Imagine your company is responsible for supplying high-quality products to some of the world’s most iconic consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies, quick serve restaurants (QSR), and food service brands. Then the pandemic hits. Everything goes topsy-turvy. What do you do?

If you’re Baldwin Richardson Foods, you lean in and take care of your people, customers and community.

“As a family business, we wear our values on our sleeves,” said Cara Hughes (G2), Vice President, Customer and Community, Baldwin Richardson Foods. “We don’t just talk about integrity, authenticity, and honesty—we live it.”

Baldwin Richardson is a leading manufacturer of custom food and beverage ingredients, and one of the largest African-American family-owned and -operated businesses in the food industry. The company is headquartered in Oak Brook, Ill. with two manufacturing plants in upstate New York. 

Welcome to the War Room

When the pandemic started, the company’s leadership team created a war room to understand the impact COVID would have on its people, customers, and the supply chain. At the helm was Erin Tolefree (G2), Baldwin Richardson’s new President and successor to her father, Eric Johnson, who moved to CEO in December 2020. 

“Erin may have stepped into the role in the midst of the pandemic, but it was a journey and transition three years in the making,” said Erin’s sister, Cara. “She’s a ‘what if’ visionary, leading in a way that helps and empowers those around her.”

It was this ‘what if’ mentality that helped the team continue to move forward throughout the pandemic despite not having all the answers. They relied on those strong family values, leading with honesty and transparency.

“We knew our employees were trying to navigate the pandemic, often while trying to keep family members safe, help spouses out of work and manage kids’ schooling at home,” said Denee Stirpe, Baldwin Richardson’s Vice President of Human Resources. “It was a new situation for all of us, so it was important that we set up proper policies and procedures to take care of our team and keep them safe.”

In doing so, Baldwin Richardson was an early adopter of “hero pay,” bonus pay given to essential workers to acknowledge their efforts. They also provided paid time off, set up on-site testing and vaccine clinics, and educated managers about how to remotely lead their teams.

Erin and Cara

Left: Cara Hughes (G2), Vice President, Customer and Community. Right: Erin Tolefree (G2), Baldwin Richardson’s President.

Safety First

The company informally appointed its Director of Quality & Food Safety, Jason Mankowski, to be the “COVID Czar.”

Jason worked tirelessly to stay on top of the ever-changing guidelines and regulations in Illinois, New York, and federally. He also led a daily task force to heed the knowledge and guidance of the CDC and OSHA. While many of the CDC- mandated food safety protocols were already in place, getting enough sanitizing stations, sanitizer, and masks posed a challenge.

“We had to think out of the box for masks in the beginning,” said Denee. “Thankfully, we were able to find two retired sisters who made masks for us from sunup until sundown. They’d drop off masks to my driveway, and I’d drop them off at the plant the following day.”

All Boats Rise

Employees showed the same level of dedication, resulting in markedly increased efficiencies and quality control levels.

Demand for Baldwin Richardson products fluctuated in the beginning of the pandemic when restaurants and their QSR partners were closed. At the same time, individuals and families were cooking, eating, and snacking from home more, causing CPG products and retail brands—especially comfort foods—to skyrocket. Through daily forecasts from the supply chain team, the company avoided supply shortages. They leaned into local manufacturers and customers—referred to as strategic partners—for information, insights, and best practices. 

“Strong relationships with our partners have always been important to us,” said Cara. “These relationships are all about our true connections and how we show up to help one another.”

The Pain of Social Injustice

The year delivered another painful challenge: the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and others; nationwide unrest over systemic racism; the insurrection at the Capitol Building; and an increase in racially motivated hate crimes. Through it all, Baldwin Richardson’s leaders worked to shine a light on injustice and inequity—and to be a part of the solution.

“As an African-American family and company, and both personally and professionally, we knew we needed to acknowledge and discuss what was going on in a public way,” said Cara.

The organization did so through open meetings and an empathetic lens. Human Resources worked closely with managers and employees, encouraging one-on-one conversations and creating opportunities of inclusion and belonging.

“We wanted to let our people know that not only is it OK to talk about social injustice, but we need to talk about it,” said Denee. “When you give people this freedom to share, more authentic and ongoing conversations happen, and deeper understanding and meaningful actions can take place.”

The company has always been a committed supporter of organizations that work to end hunger, provide educational opportunities, and address systemic inequities in the community.

“At the end of the day, what matters is how well we take care of our employees, our customers and our community,” Cara said. “All the revenue in the world doesn’t matter if we don’t put those three things first.”

The Great Human Reconnection

As the world slowly emerges from COVID, the company has an evolved perspective on how business can be done. From forecasting and supply touch points to talent acquisitions, to a hybrid work model and a continued focus on the community, Baldwin Richardson is emerging stronger than ever.

“We’re calling it the ‘great human reconnection,’” said Cara. “Looking back on these past 18+ months, it is hard to believe we’ve accomplished all that we have. It truly feels like our internal team relationships are stronger and we know more than ever about our strategic partners. We wouldn’t be here without the knowledge and support from both sides, which enables us, in turn, to support the community.”