Getting groceries to site: Sysco Edmonton knows what it takes

Temperature, time and distance are regular hurdles, but some clients require groceries to arrive by sea up to a year in advance.

by Timothy Fowler
Sysco delivers groceries.

A Sysco delivery is on its way. — Photo courtesy Sysco Corp.

Transporting supplies—like perishable food—to remote work sites can be challenging. But what if those products need to be shipped to a remote airstrip by sea or by 18-wheeled transport over a seasonal ice road? Add in temperature variations of 70 degrees Celsius between June and January and unpredictable weather. Some products cannot freeze and others cannot thaw, and more yet suffer with much temperature variation. Remote site menus are set months in advance of groceries arriving. And some sites served by ship on a sea that is covered with ice part of the year must order groceries up to a year in advance. The logistics can be daunting.

Darren Munnich and his Edmonton, Alberta-based team know how to get groceries to remote work sites, such as those in Northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He is president of Sysco Edmonton.

“Having access to quality food is important to someone working in a remote setting,” said Munnich. “We routinely contribute to our customers’ success by providing their talented chefs with fresh, high-quality food to nourish remote workers.”

Munnich answered our questions below.

What special circumstances need to be overcome when shipping food and supplies to remote locations?

There are several challenges in handling remote deliveries, the biggest of which is the sheer distance involved. In addition, there are various modes of transport needed to access these remote areas. Truck transport is preferred and most common; however, air and sea shipments are also very common.

Another important item to consider is the maintenance of proper temperatures, which supports food safety requirements, to ensure safe, quality products upon delivery. With temperatures in the summer as warm as 38 C or winter temperatures as low as -45 C, we have special processes for preparing outgoing pallets for shipping.

How are these circumstances managed?

It is important that we select the transport method that best supports the customer and the needs of their business. We often provide special handling, such as maintaining height or weight maximums to allow for air transport. For other customers, we need to specially wrap the products to keep them from freezing in the conditions that Northern Canada gives us each year.

In the winter months, Sysco uses insulated blankets to protect the produce. Items like bananas do not like temperatures below 13 C or higher than 20 C, and it is often challenging to keep the trailer temperatures within this zone. We will use thick plastic bags to cover the banana cases to help hold this product within the necessary temperatures.

Which locations generally require the most advanced supply chain planning?

The ice road orders take a great deal of co-ordination. Because the ice road is open only for a short window of time, our team has to carefully co-ordinate the timing of product arrival with the transportation resources and get the product moved through our facility in a tight time period. If inbound stock is delayed by a week, it is possible to miss the window and be forced to ship by alternative means, which are more expensive.

Under normal winter conditions, the ice road opens in February and closes mid-March. For remote camps, the freight savings we see by using the ice roads is 25 per cent of what it would cost to fly product in weekly. Dry grocery and paper products are the items that are typically shipped. Remote sites would still purchase weekly produce, dairy, perishables and proteins.

These northern areas can also reach very hot temperatures in the short summer, so most camps do not want to risk buying frozen items, which are stored in sea cans with refrigeration units.

What might surprise readers about Sysco’s services to remote sites?

Camp clients still demand very high-quality items. People often think pre-cooked and frozen options are the norm, when in fact, steak, seafood and fresh vegetables are most often what we send north. On a lighter note, the sheer volume of products like toilet paper is amazing.

What advice do you have for customers at remote sites to improve the delivery process?

The single biggest challenge we see is not considering deliveries when constructing the dining facility.There are many steps a provider can take to make their kitchen more efficient and make them more profitable.

Some questions to consider are:

  • Do you have a place to stage your receiving that is out of the cold?
  • Can you wheel whole pallets into your coolers and freezers?
  • Is the delivery area large enough to handle a large trailer?
  • Are there dumpsters, bear fencing or other features that restrict safe deliveries?
  • Is your loading dock 122 centimetres (48 inches) high, the proper height to receive trailer deliveries?
  • Is there adequate snow removal to allow clear paths for the trucks to back in?

The field-to-table movement takes on a whole new reality when working the logistics to get fresh food to the culinary teams at remote sites to feed hungry, hardworking tradespeople, contractors and professionals.

And I can tell you from experience, it is a relief when those pallets of food arrive safe and sound and ready for the pot.

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