already in the planning stages at the corporate level or already being implemented — planning he first heard about at a conference in December 2019.

At the time, the company was getting ready to implement curbside pickup and was ramping up its white-label delivery.

“I remember thinking ‘Oh, this is amazing, customers are going to love it.’ Little did we know what was lurking around the corner and that it would become not just something customers would love, but a necessity to the growth and survival of not just our business, but other types of food businesses,” Curran said.

The ability to order online then pick up in the store or curbside or to have the orders delivered,  became a staple for Jersey Mike’s during COVID — and like many businesses — the enhancements are here to stay.

Some additional tweaks included a catering package overhaul rolled out in July 2020 that included individually wrapping catering sandwiches, as well as a store retrofit to add a second line to handle online, phone and delivery orders.

The changes, Curran said, were implemented faster than expected.

“We were building these systems with the expectation of a 3-, 5-, or 10-year timeline, but it happened in a 10-month timeline instead of 10-year,” he said, adding that now, “every generation on the spectrum is now ordering on the phone and for delivery.”

Curran said delivery and online ordering changed — overnight — the nature of how business was done. And it impacted the business models in another way, he said — how the company interacts with its customers.

“We had really been built around sharing our lives with customers and engaging with them,” he said, adding that had been the main way they did business. Now, he said a smaller percentage of customers are ordering in-store, but the percentage of customers ordering online is up.

Curran added that they are starting to see a shift with customers wanting that in-person engagement again.

As the company focused on online ordering and third-party delivery, it invested in assuring staff was trained to make sure each order is “perfect.”

Reflecting on the past two years Curran said it “really blew my mind” he is amazed that Jersey Mike’s was already preparing for trends that quickly became necessities, and then rolled them out quickly.

“It’s pretty remarkable how the company as a whole was prepared for a seemingly unpreparable circumstance,” he added.

Diamond Credit Union

Several years ago, Diamond Credit Union conducted a disaster recovery exercise — something it does annually — practicing various scenarios. That particular year, well before coronavirus happened,  the scenario was a pandemic.

“You go through the exercise, but in the back of your mind, you think this is never going to happen. And then it did,” said Todd Rothenberger, senior vice president/chief member experience officer.

When a crisis does hit, Diamond has a business continuity plan that calls for a crisis management team to come together, according to Beth Walton, vice president/chief human resources officer. She said in the first days of the pandemic, the team began meeting daily.

“In the first week we were able to send 90 employees to work from home,” she said, adding that the initiative included not just the ability to access Zoom and email, but also the implementation of firewalls and the development of guidelines.

Rothenberger said that once it became clear the pandemic wasn’t going to be short-term, Diamond developed three pillars to help guide the company: Keep staff and members as safe as possible, continue to service members as best we could, and continue to grow.

“They are simple but helped guide us through the past two years,” he said.

Rothenberger said discussions also focused on the credit union’s 65,000 members. Branch lobbies closed in recognition of the need to keep staff and members safe.

“The branches weren’t opening, so what do we do?” he said.

In the first two months of the pandemic, Rothenberger said Diamond began reaching out — calling its members.

“The question we asked was — ‘how are you doing?’ The response was amazing,” he said. “Some people were home alone and thankful to hear from us. The intent was to reach out and make sure they were OK.”

Another innovation was the implementation of in-person appointments in branch locations for its members. The appointments process is something that will continue.

Walton said the company recognized the benefits of remote work, and in September 2021, instituted a formal program. Some positions are fully remote, while others are hybrid, she said, with employees in the office two days a week.

“It’s really a win-win for diamond,” she said.

Rothenberger said that while traffic into the branches is less per member, each branch “is reaching out to members more than ever.”

He said the company’s approach is a mix between the people and the technology.

Electronic delivery is part of the mix, and Walton said in addition to developing the process for setting appointments, texting capability was improved to provide another channel of communication.

“We also perfected some of the electronic signatures needed for lending. And that has been a positive,” she said. And, while not seen by members, there have been internal process improvements, as well.

Steel City Coffeehouse and Brewery

Laura Vernola, co-owner of Steel City Coffeehouse and Brewery in Phoenixville, admits she and her husband and business co-owner Ed Simpson initially reacted out of fear in the early days of the pandemic — closing the business for three weeks.

It’s a decision, she said, that has brought some regret.

“Panic was the regret — our own fear of what was happening in the world,” she said.

When the business reopened, Vernola said the couple took action — and after that pause, they have continued moving forward.

One of the first things they did was to add online ordering, curbside pickup and takeout.

“We should have pivoted to takeout immediately,” she said, adding that Steel City is still offering curbside pickup and online ordering “We will never stop doing it.”

Vernola said the website was rebuilt to support online ordering, and the venue switched delivery vendors.

During the pandemic, Steel City added a pantry — selling eggs, milk, bread and baking items. The pantry was shut down about six months ago, she said, as Steel City’s online offerings grew. It’s something she said will be carried forward into a new venture.

Steel City is known as a live music venue and listening room. That piece of the business took a “big hit,” Vernola said. She added that the couple made the decision to hold off on restarting live shows. And when they returned in May/June 2021 — they have been less frequent.

“We aren’t booking every weekend not we’re booking Friday nights anymore,” she said. She added that they have also reduced the number of seats. “We’re going to keep it — it’s better.

Staff shifts have been adjusted, as have operating hours. Vernola said initially they thought they would return to the original hours, but have decided not to. The changes have improved their quality of life, she said.

Vernola and Simpson are expanding. They purchased the former Eagles Nest Deli in Mont Clare, and have been renovating it since September. The Mont Clare Deli & Market opened on April 19.

The concept of grab and go has been extended to the new property, with fewer seats in the eatery, and Vernola said curbside will also be implemented. The new deli will also feature a market pantry.

Steel City recently started canning its beer and selling it to go. The cans will also be available in the new Mont Clare Deli & Market.

Vernola said she and Simpson have learned they can react faster now.

“When we see an issue, we don’t wait. The pandemic was terrible, but we had a few good things that made us open our eyes to change.”

Redner’s Warehouse Markets

As an essential service, grocery stores never had a moment of downtime. At the same time, they were learning about safety protocols and planning, business increased as customers stocked up on products to minimize their trips out.

For Redner’s Markets, headquartered in Berks County, the first thing the company had to do, according to Eric White, director of marketing and communications, was “get a handle” on supply chain issues.

He said the company had to quickly look at those items in high demand — things like paper products and cleaning supplies — and begin to implement purchasing limits.

In some cases, he said the company was five days too late as sales ballooned on certain items.

“We couldn’t get it out fast enough,” he said.

Redner’s has a main distributor it works with and has a warehouse in Reading, which White said allowed the grocery chain to fare better than others in terms of stock.

If the distributor was having staffing issues, White said, Redner’s sent its own trucks to pick up orders, or met trucks and transferred product to Redner’s trucks to be taken to individual stores.

From a supply chain standpoint, White said Redner’s buying team also got creative in sourcing items. The team found food service vendors that couldn’t get their products to restaurants — and began buying from them.

“We found a new partner, helped them to keep sales moving and staff working and our guests benefited in the end,” White said.

The pandemic, White said, accelerated the company’s digital movement.

“The experience had us take some things we were looking at 10 years out and make it six months,” he said.

One example is digital and online shopping and curbside pick-up. Redner’s was able to fast-forward the process and now has Redner’s Ready in 95% of its stores, allowing guests to shop online and have it ready for curbside pickup.

As for new innovations, Redner’s converted its front-end system to allow for real-time inventory.

Another innovation has been the implementation of self-checkout through the regular checkout lanes. Stores can convert the lanes to cash, credit or self-checkout. It’s not to eliminate people, White said, to offer an option.

“It’s not for everyone, but it provides a service that guests like to use,” he said.

Like many businesses, Redner’s has some whose jobs allowed them to work remotely. White said the pandemic also led the company to “look at our philosophy” from an employment standpoint.

He said the company was more flexible with time off and allowed employees “to call off, take off — take time until they felt safe to come back.”

The company has also implemented a text to apply process. Applicants can scan a QR code, to begin the applications process for open positions.

The pandemic, White said, has taught Redner’s leaders and employees to “think outside the box.”

“As we continue to crawl back it exposed some areas to work on, but if we can do that and improve and make the guest experience better and improve our operating efficiencies, we’ll come out even stronger,” he added.

Tech, innovations keep businesses competitive during pandemic