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Filipino entrepreneurs ride wave of food deliveries during pandemic

DEMAND for food delivery services soared during the coronavirus pandemic. — REUTERS

By Joseph Emmanuel L. Garcia, Reporter

THIRTY-YEAR-OLD Inah Rodriguez, who’s been selling baked goods for 15 years, diversified into dishes ranging from Indian to Italian to maximize profit amid a coronavirus pandemic.

A banker by career, the owner of home-based brand The Sweet Twist said a tenth of her operational costs go into packaging, an industry that has grown in the past year as more people ordered and had their food delivered on their doorsteps.

BW Bullseye 2020-focusMs. Rodriguez chose one of the biggest box manufacturing companies based in Sta. Mesa, Manila as one of her packaging sources. “When you’re the biggest supplier, you tend to sell it a little bit cheaper,” she said in mixed English and Filipino.

She is riding on a wave of prepackaged food during the pandemic, when there has been a newfound appreciation for single-use packaging versus waste reduction. Consumers expectedly want their food and its packaging handled by as few people as possible.

Everyone is jumping on the packaged food bandwagon after President Rodrigo R. Duterte locked down many parts of the country in mid-March to contain a global coronavirus pandemic.

A number of restaurants were forced to shut down, though some have managed to shift their business model to food delivery and through apps created by technology companies.

“More restaurants will go digital, and that is why resto meal kits and the availability of their proprietary ingredients will be their creative divergence, from regular food takeout or delivery,” Llena Arcenas, a manager at San Miguel Foods Culinary Center, told a recent online news briefing.

“It will also be their effort to relive and sustain the restaurant experience at home,” she said.

Revenue from San Miguel Corp.’s (SMC) prepared and packaged food segment grew by 9% in the nine months through October, as packaged food became an essential item for consumers under the so-called “new normal.”

Sales of canned meats such as Purefoods Corned Beef, SPAM and Tender Juicy Hotdog increased by double digits.

“Dairy products and breakfast items were also big hits during the quarantine,” the company said in a statement. San Miguel also released a line of heat-and-eat versions of Filipino favorites such as kare-kare, a peanut-based stew.

SMC’s packaging business also increased deliveries to pharmaceutical, beverage and food customers as well as to the export market, according to its financial statement.

Australia, Malaysia and China operations remained stable, though sales still fell behind during the three quarters.

Total group revenue at Southeast Asian ride-hailing and food delivery company Grab jumped by about 70% year on year in 2020 and had recovered to comfortably above pre-pandemic levels, according to Reuters, citing President Ming Maa.

Almost 12,000 merchants joined the Grab platform in the Philippines at the height of the health crisis between March and June last year, according to a statement on its website. Sales of small businesses grew by at least 57% during the period.

The 2020 edition of the Tetra Pak Index cited changing priorities in a post-pandemic world. While consumer’s main concern in 2019 was the effect of their choices on the environment, last year, it was mainly about food and safety, according to the report.

More than two-thirds of consumers thought food safety is a major concern for society, it said. Uncertainty about the future triggered stockpiling and a sense of responsibility for future food security, according to the report.

Quarantines also served as a trigger for consumption occasions that included “all-day snacking, indulgence and home cooking.”

While most companies have trained their workers about proper product handling, extra care is needed to ensure compliance with health and safety standards.

There’s no evidence that handling or consuming food is associated with COVID-19, and the risk of getting sick with COVID-19 from eating or handling food and food packages is considered very low, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, there’s no harm in being safe.

Ian Carandang, founder of Sebastian’s Ice Cream, started selling online during the pandemic.

“This would normally not be that big of a deal if one’s products weren’t time-sensitive like cookies or bread,” he said in an e-mail. “But for ice cream, every second counts.”

Mr. Carandang said he spent months testing styrofoam containers in ice, freezer bags to keep ice cream dry and left the boxes out in the sun to simulate delivery conditions.

“We tested it to failure, seeing how long the ice cream stayed frozen under those conditions before it began to soften,” he said.

“Our staff was already trained for maximum sanitation and safety before this, so the only addition was instructing everyone to use masks,” the entrepreneur said. “We already practice food safety as a matter of procedure, and the only addition was to wipe down the pints before packing them for delivery.”

Expenses rose because of packaging costs, but the online business paid off.

Deliveries were a boon to Sebastian’s Ice Cream, which has a branch at The Podium mall in the Ortigas business district in Pasig City, during the Christmas holidays, Mr. Carandang said.

“Before, the company was never able to cash in on the Christmas food rush because ice cream could not be bought and given to people as presents,” he said. “Delivery finally allowed us to market ourselves as a viable gift option.”

In contrast, sales at its Podium branch were just 25% of what it was before the coronavirus, Mr. Carandang said.

“With the sales produced last year, I would say it was a hit,” Ms. Rodriguez said of her online dish business. “Considering that I’m only doing this part time, I’m surprised and at the same time feel blessed with continuous weekly sales.”

She’s adding more products to her menu and bringing back season’s favorites as the summer approaches, she said. “My goal is to open my own café, hopefully five years from now. I’m already excited. It’s a dream come true.”

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