Over the last 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted supply chains from end to end around the globe.

In many cases, food and beverage processors suddenly learned the hard way where weaknesses in their supply chains were. Justin Marx, CEO of Marx Foods, a supplier to restaurants and home cooks, says that the biggest challenge has been there is no common response for companies throughout the supply chain.

“It’s the unpredictability and all of the different companies’ reactions throughout the supply chain to that volatility,” says Marx. “Everybody had a different reaction to COVID.”

When the pandemic first hit, retail demand went through the roof while foodservice demand plummeted. For the most part, food manufacturers were able to keep up with demand after some early shocks to the system, but balancing those peaks and valleys was a tricky task for specialty suppliers.

Marx Foods provides a number of specialty proteins from around the world, such as pork from Spain, beef, lamb and venison from New Zealand and veal from Canada. With a worldwide supply chain, disruptions can quickly cascade into major challenges.

“For us, the proteins that got affected the most are the ones that are heavy food service items,” says Marx. “There was much more consistency in terms of demand for beef, pork and chicken than there was for venison, foie gras and wild boar, because those are things you eat in restaurants.”

Marx expects to see that same phenomenon playing out for a while, not only in demand, but in supply. As he puts it, most people who eat venison at home are hunters, so markets for it and similar specialty meats are heavily driven by food service demand. Because demand dropped so precipitously, many suppliers cut back on the amount of breeding they did last year; that means that if demand gets heavy again in the short term, the supply may not be able to keep up.

Another aspect of the ongoing pandemic that is creating challenges is its effect on the labor supply. While companies in almost every industry are looking for qualified employees, food manufacturing and food service have struggled to find employees at every level, from the production line all the way up to management and heavily technical positions.

“We’ve had to move much faster than normal,” says Marx. “We used to like to put up an ad, let it run a week, then look at resumes all in one batch. We’ve started looking at resumes as they come in because we know we’ve got to act.”

Looking forward, Marx expects to face ongoing challenges for a while. His company is focusing on improving communication with both vendors and customers to ensure supply chain disruptions are minimized, as well as relying more on data forecasting to help meet its needs. But even that comes with a caveat, because the situation still isn’t normal.

“It’s hard to rely on data from 2020—and so far in 2021—when we’re trying to anticipate the future.”