KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US — Family flour manufacturing plants are running around the clock to keep supply chains moving rapidly in response to unprecedented demand that has cleaned out grocery shelves of all brands, types and sizes of the product.
Millers this week said they had received several truckloads more in orders than a typical March ordering cycle. Some said never before had they seen current demand levels for the product generated by stockpiling, panic buying and, in some cases, hoarding in response to the global disruption of normal life known as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
“Not even during the fall bake season” has it been so severe, a Midwest miller said. “People are just buying in panic or fear now. I’ve never seen the shelves empty, even in the fourth quarter, because then the grocers know what’s coming up and can prepare. But if the grocer can’t get anything from the supplier, obviously they can’t put anything out on the shelf from night to night.”
That’s exactly what happened in some areas this week as demand exploded after a slower rise the previous week.
“Last week I started getting some increased orders from some of our customers and then as days went by, sales just started to just dramatically increase at the store level,” the miller said.
Data shared from some of his customers indicated a 180% increase in sales from the week of March 2 to the week of March 9, “but I know they’re all up sharply,” he said.
What caused the run on pantry staples, including family flour? A big reason was the shuttering of eateries as a growing number of municipalities began requesting citizens stay home to better practice “social distancing” in an effort to “flatten the curve.”
“What really triggered it even more was ‘don’t congregate’ and restaurants and bars closing,” the Midwest miller said. “On the food side, once they started doing that and people couldn’t go out to eat unless they go to a fast-food place. People are just going to stay home and cook at home.
“Evidently there must be more home bakers out there than I thought. They probably don’t know how, but they’re buying the ingredients.”
Customers in the second week of March, as (COVID-19) case numbers were building in the United States, showed a preference for larger 10- and 25-pound bags of flour in areas where those were sold. As stocks became depleted, buyers snapped up whatever sizes were available.
“The interesting thing was that Walmart had just a handful of bags last night, and this morning before work, there was nothing restocked, so that’s telling me things are backlogged and they weren’t able to restock overnight,” one miller said.
But flour manufacturers appeared to be doing all they can to keep their link in the supply chain connected. Some felt fortunate to have fully replenished warehouse stocks from the fall baking season in preparation for an Easter baking bump when pandemic-inspired pantry filling and panic buying began.
“We’re prepping like it’s a holiday season, so we have more inventory on the floor, we’ve kind of beefed up our packaging as we saw the trend start to go this way,” said a southern Plains miller. “We’ve just made sure we can be a strong resource for these distributors and groceries, so we are well-prepared on our end and we really want to be here for our customers and ultimately for the communities we’re in.”
Other millers were similarly optimistic, pointing to dedicated workforces game to work overtime and companies committed to paying it during a normally quiet time of year.
But all millers and flour manufacturers who spoke to Milling & Baking News this week were cognizant of the potential challenges they could face as time during COVID-19 marches on.
“We’re keeping up fairly well at this point but if these orders keep coming in at this pace or even heavier, that could be a real challenge,” the Midwest miller said. “I don’t want to have to get into an allocating or rationing situation so everybody gets something, but I guess if this was a long-term issue, problem, I guess it might be something a supplier might have to do.”
Another mill was thinking through plans to keep staff working in case movement in public is restricted.
“We’re watching the situation with regard to curfews and believing that ultimately food manufacturers will have the ability to congregate and produce the food that they need to feed the American people,” a mid-South miller said. “So, we don’t think that will ultimately impact us. There may be some hiccups getting people in and out of the plant. We haven’t yet seen that here, but if it comes to that.”
That miller’s proactivity had him communicating with government agencies to ensure smooth paths from mills to warehouses to grocery stores, supermarkets and mass merchandisers.
“We’re working with the Department of Transportation and various police forces to make sure that food trucks get priority and are allowed to travel and get unloaded and that all of our customers remain open,” he said. “So that’s really the main worries that we have.”
Heightened buying of family flour in advance of mandated and self-quarantines and a cooperative public staying home in a community effort to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 was seen last week by the industry as potentially taking the place of the Easter home baking bump. That appeared to be confirmed this week.
“This will not last forever,” the mid-South miller said. “Eventually people are going to decide they have enough bags of flour on their shelf and they’re going to say ‘what am I doing with all this,’ and they’re going to stop buying it.
“And then they’ll curtail buying for three months and we’ll all be in the doldrums. I do hope a lot of people stay home and bake with their flour so that it doesn’t then depress demand for six months while they use up all the bags that they’ve hoarded.”