Meat Importer Carves Out Success

The meat supply chain starts at the farm gate and goes to the dinner table, making several sea, land, and air freight connections until it arrives at a local distributor, which serves either the retail or food service (restaurant) markets, but typically not both.

This bifurcated supply chain also must keep product refrigerated or frozen and transport goods to the end user without delay due to shelf-life constraints. No link can be overlooked, lest it become that dreaded weakest link.

Since our company imports and distributes to each level of the supply chain, including the last mile, we have visibility into each link. In 2020, COVID taught us a lot about how to manage our supply chain in 2021.

Diversify Shipping Methods

I often wonder whether maintaining three distribution channels is too complex: LTL freight to distributors; our own delivery vehicles to restaurants and retail from our distribution centers; and FedEx to online customers. But that complexity helped us capture opportunities that made a difference.

When restaurants stopped buying specialty cuts, we were poised to FedEx those goods to consumers’ homes. To keep drivers employed in Q2, we did home deliveries using our sprinter vans. When our distributor customers couldn’t take full pallets, we shipped smaller.

I never thought of supply chain diversity as an aim, but we’ll lean heavily on it as we navigate the remainder of the pandemic.

Look Differently at Data Analytics

Demand planning is a challenge in stable times because we must order 2-3 months ahead of product landing in the United States and the perishability clock starts ticking before product is on the water. Since our customers seldom provide forecasts or commitments, that gap can feel like an eternity during volatile periods.

Our weekly containers from Silver Fern Farms in New Zealand, for example, contain premium grass-fed beef with a 120-day shelf life. We typically receive it about two-fifths through its shelf life, leaving enough time for the product to spend a week or two each in our cold storage and that of our distributors and their customers.

If we order heavy, we have to freeze product and sell at a lower price. If we order light, we miss opportunities that can’t affordably be remedied via air freight.

Initially we expected 2021 buying to be impossible due to the unreliability of 2020 data. But because 2020 data fit neatly into the quarterly calendar for our industry, it was actually very useful.

Most of Q1 was pre-COVID, making it a "normal" quarter. Q2 saw a restaurant lockdown and retail and online surge. Q3 was characterized by lifted restrictions and outdoor dining possibilities. Q4 was a return to partial lockdown at what was hopefully peak COVID.

By looking differently at the analytics, we saw that 2020 gave us a range that will help us narrow demand planning and improve timing for shipments in 2021.

Relationships and Communication

The seeds of good communication and strong relationships take long nurturing to germinate and fruit. A key supplier, Silver Fern Farms, made sure that their logistics companies prioritized our shipments and used their global supply chain experience to help us foresee delays and adapt ordering.

They did so because for more than a decade we’ve collaboratively built their brand in the United States. At the customer level, good communication helped clarify some opacity in our crystal balls and adjust our supply chain to their needs.

On that journey from farm to dinner table, our history of collaboration and communication bore fruit when it was most important.

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