Santa-End-Flap

An Open Letter to Santa on Behalf of the Food and Beverage Industry

Dec. 1, 2020
Grab your ‘kerchief and your cap, Senior Editor Pan Demetrakakes knows exactly what he wants for Christmas.

Dear Santa:

I know you’re busy this time of year, but the industry I cover for a living needs help.

Like the rest of the world, it’s been rocked by the pandemic. Struggling with a highly contagious, potentially deadly disease isn’t easy when work has to be done in person, indoors, often in tight quarters. And it’s not something that can be put off; America needs to be fed.

The pandemic isn’t the only problem, Santa. In some ways, it has just highlighted situations that have been festering for a while. It has also served as a distraction from other problems that still need to be addressed.

So here is my wish list for the food & beverage industry, even though these are things that you won’t be able to fit into your sleigh:

  • A willing workforce. Ask almost any plant manager what his No. 1 problem is, and the answer is likely to be some variation on “getting people to work here.” Food plants just aren’t very nice places to work, Santa. They’re noisy, crowded, often messy, and just plain intimidating. Can you do anything about that? Maybe the second thing on the list would help.
  • Higher pay. When it comes to an hourly manufacturing wage, food lags about 15% behind American industry as a whole, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some enlightened employers are doing something about it, like Chobani, which has committed to a floor of $15 an hour. (That’s just a few cents below the average food manufacturing wage.) Can you please send us more Chobanis?
  • Better worker-oriented education. I’ve heard plant managers sigh over the shop classes of their high-school days, which now seem largely vanished, a victim of the budget cuts expected of practically every public institution in America. At least they gave kids a rudimentary understanding of tools and mechanical processes. Can we have those back, Santa? If you really wanted to spoil us, you’d send us a trade-apprenticeship system like Germany’s, but I know we haven’t been that good.
  • More open automation. Some of the elves make high-tech stuff, right? Could you maybe pull a few of them off of video games and set them to work on a universal communication protocol, Ethernet or whatever, for equipment controllers and other components? That might help with the next item on the list.
  • More openness to automation. The food industry consistently lags behind other sectors in automation, for various reasons, the biggest one being cost. Santa, can you make a few more COOs understand that automation is probably the biggest single aspect of operations that will keep their companies competitive in the long term?
  • A killer new product. The four major value propositions for food are taste, cost, nutrition and convenience. So all we want from you is a new product that tastes great, costs less than every competing product, and is completely healthy and ready to eat. That shouldn’t be too hard, should it?
  • Patient shareholders. Food companies are cutting back on “ancillary” expenses like R&D and maintenance, leaving those functions to third parties or, all too often, neglecting them. The motivation for this is to improve the bottom line. Do you think the industry could have some major shareholders who understand the value of looking beyond the next quarter?
  • A greater commitment to diversity. I’ve been covering the food industry, up and down the supply chain, for nearly 30 years, and I can count on one hand the number of people of color I’ve encountered in high management positions at the top companies. It’s great that racist icons like Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are getting the heave-ho, but please, Santa, can we have a few more Black, Hispanic and female execs in the C-suite? (Erin, our Digital Content Strategist and creator of the Influential Women in Manufacturing program, agrees with me on this one too. Does that help the cause at all?) 
  • Judiciously distributed lumps of coal. You can start with some of the poultry executives who are now facing federal price-fixing charges for collusion. There’s an attitude in some corners of this industry that “competitors are our friends, customers our enemies”; anyone who thinks that way needs to go on the Naughty List. So do chronic “greenwashers” – food companies that constantly announce “goals” for recycling packaging, reducing sugar, etc., and never meet them. 

Finally, Santa, there’s the one present I want most of all, along with the rest of the world: A COVID vaccine. This one could fit in your sleigh, and you wouldn’t even have to gift-wrap it.

Thank you and Merry Christmas,

Pan

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