In its 155th year, the Penn State Berkey Creamery has grown from its original operation in a barn where Old Main currently stands to being a “meeting place” at the university, according to assistant manager Jim Brown.
Upon the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, however, the need for social distancing has changed the way the Creamery goes about accomplishing its goals of continuing tradition and serving its customers.
“Anybody that comes to Penn State comes to the Creamery, right?” Brown said. “So lines at the Creamery are usual, and lines that are down wrapping around the block are usual, and that has also been a challenge to us — from a success to a challenge — that we’ve had to limit that as much as possible and keep everybody properly social-distanced.”
To accommodate proper coronavirus mitigation protocol, Brown said the Creamery has stopped serving milkshakes and dipping ice cream cones and bowls, keeping sales to pre-packaged items.
It has also limited its hours of operation, enforced social distancing through markers on the floor, and placed employees at each entrance and exit to moderate the flow of customers and open the doors.
Additionally, indoor and outdoor seating has been roped off until further notice, and Plexiglas is in place at all employee-customer interaction points.
Brown added that the Creamery started curbside pick-up when state regulations allowed non-essential businesses to reopen in spring. Ever since it resumed in-store operation, however, this service has decreased, only being offered for “an hour or two” daily.
Creamery manager Tom Davis said it became clear that customers prefer going into the store or ordering online instead of utilizing the pick-up hours, which is why they made the change.
“We kind of know they want to come onsite and experience the joy of coming to the Creamery and getting an ice cream cone bigger than your head,” Davis said.
According to Davis, 70% of the Creamery’s sales typically come from within the store and just over 20% come from supplying outlets on and near campus — including the dining halls, convenience stores and off-campus hotels.
The remaining sales usually come from e-commerce.
During the pandemic, however, Davis said these numbers have shifted. He said in-store retail is down at least 50% and outlet sales are down about 40%.
Brown estimated there are 75% less students on campus this semester, which he said is a major reason for the decrease of in-store sales.
“It seems like a ghost town, doesn’t it?” Brown said. “I know that last year and the years before, it’s almost impossible to walk anywhere on campus and not run into somebody or pass by somebody within inches because the sidewalks are full… So that’s how we kind of attest our business. There’s just very limited people here on campus or getting out on campus.”
Student supervisor at the Creamery’s Commissary Apolonia Prout, who has worked in the “cheese room” for just over a year, said her job was “more hectic” and required a greater emphasis on time management prior to the pandemic.
“Working in a college town during a pandemic is very quiet,” Prout (senior-food science) said. “Since there are no fans at sporting events and the university has discouraged alumni from traveling to State College, there are fewer patrons that come in off the sidewalk.”
Davis said the Creamery had more in-store sales during the summer than when students returned to campus for the fall semester.
Additionally, Davis said sales from e-commerce have doubled during the pandemic.
According to Brown, part of the reason for the e-commerce increase is that organizations such as the athletics department, the Nittany Lion Club, the Alumni Association and the Bryce Jordan Center usually order Creamery products for events.
Since in-person food testings, ice cream socials and other events are no longer permitted, Brown said some of these organizations have been shipping Creamery products to members for alternative events like virtual gatherings.
Because of this, Davis said the Creamery is running at about 50% of its typical sales. He said adjusting to the differences in where the Creamery’s sales are coming from has required additional brainstorming.
“If I had to double a portion of my business, I would prefer it not to be my smallest portion,” Davis said. “And if I had to cut a portion in half, I would prefer it to be my smallest, not my largest, but that’s just the reality of the situation.”
Davis added that the Creamery anticipates an adjustment in production when students leave for Thanksgiving break based on its experience with the shift to remote learning last spring.
When the university first announced students would not be returning to campus for the remainder of the spring semester, Davis said the Creamery staff had to shift its production.
He said they had “a bunch” of milk at the time to stock the dining halls and supply other campus needs in preparation for student return. When it was announced students would not be returning, however, the Creamery had to convert the milk into products with longer shelf lives — such as ice cream and cheddar cheese — so that it would not go to waste.
Prout said she was unable to work at the Creamery after the university announced the shift to remote learning.
Since she lives about two and a half hours away from campus, she said she decided to stay at home and resume working at the Creamery in the fall.
Although the Creamery always shuts down during winter break, Davis said the extended campus closure period — running from Thanksgiving break to a week after the end of the traditional winter break — will require the staff to rethink the store’s closing and reopening plan.
As of now, the Creamery will be closed for about a month with a tentative reopening date of Jan. 4.
Additionally, Davis said the Creamery’s e-commerce sales typically increase over winter break, but he is expecting a 50% increase in gift box orders, which he said impacts its production closing and reopening plan.
Davis said the Creamery is also considering a halt in the production of certain items in the near future. Although it is now producing the minimum batches its machines can handle, the demand for some products is lower than the minimum batch amount.
Because of this, any product that is not sold is either thrown away or donated to the food bank. Davis said it is good that the Creamery can give to the food bank, but since this is not its main purpose, it will have to stop producing certain items for a while to maintain an effective business strategy.
According to Brown, the Creamery always runs on a “low margin,” but it has continued to keep an eye on its budget and “tighten the screws” of its operation during the pandemic to reduce expenses in as many areas as possible, and keep the products a fair price for customers.
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Although several aspects of the Creamery’s operation have experienced significant changes due to the pandemic, Davis said the production employees have continued their work relatively unchanged — especially because the staff has not experienced any coronavirus cases.
With the exception of using disinfectants as opposed to sanitation chemicals to clean public spaces, Davis said there are no additional cleaning procedures that needed to be put in place.
He said the Creamery is a manufacturing facility as well as a store, so it already had plenty of safety and cleaning practices.
Prout said the Commissary now has an increased “accountability” when it comes to sanitation, and that there is a specific list of the type of cleaning that needs to be done each day, week and month.
“Our sanitation schedule has become more detailed so that not only are our employees safe, but our product is safe for consumers, as well,” Prout said.
Toward the start of the pandemic, Davis said there used to be an alarm that would go off every hour to remind employees to wash their hands if they had not done so in a while, but this is no longer a necessity since everyone has made it a habit.
Davis also said only having 15 production employees keeps the staff naturally socially-distanced. In smaller spaces like the locker room and break room, capacity limits are in place to encourage employees to stagger who uses them at one time.
According to Davis, the main difficulty the production employees face is not congregating with one another on days with a lighter workload.
“When you’re not fully occupied, and we’re not as busy as we normally would be, you tend to congregate,” Davis said. “You just have to have that constant reminder to separate, move apart, and we’re constantly holding each other accountable to do that.”
On the other hand, Prout is limited to scheduling two employees to work at the Commissary at one time, which she said is a “demanding task.”
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She said she is now permitted to schedule two employees at the Wet Pilot Plant in the Food Science Building to “supplement” the Commissary’s work, meaning that a maximum of four individuals can be on shift at the same time.
Prout said the capacity restrictions, sanitation schedule and limited product demands have been “challenges,” but she still feels the Commissary employees are now accustomed to the changes induced by the pandemic.
“I think by the time the fall semester came around, we were all used to wearing masks, and honestly, it adds another layer of protection for the food we produce,” Prout said.
Mirroring this sentiment, Davis said all of the Creamery’s employees have accepted the new protocols.
“There’s no resistance,” Davis said. “Once you let them know the rules and that you will enforce those rules, there is no resistance.”
Moving forward, Davis said the Creamery is looking to receive Penn State’s approval to start dipping ice cream and remain open on weekends.
Brown said the Creamery looks forward to getting back to its typical operation and being reunited with its “generations” of Penn State customers.
“We miss the camaraderie of the fans coming here. We miss the camaraderie of our family customers that come here, and that’s been a huge challenge for us to see that,” Brown said. “We want to get back to normal as much as possible so we can continue on with that tradition.”
Davis said he understands the reasoning for the university’s “conservative” approach to reopening, because it is likely that these changes would bring lines to the Creamery again — a positive business change that could come with negative safety consequences.
“The minute we have lines, somebody snaps a social media post and says ‘there’s big lines at the Creamery again,’ which I’d love to hear, but they fail to say those lines are socially distanced,” Davis said. “They fail to say they are only letting 10 people into the store at a time. We have a lot of provisions in place, but that’s not what gets posted.”
He added that he does not want the Creamery to become “politicized,” which is why it wants to be cautious in getting back to normal, pre-pandemic operation.
“The Creamery, in reality, is a meeting place,” Davis said. “It isn’t fully that right now, but that’s what it was, and that’s what we expect it to be again.”