Western Fires Impact Specialty Food Businesses

Mark Hamstra | 21 Sep 2020

Specialty food companies in the Western U.S. are feeling the impacts of the fires that have burned millions of acres and destroyed thousands of buildings in California, Oregon, and Washington.

Perhaps nowhere was more acutely impacted than the Rogue Valley in Oregon, which saw the Almeda Fire race through a series of towns, burning thousands of houses and businesses and turning entire communities to ash overnight. Several companies have reported that employees have lost their homes, and many food businesses, including restaurants and retail stores, have been destroyed.

“Our first certainly focus is on just caring for our community members and team members,” said David Gremmels, president of Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon.

He said 14 of the company’s workers and their families lost their homes in the flames. The company helped its displaced workers find temporary housing, which has been especially challenging because of the magnitude of the crisis and the fact that the area was already experiencing a housing shortage before the fires broke out.

Rogue has also been helping feed the community by supplying cheese to restaurants in the region that have been providing meals for people in need.

“There have been Herculean efforts, from my team, and other volunteers who are doing the hard work,” said Gremmels.

“We’re one of the fortunate companies in the valley,” he said. “Over a hundred businesses were destroyed, from wineries to bicycle-building shops to grocery stores.”

Rogue Creamery evacuated cattle to a different location, and has been coping with delays in local shipments. The company also had to postpone the release of its world champion Rogue River Blue limited-edition cheese, which traditionally becomes available each year on the autumnal equinox. Instead, the cheese is scheduled to be released in October.

The unreliability of local FedEx and UPS deliveries amid the fires led the company to postpone the highly anticipated release, after the cheese won top honors at the World Cheese Awards last year.

“It’s been a real challenge for us to wrap ourselves around delaying a release of a cheese that is traditionally released on, and celebrated on, Sept. 21 and 22 each year,” said Gremmels.

Steve Lightman, president of food gift basket marketer Harry & David, which is based in Medford, Oregon, said more than 100 of the company’s workers have lost their homes in the fire. The company has been providing hot meals in its cafeteria for workers and their families who have been displaced, and it also has been raising donations for the community, which have been matched by its parent company, 1-800 Flowers.

“When our community hurts, we hurt,” said Lightman. “We are very connected to the Rogue Valley community.”

Harry & David evacuated its headquarters for about two days because of the fires, but the property was not damaged, and the company’s orchards had minimal damage, Lightman said. It also had to reroute some shipments via ground instead of air when the smoke conditions prevented local FedEx planes from flying. It also mailed some shipments through its facilities in Ohio and Georgia. Operations quickly returned to normal, however, and customers were understanding about any delivery delays they may have experienced, Lightman said.

Adam Danforth, a butcher and food activist based in the area, has been leading an effort to leverage restaurants for the distribution of hot meals to the people who have lost their homes. His Rogue Food Unites website is collecting donations to support the effort, and the group is also working with the United Way and Red Cross to manage the finances and deliver the relief to those in need.

The effort seeks to provide compensation for restaurants that provide meals, so that those restaurants can operate as commercial relief kitchens, and can continue to pay their employees and buy product from their suppliers.

“It’s keeping restaurants open, keeping people working, keeping farmers farming, and meeting the needs of these people who need our support more than ever,” said Danforth.

The group is also seeking to find satellite kitchens where restaurateurs who lost their businesses in the fire can operate and assist in providing food to the people from the local communities they served.

“There’s nothing better than feeding people, especially when you know that a hot meal can have such a positive impact,” said Danforth.

California has also endured a record-breaking fire season this year, with nearly 8,000 fires that have burned more than 3.5 million acres.

Juliana Uruburu, retail director at specialty food retailer Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California, said the challenges presented by the fires have only exacerbated the difficulties retailers and others in the industry have already been dealing with from the pandemic.

“It’s been one hit after the other,” she said. “We are very lucky to have such a supportive community that continue to support us and shop with us as often as they can.”

Although some Market Hall employees had to evacuate their homes earlier this year, all have since returned, Uruburu said. Some of the producers that Market Hall buys from have lost their homes, however, she said. The company has also had some delays in getting product from some small direct accounts.

“There have been supply chain issues since COVID began,” she said. “We are still getting shorts every day, whether fire-related or COVID-related, and we anticipate that will go on rest of the year.”

Related: San Francisco Restaurants Forced to Close Due to WildfiresTaco Truck Feeds Undocumented Workers Amid CA Wildfires.