COVID-19 / Delivery / Food and drink /

Baltimore food delivery, ecommerce companies are hiring amid ‘unprecedented’ demand

Here's what companies like Hungry Harvest, Whitebox and Imperfect Foods are seeing as more people stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Hungry Harvest boxes are in high demand. (Photo via Facebook)
To prepare for the influx Hungry Harvest of new orders saw last week, CEO Evan Lutz said his Port Covington-based produce delivery startup would typically need six months.

But with the spread of COVID-19 bringing social distancing measures and closures, the company had five days to get orders out to customers who opted to have produce delivered last week.

“It was an uptick like we never really projected,” Lutz said. By last Thursday, the service stopped accepting new online signups, and there’s currently a waitlist.

For Hungry Harvest, it meant not just an increase in deliveries, but also scaling up processes like procuring the produce from farms, operations, inventory and last-mile logistics. It would typically come with moves to add 10 to 12 staff and new space, but a global pandemic is hardly a normal scenario.

The company known for delivering ugly produce mounted a “heroic,” yet not always pretty, effort last week to deliver all of the orders, Lutz said. Along with the plans they put in place, they’re also bringing new workers onboard to help keep up with the volume of orders. As of this week, Lutz said about a dozen people already came on across the company’s entire supply chain, and he’ll look to bring on 25 to 35 more people as delivery drivers, warehouse packers, warehouse associates and receivers.

The hiring points at two sides to the crisis: The pandemic is bringing an unprecedented time of flux that is sending shockwaves through the economy, as news comes of layoffs in restaurants, hospitality and other industries that brought unemployment claims to record levels. Yet the companies that are keeping essential businesses going have become more important. Along with grocery stores and big box stores, Baltimore is home to emerging companies that are delivering food and goods. For some, they’re also offering a chance to get a new job, or temporary roles until service industry jobs reopen.

We've seen demand increase and we're very, very lucky to be in a position where we have opportunity in front of us.

“We’re on the really fortunate side that we’ve seen demand increase and we’re very, very lucky to be in a position where we have opportunity in front of us. Being the values- and mission-driven company that we are, we want to help people that are impacted by this crisis,” Lutz said.

Hungry Harvest was already seeing growth, having just closed a $7.25 million funding round two weeks ago and putting plans in place to scale. But last week, the orders came a lot quicker.

It’s been the same for other food delivery companies. Imperfect Foods, a San Francisco-based grocery delivery company that also delivers ugly produce in the Baltimore area, is also seeing an “unprecedented spike in demand.”

“Our food supply chain is robust and well-equipped to continue feeding everyone, and our food rescue model helps streamline the process and eliminate waste by getting food directly to consumers’ doors,” CEO Philip Behn said. “To support this and offer safe, living wage jobs for local residents looking for income at this time, Imperfect is hiring for 127 operations associates and delivery drivers in the Baltimore area.” (Find position descriptions here)

Whitebox was also seeing growth that was bringing expansion at its Holabird Avenue headquarters and facilities in Las Vegas and Memphis. But now the company it’s seeing record orders through its ecommerce automation platform and work with brands to fulfill and market goods. Speaking on Monday, CEO Marus Startzel said the last seven-day period was bringing more business than the biggest days of the holiday season like Cyber Monday or the last weekend before the holidays.

Whitebox hired 13 folks in Baltimore in hourly, seasonal roles, most of whom came from bars and restaurants in Fells Point and Canton that had closed in-person service.

In this case it’s helping folks get food as other businesses are shut down during a pandemic, and the service falls under the category of essential — literally, as nonessential businesses in Maryland were shut down. And the goods they’re helping customers send are in the food and health category: powdered milk, pre-made soups, beef broth, rice, water, bottled coffee, beef jerky, flour, supplements and vitamins.

Along with helping goods get to consumers, it is also keeping the businesses that make them up and running.

“In many ways, keeping the supply chain up and running so consumers can get what they want is very important,” Startzel said.

It is also leading to new jobs: With all the new orders on the distribution side, Whitebox hired 13 folks in Baltimore in hourly, seasonal roles, most of whom came from bars and restaurants in Fells Point and Canton that had closed in-person service, and is adding more in its other two fulfillment locations. (Along its growth trajectory, the tech company is also currently hiring for JavaScript developer and junior accountant roles.)

As companies continue to remain open, they are also mindful of employees’ health and safety. They’re following social distancing recommendations and taking more hand-washing breaks. Startzel said Whitebox has been strictly following CDC guidelines, increasing cleaning and wiping down workstations.

At Hungry Harvest, Lutz said good manufacturing practices are key and it is stepping those up, as well as capping hours.

Following its mission to fight hunger, the company is also continuing its efforts to give back amid the crisis. It is working with institutions like University of Maryland Medical System to supply emergency food boxes that the healthcare provider can supply to patients and families who don’t have immediate food access, and has donated 11,000 pounds of produce. The company also donated produce to an event at Hotel Revival to make care packages for service industry workers who were laid off, as well as to nurses working at an ICU ward at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Companies: Whitebox / Hungry Harvest
Series: Coronavirus

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