Drop off children at school or day care, knowing that they will enjoy their favorite lunch. Grab a cup of coffee and a muffin on the way to the office. Have a meal in the company or university cafeteria.

Or maybe not.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means countless changes for catering firms and programs that serve charter and private schools, colleges and universities, child care facilities, corporate buildings, hospitals and senior living facilities.

In-person dining shut down abruptly in March 2020. It has yet to fully return in many corporate settings. For example, Target announced that its 8,500 office workers wouldn’t be returning en masse until early 2022. The company had hoped for a fall return. Target opened common areas, meeting rooms and cafeteria space in downtown Minneapolis this fall.

Schools, child care facilities, senior housing and hospitals couldn’t simply shut down. Eagan-based Lancer Hospitality and Catering found itself canceling contracts for 27 child care centers on September 1 because it lacked staff. The company is currently working with about 50 schools and five child care centers.

After many months of shifting to packaged take-home meals or packaging meals with extra safety precautions, companies face new dilemmas. One ongoing need is hiring enough workers to prepare, deliver and serve food.

Jessica Minczeski, accounts manager for Lancer, sees her company as managing the after-effects of the pandemic at this time. She said having to drop child care contracts was especially difficult.

“As a company, we’ve prided ourselves on our ability to pivot during all of this,” she said.

But the hiring crisis has taken a toll. Lancer usually begins the school year with 23 food delivery drivers. It started this year with nine. Lancer has had to use courier service and temporary workers in some cases as it recruits more staff. Things are starting to look up.

“Applications are starting to flutter in,” Minczeski said.

Amy Keran, director of contract administration at the University of Minnesota, said about 6,000 students use their dining hall services. Hiring began in the spring. Their food service company, Philadelphia-based Aramark, employs more than 200 full time workers and as many as 900 students.

Hiring continues to be an issue, despite multifaceted approaches to bring in new staff. The U of M has stepped up social media outreach, hiring fairs and other measures, Keran said.

“Service will be impacted this fall and we are focused on doing the best that we can,” Keran added. “There are some retail locations on campus that will open later this fall as we continue to hire folks. We have a plan for the order of closures and service discontinuation to be implemented as needed. And, we have communicated to campus about the staffing challenges—and that goes a long way.”

CKC Good Food owner Nancy Close considered herself fortunate to have avoided a staffing crisis—though her company faced other issues, which other firms share.

She recalls the scramble to rent additional cold storage and space for paper products when many school meals moved to carryout in March 2020. The South St. Paul-based company served about 12 million meals during the pandemic. It serves about 30,000 meals per day.

Close is battling food and servicing product supply chain issues. That’s despite planning and working with suppliers since April. Her latest quest is for disposable trays as many schools the company works with don’t have kitchens. “We don’t have the capability to wash trays,” Close said.

In more than 30 years, Close has never seen anything like it. Others in the industry agree, saying the supply chain issues make meal planning very difficult.

“It’s every single day,” Close said. “There’s no way for suppliers and customers to predict what’s next…You can’t get beef crumbles; you can’t get chicken wings…We like whole grain chips as a treat and we cannot get those.”

Another dilemma was that of needing to replace vans to make meal deliveries. “We’re getting two and we don’t get to choose,” Close said. “We’ll also be paying $10,000 to $12,000 more per vehicle.”

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