What It’s Like to Move a Food Manufacturing Facility in the Middle of a Pandemic

Torani employees at the new factory in San Leandro. (Torani)

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Torani Syrups factory lunchroom was where employees gathered around the table, shared meals and took breaks. Now, everything has changed. Chairs have been removed to promote social distancing; every employee is required to sanitize their eating area and workspace; bosses have changed the way they bring in food for their workers on special occasions. Now that the Bay Area company is in the process of moving its South San Francisco facility to San Leandro, it’s facing challenges it never expected. 

Torani first announced plans to move back in December. The company had outgrown its space, and the rent was going to increase. “We were faced with a need to move to continue to grow,” says CEO Melanie Dulbecco. “We’re currently paying rent in three locations right now, and it’s really hard. Rent in the Bay Area is not an easy thing.” 

Then March marked the start of the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders, and the company encountered a whole new set of hurdles. It’s one thing to move a factory under normal circumstances. There’s an update in technology, training employees on the new factory lines, compliance certifications, fire alarm testing and a massive migration of people.

But during the pandemic, Dulbecco had to figure out how to do all of that safely. She originally had plans to move in May and in the beginning of June. But that was no longer feasible. The company developed a task force to look at different solutions. It was able to extend its lease on one of its South San Francisco buildings for a month. “It was expensive, but we needed to do it,” says Dulbecco. “We couldn’t extend the other building because Amazon is already renting it. So we’re up against a wall.”

And Torani couldn’t wait until the pandemic and shelter-in-place cleared to start the move. “We wanted to move forward, and we needed to move forward,” says Dulbecco.

The exterior of the new Torani syrup factory facility
The exterior of the new San Leandro facility. (Torani)

The company is currently still producing in South San Francisco, with a quarter of production now happening in the new San Leandro space. The goal is to move one line of production at a time, which takes about six weeks to install. “It’s taken a lot of heroics on part of the team members,” says Dulbecco.

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One of those team members is Greg Phillips, who is the director of manufacturing at Torani. He’s been with the company for seven years and runs all of the manufacturing operations. “It’s been interesting,” says Phillips. “The whole world changed in March, and it’s been a real challenge, but it’s also been extremely rewarding.”

Possibly one of the biggest difficulties has been training employees on the new lines built at the San Leandro facility. Phillips says that how they’ve approached training in the coronavirus era has “fundamentally changed.” There are steps like limiting the number of people in a training room, sanitizing desks and reconfiguring communication in an already noisy factory.

In a typical training, Phillips would have five to seven people clustered around a 10-foot area looking at an iPad or training apparatus. “In manufacturing, you’re touching buttons, you’re clearing a jam that’s bottling,” says Phillips. It’s hands-on work that can’t really be replaced by a Zoom meeting or a how-to video. It’s tactile and requires in-person supervision. To work safely under those parameters, the company has staggered its working hours and training sessions. It has also reduced the number of people per training. Phillips also mentioned that the company is trying to limit the number of people who commute between the two factories while they’re in transition. 

Sketch of the Torani lobby
Sketch of the new Torani lobby. (Torani)

One advantage of being in food manufacturing is that workers on the factory line are already used to wearing personal protective equipment. “We probably wash our hands 20-30 times already pre-COVID,” says Phillips. “But now we just have to be really smart about it.” The harder thing for the company is how they’d use the space for things like breaks.

“We’re not a meatpacking plant,” says Dulbecco. “We don’t have people working shoulder-to-shoulder. But people really connect around the table together.”

Amid all the changes, one thing that Dulbecco wants to avoid are layoffs. A big part of Torani’s sales come from independent cafes, and with many of them currently closed, the company had to plan for how it could keep retention at 100% with a 20% or 50% downturn in business. So far, it’s been successful. “In our 95-year history, we’ve never had layoffs,” says Dulbecco. “We want to have our 100th anniversary saying the same thing.”