Like A Boss Now is a series of live webinar interviews where you can hear insightful, first-hand accounts of the realities of running a business. Portland Press Herald CEO and Publisher Lisa DeSisto will interview Maine CEOs for insights on how they are managing, adapting, and problem solving in these ever-changing times.

Like many food product makers, York-based Stonewall Kitchens has had to make rapid business changes since the coronavirus outbreak. CEO John Stiker will talk about the tough decisions that came with closing retail shops and furloughing employees, managing physical distancing in manufacturing and distribution and how Stonewall is involved in community efforts to keep people safe and healthy.

Watch our 2017 Like A Boss interview with John Stiker.

We weren’t able to get to all the questions submitted for Friday’s chat, so John sent us these answers to share with you.

Will you return in-store sampling?

Very likely. We consider sampling in the stores to be an crucial part of the experience. We know we’re a premium-priced product, and we offer recipes and flavors that in most cases our guests have never seen or tried before, but once they try them, we think they realize that the product is delicious and the price is a reasonable value. In the incredibly fast ramp-down we had as the stores moved towards closure, we went day by day from our typical “100 jars open every morning” passive sampling, to fewer, closely-observed tables, to controlled sampling where we had a store associate behind a counter with samples providing them to guests, to finally “hey if you want to try something, we’ll open a jar for you.” So we’ve got a good spectrum of sampling approaches that should allow us to offer samples in different formats as we re-open.

What changes did you make to maintain your market and sales? How did you make these decisions?

The speed with which this pandemic came on us didn’t really allow time to make significant changes; if we hadn’t made them in the past couple years, they weren’t going to happen now. Another CEO said recently “Entering into a crisis is not the time to figure out what you want to be” and this proved true here. We’ve really done some strategy work in the past couple years that allowed us to expand our product line through acquisition, and some of those are turning out to be areas that are performing exceptionally well in this crisis – Montebello pasta, Vermont Village applesauce, Tillen Farms cocktail accessories were all added in the past two years, and have really strengthened our business.

Can any of the furloughed workers be redeployed to the areas where you are hiring?

Yes, we’ve tried hard to make that work and have had some success. Most of our additional hiring has been in Dover, NH in our distribution center, so some of furloughed folks were geographically limited from being redeployed there – think stores in Camden, Maine down to South Windsor, Connecticut – and some have been physically limited from that kind of work, because it’s pretty heavy duty. But we’ve been able to bring over a number of the folks from our Wells candle manufacturing facility who might otherwise have been furloughed.

What additional health & safety actions have you taken in the production facility?

As a food facility, we have a strict regimen of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) that we follow, so we already conduct deep cleaning every night with our sanitation shift, and anti-bacterial/anti-viral fogging on the weekends. The biggest change for us has been to really segregate our first and second shift. We used to have a running turnover from the morning shift to the afternoon shift, starting with the cooks, then the line operators and specialists, then the associates over the course of a couple hours. Today, we have completely segregated the two shifts, with cleanout and downtime in between, so that first shift personnel don’t interact with second shift personnel at all. We’ve also segregated the cooks and preppers (who work upstairs) from the line operators and associates (who work downstairs), all with the mindset of physical separation and minimizing close contacts. It’s much, much less efficient from a production standpoint, so that’s hopefully not something we have to maintain for months on end.

What has been your biggest challenge since taking the reins at Stonewall Kitchen?

This would be it. I wasn’t at Stonewall Kitchen for the 2008 financial crisis, and that was certainly difficult because it happened in October, when the company already had all of its gift inventory built and ready to deploy. But the company didn’t have store closures, or furloughs, or manufacturing segregation, or anything nearly as dramatic as this back in 2008. I suspect for most folks at most businesses, this will be the toughest crisis we all go through.

What are your passions outside of work?

One of my favorite expressions is “I’m not dead yet!” so I enjoy a really challenging physical workout. I’m a hacker triathlete – I participate in a bunch of them, and generally come in last in my age group. Last summer I did the Casco Bay SwimRun (where you run around islands in Casco Bay, then swim to another island, and so on) and it was exhausting and addictive…I’m definitely hoping to do that again this summer. In August of last year I finally bought a boat, a Wilbur ’34, so I’m looking forward to getting out on the water again this summer.

Otherwise, I look forward to being able to spend time with family when this is done: my folks up in Yarmouth, and my three sons who are deployed around the country (one on a destroyer in Pearl Harbor, one leading an army platoon in Ft. Lewis in Tacoma, one at Naval flight school in Pensacola).

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