There were moments, early in the pandemic, when Joseph Musillami wasn't sure how the family business would make it.
Purely Meat Co., a commercial butcher in Chicago's West Humboldt Park neighborhood that supplies mostly high-end restaurants, saw sales plummet 75% when Illinois banned indoor dining in March. It halted plans to expand into a 35,000-square-foot facility purchased late last year and more than double its current footprint, and let go of many of its 60 employees.
"It started out beyond scary when you think you're going to lose your house," said Musillami, whose wife, Maribel Moreno-Musillami, founded the company nine years ago.
Surviving 2020 felt like a "street fight," Musillami said. But for all the struggles, he thinks the meat company will come out on top.
His wife created a website to sell Purely Meat's products directly to consumers, and soon it became a major part of the business. The company's drivers deliver cases of vacuum-sealed, freezer-ready prime cuts to people's suburban doorsteps rather than the city's swank downtown restaurants. Going into 2021 it plans to help restaurants sell branded products to consumers as well.
"These are two new facets of our business that we would never have dreamed of doing," Musillami said.
In various pockets of the food industry, a bruising year is giving way to optimism that the lessons learned will make for a stronger 2021.
Farmers and other food producers that pivoted their business models to find new revenue streams are making some of those changes permanent. Grocery stores are adapting to consumers' embrace of online food shopping. And restaurants that survive the wreckage of their industry are expected to come roaring back, sharper and leaner than ever, into the waiting arms of a public desperate to go out.
Purely Meat plans to maintain its new consumer business even as it prepares for a midsummer restaurant rebound, Musillami said. The company also introduced seasoned meats, improved worker training and figured out how to run the business more efficiently. It has recaptured 70% of its usual sales and has 40 employees working.
"I think we are going to be better," Musillami said.
Small farms see new opportunities too.
While the local-foods movement has been growing for a decade, the pandemic gave it a shot in the arm as people sought to support community and became more aware of quality as they cooked at home. Empty grocery-store shelves also revealed the potential for supply-chain disruptions and prompted shoppers to explore buying directly from local farms, which were reeling from the disruption of restaurant and other food-service clients and needed new revenue streams.
Some farms, especially those near cities, dove into e-commerce to sell directly to consumers, and customers were patient as they worked out the kinks, said Raghela Scavuzzo, associate director of food systems development at the Illinois Farm Bureau.
Milk delivery made a comeback. Community Supported Agriculture programs, which deliver boxes of produce, found new customers. Farmers collaborated to deliver their products together to reduce costs and created bundled boxes to sell at farmers markets.
"They built this idea that they can promote each other and boost sales," Scavuzzo said. "I think you're going to see more of that going forward."
Meanwhile, the pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in the meat industry that revived interest in local meat processing.
A bottleneck formed when large slaughterhouses faced outbreaks of COVID-19 among their workers and temporarily closed or slowed down, leaving farmers with nowhere to send their market-ready livestock.