The company, which has been the winner of various Food Manufacture Excellence Awards, was set up in 2004 and is based in Co Down. It is headed by the Hamilton family team of husband and wife Martin and Tracy and their sons, Lance and Jack.
Preparation has been key to safeguarding the business and its staff.
“I am a big fan of the business mantra that only the paranoid survive, so we have been preparing for this for quite a long time,” says Jack Hamilton, chief operations manager at Mash Direct.
“There were a few of us in the food industry that were the stark raving loony people in the corner, who were screaming that we needed to get ready for this.”
The business, which supplies retail, out-of-home, direct to consumers and ingredients to food manufacturers and even the NHS, has witnessed the impact of coronavirus head-on.
Restaurant business lost
“We supply a lot of restaurants, so we lost that side of the business straight away, which includes some of our top customers,” he says.
“But because retail has had such a boom, our retail sales have slightly more than made up for the loss.”
He says sales remain positive, as consumers are becoming increasingly health-conscious and are keen to keep their immune systems strong.
As well as having its own farm, Mash Direct has its own manufacturing arm, which produces its ready-made vegetable dishes.
PPE: swift action
Mash Direct took swift action on health and safety, sending the finance and marketing departments to work from home, while ordering in personal protective equipment (PPE) gear for its manufacturing staff.
Employees at the manufacturing plant have access to visors and masks and social distancing of two metres must be adhered to.
“We were worried about this for some time as it was building up. We were watching what coronavirus was doing in China and Italy to make sure the team here were safe,” he says.
“We do have strong and hard rules of everyone being two metres apart and we have Perspex screens when needed,” he says.
Operationally, the company has slowed down the production lines to protect staff and has hired 20 new temporary staff to help. As well as helping its manufacturing plant, this is providing work for those in the local community who have lost their jobs in the current crisis.
Any new product development launches have been delayed to ensure that the lines can be as efficient as possible.
Another change in working patterns has meant the implementation of additional canteen facilities for different departments. This means that if there is an occasion where someone tests positive for coronavirus, then this can be contained and the area cleaned.
“The one thing about the industry is that food manufacturing has all the equipment to do full clean-downs,” he says.
“We immediately hired four more cleaners, so we have people who do nothing but clean door handles and people who are just cleaning specific areas.”
The company also has full CCTV at the plant. This means that if anyone tests positive, it can implement its own track-and-trace system.
Meanwhile, the UK is facing a challenge. The loss of seasonal workers from overseas means there could be a shortage of workers as UK farms move into harvesting season.
Hamilton says he is hearing “mutterings” of concerns from farmers, but notes that industry working together is key to fighting these challenges.
Mash Direct is somewhat removed from this risk as it is not reliant on foreign labour.
“We don’t have seasonal labour as we employ people all year round. That puts us in a stronger position. We have a really good workforce who know the farm really well and we have a lot of staff who are local,” he adds.
While he admits that the situation is changing constantly due to the pandemic, Mash Direct is looking at a bumper harvest this year with “incredible” carrots, parsnips, turnips and green cabbage.
“The crops are looking pretty amazing, which is fantastic. The produce is brilliant and the team are working incredibly hard to bring it all in at the moment,” he says.
And what of the future?
“We don’t know what is coming tomorrow,” Hamilton admits. “It is really about looking at duty over profits at this stage.”
Mash Direct is also helping NHS workers by producing “deeply discounted” vegetable boxes, which are loss-making, but allow nurses and doctors to pick these up on their way home.
And the whole coronavirus situation could see a future change in the way that the UK sources its food, he predicts. With strong food security in the UK and the ability to grow its own produce, it could mean the chance to change the reliance on imports.
“For the UK, it is a real opportunity to correct a lot of the wrongs that have happened over the last few decades. We can get back to doing what we do really well,” he says.