As restaurants have endured on-and-off closures, lost revenue and head-spinning pivots during the pandemic, the purveyors who supply them with ingredients likewise have been forced to rethink how they do business.
At Sunh Fish Company, a seafood distributor serving many of Sacramento’s high-profile restaurants, business fell by 90 percent in March 2020 and didn’t approach even close to normal until two months later. “I’m the type of person who’s always thinking about the worst-case scenario. Like, what happens if you lose a big account and revenue falls by 25 or 30 percent? But 90 percent? No business is prepared for that,” says owner Nguyen Pham.
Sunh has been able to ride out losses in part because it owns the building on Broadway where its wholesale operation and retail store are based. The business also doesn’t have a costly marketing budget or other frills (its social media is managed in-house), so “we’re not tied down to the kinds of costs that will kill you,” explains Pham.
His priority has been to keep paying the vendors who supply Sunh with product. “They have families they need to support, and they’re seeing the same type of losses we are,” says Pham. And he has offered as much grace as possible to restaurants that buy fish from him.
“We never intentionally hit anybody up for payment. A lot of these restaurants don’t have enough money socked away to get over a bad winter in a regular year. How are you going to kick someone when they’re down?” says Pham. “The only way to truly get through this is to do it together, collaboratively. We’re all still going to need each other when this is over.”
Sunh, which has long done brisk retail sales to home cooks, launched a residential delivery service shortly after the pandemic began. Although it’s not a significant source of revenue, the program allowed Pham to keep two drivers employed full time.
Produce wholesaler Produce Express, which supplies fruits, vegetables and other specialty items to area restaurants, also got creative by selling consumer boxes to home cooks. McKenzie Boyce, who handles inside sales and marketing for the company, says the boxes aren’t a big money maker, but they accomplish two important goals: retaining employees and supporting local farms.
“The boxes are very labor intensive, but they have allowed us to keep our employees and maintain the farm-to-fork foundation of our business, which is very important to us,” says Boyce.
Neither Boyce nor Pham can predict what’s ahead for the restaurant industry, but they hold out hope that the dining ecosystem—vendors, wholesalers, restaurants—will pull through. “There are so many businesses closing and farms forced to shut down. It’s really scary,” says Boyce, adding that the best thing people can do is to eat out, even if it’s takeout. “We really want to see our community thrive.”