After business reopenings, High Road opts to become a ‘fortress’

Restaurant refugee Zachary Miller rolls a dolly of chocolate-covered cookie dough ice cream bites called Wallops in the freezer at High Road Ice Cream on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Marietta. The production worker is happy to be employeed after the Decatur restaurant where he worked temporarily closed for COVID-19. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Caption
Restaurant refugee Zachary Miller rolls a dolly of chocolate-covered cookie dough ice cream bites called Wallops in the freezer at High Road Ice Cream on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Marietta. The production worker is happy to be employeed after the Decatur restaurant where he worked temporarily closed for COVID-19. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is tracking what happens to one local business during the coronavirus pandemic. The AJC is focusing on High Road, a Marietta-based ice cream manufacturer. This is the third installment of an occasional series.

At the end of month one in the new normal, Keith Schroeder had found a rhythm.

The office staff was adept at working remotely. While everyone was losing track of whether it was Monday or Sunday, teleconferences with babies on laps were the newest normal. Decisions were being made. The delicate balance between supply and demand was calibrated and adjusted daily.

The manufacturing line at the Cobb County plant was operating smoothly, putting out an array of products inspired by a chef’s idea of what ice cream should be. The pandemic had shifted the business’s foundation: Restaurant demand had collapsed, but orders from grocery stores and the internet were robust enough for High Road to rework its shifts and add line workers.

Schroeder has been studious about monitoring the data on the progress and projections related to coronavirus. A news junkie, he has become High Road’s intelligence unit and shared his insights with the company’s 80 or so employees via Slack, the communications platform.

Privately, he was forming his own best guess about when the world would emerge from this round of its fight with the pandemic. Maybe October?

Then came news Monday that Gov. Brian Kemp was relaxing restrictions on many businesses, including restaurants, nail salons, barbers and bowling alleys.

“This caused a ripple of fear,” Schroeder said. Since March 12, when the company first shifted into crisis mode, no employee had contracted the virus. High Road’s worst-case scenario was built around the infection of a line worker. At a minimum, this would have prompted a two-week shutdown.

“Has the likeliness that someone brings the virus back to the plant just amplified exponentially?” Schroeder wondered the day after the governor’s announcement.

Decision changes basic assumptions

High Road’s anti-coronavirus strategy was predicated on the assumption that employees would leave the plant for a quarantined world, with limited chances of exposure to the virus. In Schroeder’s view, Kemp’s decision means he can no longer rely on that assumption.

After consulting with its executive staff Tuesday afternoon, the company refined its safety practices. “The idea is to create a fortress of sorts around our manufacturing plant floor to keep our team safe,” Schroeder explained in a text message. “It also helps us avoid any crowding of a given area.”

High Road now will go its own way in coping with the pandemic.

“I will not be aligning High Road’s business decisions with government recommendations,” he said. “We will be far more prudent and far more cautious because we’re on the front lines making food for the population.”

Leonard Wallace, 78, came out of retirement just over three years ago to be the sales manager at High Road.

In more than 50 years in the food service industry, he has never seen anything like this.

“I’m just blown away; 9/11 was one thing, the flu, I can’t imagine anything that comes near to this disaster,” he said.

Among Wallace’s duties is working with the 75 or so metro Atlanta restaurants that carry the ice cream.

He is a people person who hated the year or so he spent in retirement.

“When my dad retired, he died five years later,” he said. “I just like what I’m doing. I’ve gotta get up in the morning, get in the car and visit chefs. That makes me complete.”

High Road traces its origins to restaurants, where it flourished before also becoming a retail brand. Schroeder was a chef before getting an MBA and reinventing himself as an entrepreneur.

While he isn’t selling much, Wallace continues nurturing his rapport with his array of chefs and owners. In the early days, he told them that High Road would be there for them when they reopen. “Their first order is on us, and they will get 90 days credit,” he said. “We just want to give them a little kick start.”

High Road also provides free pints as a treat for restaurant customers who pick up their orders in person. “They tell me it’s worked wonders,” he said. “I’ve heard it’s been a godsend.”

While some of his clients welcomed the governor’s decision, Wallace said most were being cautious. “I just got off the phone with one restaurant,” he said. “They are going to look at it and see what they can do once they have guidelines.”

Despite his sunny disposition, Wallace worries about what this pandemic is doing to his clients and friends. “The longer this goes on, a lot of restaurants that are mom and pop may fall by the wayside,” he said, his voice turning somber. “It’s terrible.”

“It just doesn’t feel safe to me”

The governor aside, Zachary Miller will not be heading back to his job at No 246, the hip Ford Fry restaurant in Decatur where he was furloughed a few weeks ago.

“It just doesn’t feel safe to me,” said Smith, who tended bar. “I just don’t see how a restaurant would be able to operate in a way that would keep people from getting sick. As much as I would like to be back at 246, it’s too early.”

Miller is among the former restaurant workers Schroeder has hired in response to both his loyalty to his kitchen roots and High Road’s newfound demand.

He’s very social and loved working at No. 246. “I just loved the people – and the excitement of working there.”

An outdoorsy person who loves hiking and rock climbing, he is as sick as anyone of the four walls of his apartment. Yet, he’s satisfied with working in the relatively protected environment on the floor of High Roads. At 28, he’s also thinking it may be time to start thinking seriously about a career at a place like this.

He has adjusted to the 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekday shift on High Road’s continuous production line. Setting up production machines and then packaging the product before preparing it for shipment is repetitive work. “It is kind of boring, compared to what I’m used to,” he said. “But it’s important work, and you want it to be right.”

What would have to be in place before he is willing to return to work at a restaurant?

“Probably easier access to testing, quicker test results,” he said. “Less tables in the restaurant and proper social distancing procedures from the restaurant.”

He acknowledged these circumstances are unlikely to be in place anytime soon.

“On lockdown for the foreseeable future”

High Road’s retooled coronavirus plan will continue restricting access to the plant and requiring line workers to document hand washing and take other precautions.

It takes the additional step of cordoning the manufacturing area from executives and office workers, who will be further subdivided into sales/marketing/administrative and operations/logistics. Each of the three zones will have distinct access rules and policies. No more than eight people at a time are permitted in either of the office zones.

One change, also made last week, is a modest resumption of office hours. Since March 16, the office staff has been ordered to stay home. In discussing changes that needed to be made in response to Gov. Kemp’s announcement on opening business, other executives told Schroeder it was time to let some come back, so long as it could be done safely. The stay-at-home group now can come to the office two days a week. Employees with children can work at home indefinitely.

Schroeder believes the company has fully embraced the idea that work can be done at home.

“The prospect of having accounting and finance professionals work from home was never really discussed,” he said. “While I’m certain that none of them wants to work at home all of the time, the freedom to work from home when it suits their life or productivity goals – we’re wide open to it now.”

Nevertheless, the plant, he stressed, will remain protected. “We will be on lockdown for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Schroeder admits that he tends to align his views with progressives who urge much more caution. So, he turns to conservative news sources for a better understanding of the opposing point of view.

“I listen to the very real impact this is having on the economy and my friends in the restaurant business,” he said. “I take a deep breath and find some center.”

The coronavirus crucible already has remolded his business and leadership style, Schroeder said.

It dawned on him, for example, that the plant never should have been so open to visitors. “We used to be fairly lax about traveling salesmen knocking on the door and peddling their wares,” he said. “Going forward, we really won’t allow visitors to the factory environment unless it’s hyper-controlled, planned and scheduled.”

He likes the relative tranquility that has come to the plant. “Having a less crowded facility – staggered shifts, folks spread out on the floor — has made for a certain calm, quiet environment,” he said. “Distractions at the plant have become minimized.”

At 46, he is becoming a more disciplined leader. “With emergency comes a need to employ a more cautious and mindful leadership style,” he said. “Admittedly, I and a lot of entrepreneurs were probably a little bit laissez-faire. I don’t think I’ll ever go back.”

Bert Roughton Jr. is a special correspondent for the AJC. He can be reached at ajcbroughton@gmail.com.