Swift response and putting community need first have been company’s focus through COVID-19
By Dani Douglass
When Y. Hata & Co. Limited was faced with the new reality of its main customer base being cut off because of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, it quickly pivoted both its physical space and operations. The 107-year-old company is the largest foodservice distributor in the state and its customers include restaurants, the Department of Education, the military, institutional cafeterias and food trucks.
Company Chairman and CEO Russell Hata, BBA ’78, EMBA ’02, a 2019 Hall of Honor inductee, has some straight-forward advice for fellow alumni that are responding to the crisis. “Stay focused, move fast, be innovative, be mindful of the needs of others and do anything you can to help,” he said. “Adversity brings out your true character and how you and your company behave in times of crisis like now can strengthen or hurt you in the new normal.”
Adjusting to a new normal
Hata also caters to everyday chefs and offers free membership at its cash-and-carry wholesale club called ChefZone. Located on Ualena Street off Lagoon Drive, the 45,000 square-foot warehouse is packed full with more than 7,000 restaurant-quality products. Soon, ChefZone will also carry specialty items.
Since many of its largest customers’ businesses were closed or had limited operations, leadership quickly responded and implemented safety features and innovative programs to keep business going. These pivots kept the company’s mission to offer “Solutions Delivered with Aloha” strong and have played a critical role in helping it keep the doors open during the crisis.
Russell Hata, BBA ’78, EMBA ’02, hands out food at the April 26 Show Aloha Challenge food drive
Right off the bat, safety measures were implemented at the facility to ensure employee and customer safety. Social distancing, in-store capacity limits, mask requirements, Plexiglass separators and elevated sanitation procedures became the norm. The mental and emotional health of employees remains a concern. Leadership conducts regular check-ins and has provided the tools employees need to work from home.
Recognizing that not everyone is comfortable going into a physical space, Y. Hata launched two innovative programs to get products safely to the consumer. The ChefZone Curbside program allows customers to drive through the parking lot to pick up frozen and refrigerated foods, prepared foods and pantry staples. Superette to GO! brings products to neighborhoods island-wide reducing the need to travel. Both programs are now online, which allows customers to order and pay prior to pick up. Developments are underway to expand further on this new online platform by offering weekly prepared meals called “Da Chefs Box” in partnership with one of their best chef customers.
The new programs have seen tremendous community support and membership at ChefZone has skyrocketed. The company’s social media, which has increased 800% since the “stay-at-home” order went into effect, has played a key role in helping to spread the word about the programs and weekly options.
On the charitable front, the company recently organized a “You Shop, We Donate” fundraiser over the Memorial Day weekend for The Salvation Army. On June 2, the company will once again participate in the Show Aloha Challenge food drive at the Aloha Stadium.
Moving forward, Y. Hata has plans to partner with more local producers and vendors with pop-ups at ChefZone. “It’s a great way to test new products for win-win partnerships,” Unyong Nakata, MBA ’05, senior director of sales and merchandising, said. “If the pop-up does well and the supply chain is confirmed, this will be a great path for new and local products to be sold at ChefZone for the community’s benefit.”
Hata also plans to keep safety and sanitation as top priorities and develop new programs and supplies that will help its customers recover and re-open in the new normal. “We’re working on delivery options, labor-saving ingredients, menu re-design and ServSafe training for our customers to be in compliance with elevated safety standards,” Nakata said. “We are also already planning ways to help our customers with their digital needs for take-out and delivery programs.”
Keeping a sharp focus
Hata also recognizes that this is a difficult time for students and recent graduates and says that focusing on what you can do and where there are advantages is key.
“If you’re still seeking employment, volunteer while searching,” he said. “The relationships you will build through those volunteer efforts will undoubtedly lead to opportunities. Say yes to job prospects outside of your wheelhouse if it’s for a company you admire. Companies are looking for jack-of-all-trades right now as finances are lean so if you are willing to do anything and be innovative, they will be more likely to take a chance on you.”
Hata’s resiliency and rapid response to a time like no other anyone has ever experienced is proving to be the key to its success. As it moves forward into the unknown and what the new normal will become, it remains steadfast to its core values and will continue serving up quality products to both its large-scale clients and to the community.