How Data-Driven Investments Paid Off in Pandemic

When restaurants shut down, they set off a chain reaction all the way up the supply chain. Here's how one regional gourmet food distributor was able to pivot quickly.

Jessica Davis, Senior Editor

July 15, 2020

4 Min Read
Dmitry via Adobe Stock

Can being data-driven help organizations manage through a crisis as big as the economic fallout from the coronavirus? Plenty of organizations are facing that test right now as they look to their previous investments, such as data management, data analytics, and cloud computing to help them through an unprecedented time.

Among the top industries to feel the economic hit from a global pandemic that shuttered so many businesses are restaurants and other hospitality businesses. Many of these were forced to shut down by government order in March 2020 to stem the spread of the virus.

But restaurants were just the consumer-facing end of an entire supply chain. Consider all the farming, manufacturing, and distribution businesses that had to make radical changes to how they operated in order to meet huge shifts in demand. For some, demand slowed to a trickle, while others saw a huge spike in demand for particular goods via new channels.

How does a business survive in these times? One option may be to add a new business model, such as bringing a consumer-facing element into a B2B company. That's one of the strategies employed by regional Mid-Atlantic food distribution company Soft Stuff Distributors, building on previous investments it had made in becoming a data-driven, cloud-centric company.

Read all our coverage on how IT leaders are responding to the conditions caused by the pandemic.

Those investments included a migration that began three years ago from the company's previous ERP solution, NetSuite, to the Belgian open source cloud-based Odoo. Plus, in the last year the company added business intelligence and analytics software provider Sisense to its toolbox to provide greater insights.

Darren Klinefelter recommended the changes. He is the director of technology and business operations at the small company, which counted 47 employees total before the pandemic hit. He pitched the concept of being a data-driven company to CEO Lois Gamerman.

The migration from NetSuite to Odoo was driven by a few different factors, including the need to get beyond spreadsheet reports to a solution that could more easily be visual.

Klinefelter also noted that it was difficult to find an ERP solution designed with regional food distribution businesses in mind. He found NetSuite difficult to customize for his industry. Because of that, he was looking for technology that lent itself to easier customization to make it fit for Soft Stuff Distributors.

It wasn't a small decision. Shifting to a new platform would require the move of all the existing business processes. Yet the transition was worthwhile, he said, enabling the customization the company wanted, plus more visualization tools.

More recently Soft Stuff Distributors was looking for faster answers to business queries, Klinefelter said. For instance, the company has five outside sales representatives, but it was hard to quickly get good insight into how the team was performing. The team had other questions, too, like how much business did they do with a particular customer or whether the product lineup needed to be shifted in any way.

Soft Stuff Distributors looked at a few different options for business intelligence and analytics technology, including Microsoft's Power BI and Looker, which was acquired by Google in a deal announced in June 2019. But Soft Stuff Distributors eventually selected SiSense.

"I have learned over the years that the community and support aspect was a huge thing that a lot of people don't analyze as much when they look at software," Klinefelter said. The community also produces plug-ins for the software, which was a big plus for Soft Stuff Distributors.

Building this data-driven infrastructure paid off when the pandemic hit and many of Soft Stuff Distributors' restaurant and hospitality customers were facing shutdown orders. The company's customers also include hotels, hospitals, colleges, and military bases.

The leadership team talked about potential options to bring in additional revenue. At a time when consumers were also struggling to get certain groceries due to supply chain disruptions, Soft Stuff Distributors decided to create a direct-to-consumer ecommerce site.

Because of the previous infrastructure work, the company was able to spin up an additional instance of Odoo, which formed the basis of the new consumer site,, and start taking orders within three weeks. While Klinefelter was working on the technology part, the company's CEO and her husband and COO Bob Gamerman were working to build new connections and source a number of new products to add to the site that would also, ultimately, benefit the B2B operation as well.

The site is brand new, so it's not doing the same level of business as the company's B2B operations. "But it has bolstered our bottom line," Klinefelter said.

About the Author(s)

Jessica Davis

Senior Editor

Jessica Davis is a Senior Editor at InformationWeek. She covers enterprise IT leadership, careers, artificial intelligence, data and analytics, and enterprise software. She has spent a career covering the intersection of business and technology. Follow her on twitter: @jessicadavis.

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