High Road responds to pandemic with planning and clear will to survive

Owner Keith Schroeder (right) maintains social distance while walking the floor of his plant watching over production while Marianna Kunzmann works on ice cream sandwiches for Whole Foods at High Road Ice Cream on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Marietta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Owner Keith Schroeder (right) maintains social distance while walking the floor of his plant watching over production while Marianna Kunzmann works on ice cream sandwiches for Whole Foods at High Road Ice Cream on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Marietta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

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

At about 3 a.m. each morning, Keith Schroeder wakes up and checks his phone for disaster.

Slack, the cheery millennial-friendly communications app, alerts him if anything is going wrong in the suddenly fragile web of manufacturer, distributors, retailers and suppliers that supports High Road, the fancy ice cream brand he and his wife founded in metro Atlanta 10 years ago.

Worst of all would be news that one of his 83 employees was sick with COVID-19. This would mean the killer coronavirus had penetrated his carefully designed defenses.

Then what?

If any business has a chance to survive the pandemic, it is High Road. The market for its core product – creative luxury ice cream – seems to have expanded as people stuck at home search for such pleasures. Still, the business has challenges. For one, it must rely on others to make deliveries and stock shelves, which can pose risks of disruption no matter what precautions are taken. Even the best positioned and prepared business faces an uncertain future.

Schroeder, 46, recognized the menace early. Trained both as an MBA and a chef, he and his wife, Nicki, watched closely for supply chain disruptions as the disease marched through China.

Both are self-described news junkies. She is High Road’s chief brand officer.

Before long, they saw coronavirus turn toward the United States after ravaging China and Italy. On March 12 – the day before President Trump declared a national emergency — Schroeder reported to his board that he had already formed a coronavirus task force. The company’s leaders had designed a three-phase plan for responding to the virus, which they would enact as conditions worsened.

“High Road has taken immediate and assertive action to ensure business continuity and the health/safety of our employees,” he wrote the board of the privately held company. “The good news: The High Road team is a tenacious and vigilant family, all working together very seriously to protect the source of our livelihood. We could not have a more dedicated team — all willing to do whatever it takes to keep delicious ice cream flowing to our customers.”

The plan is now at Phase II: In the absence of clear federal guidance, High Road deployed the best tactics recommended by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local officials.

Non-essential employees stay home. The hand washing regimen is tighter – employees must document that they wash every two hours. Most of the ice cream and other products have been moved to a third-party cold storage in case an employee is infected.

The production line at High Road already observed strict sanitation standards, but cleaning practices were stepped up. On the floor, Schroeder implemented social distancing practices, and he has found a source for masks – not a requirement before the virus. The company designated an area in the warehouse where delivery drivers must check in, wash their hands and wait for their orders. Access to outsiders is limited to maintenance and service workers. Everyone must have their temperatures taken before entering.

On March 16, Schroeder sent office workers home, noting that their hours would remain 9-5.

And he did something that wasn’t in any known playbook. He gave every hourly worker a $1 an hour raise.

The plant continues to operate six days a week, 20 hours a day.

While demand from restaurants – the original lifeblood of the business – has all but ceased, orders for retail and online outlets have soared. People stuck at home seem to crave High Road’s eclectic flavor profiles, from Aztec Chocolate (which includes cinnamon, sugar-roasted chilis and almonds) to bourbon burnt sugar to blueberry ricotta – just to name a few.

Early last week the company saw a spike in online orders. On Monday, 80 orders came in, compared to the usual 10-15 a day. Schroeder has hired 10 people to keep up with the demand and is looking to hire 10 more – mostly displaced restaurant workers.

His years working as a chef has left a soft spot for struggling restaurant folk. “They’re the community that made it possible for High Road to exist long before we put a pint on the shelf,” he explained. “Restaurant people are our brethren/posse/fellow pirates. Also, restaurant folks are some of the most adaptable, resilient and productive workers of any industry.”

Every day, Schroeder walks the floor of the plant to see and be seen. He did this before the crisis, but now he keeps a social distance of 12 feet.

Just a few years from being a mom and pop operation, he feels a deep responsibility to the people who keep the plant working.

“I feel like the Andrew Cuomo of this business,” he said.

A rebellious streak

The road to High Road was long and winding. Schroeder grew up on Long Island, and for many years was unusually interested in food, which mingles in his memories of his father, a high school football coach.

“My dad and I would go for Chinese or something and, on the way home, he would say, ‘Hey let’s stop to get some pizza.’”

In 1991, Schroeder started college at the State University of New York at Oswego, with intentions of converting his love of music into a radio career.

He became the program director at the college radio station, where he met Nicki Romano, who would become his wife in 1995.

He indulged his rebellious streak and quit college in 1993 to become a punk rock promoter, working with bands that included Type O Negative, Brujeria, Fear Factory and Madball.

He neglected to tell his father of his grand plans and decision to leave college – with the expectation that he would announce his new career once he was a rousing success.

Unfortunately, rousing success proved elusive. He abandoned his punk rock career to return to college. He was hired as a waiter at the Spaghetti Warehouse in Oswego – his first restaurant job.

He also took over the cooking duties for housemates – including Nicki – and became obsessed with watching cooking shows on TV, from Julia Child to the Frugal Gourmet.

Nicki Schroeder remembers that his meals were amazing for a college kid. “One night, I said, hey, did you ever consider being a chef?” she recalled. “Maybe you should, because you’re really good at this.”

The idea resonated.

In 1994, the couple came to Atlanta for spring break. “We went to a festival in Piedmont Park, and the dogwoods and azaleas were blooming, and we met a lot of really cool people,” he recalls. “We decided to stay.”

The couple moved into a small apartment off Delk Road in Cobb County.

He enrolled in the Art Institute of Atlanta’s Culinary Arts Program. After graduation, he landed a job at the venerated Nicolai’s Roof. His career also included a tour as a sous chef for the renowned Jean Banchet at Riviera on East Paces Ferry. He says his time with the master was a life-altering experience. He learned resilience from the manically demanding chef, described by Schroeder as an “evil, charming, loving, madman.”

His chef career well underway, Schroeder’s interests began to shift to the business side. In 2008, he enrolled in the Master of Business Administration program at Kennesaw State University.

The idea that was to become High Road emerged as part of his master’s work. Meanwhile, he was becoming fed up working the back kitchens, which he believes were degraded in the panic after the 2008 crash. Staffs were cut, standards fell. The mood crashed. He was ready for a change.

“I was driving in my car one day, and I was reflecting on what was next for me as a chef,” he recalled. “I was working in a situation at the time that was probably not the most soulful.”

As he was working things through in his mind, the Broken Bells song “The High Road” came on the radio:

“’Cause they know, and so do I

The high road is hard to find

A detour in your new life

Tell all of your friends goodbye”

“It was this sort of divinely inspired moment that freaked me out a little bit,” he said. “But there was no way that the name of the business could be anything but High Road after that experience.”

In 2010, he and Nicki raised some money and a few customers and started High Road in a nondescript office complex in Chamblee.

One hour at a time

Phase III of High Road’s emergency plan would be triggered if an employee tests positive. There is no Phase IV.

This would disrupt the business by shutting down the plant 14 days. It would also probably require furloughs among office workers but not production workers. The company would sell what is in stock and continue some production through another manufacturer.

In High Road’s 10 years, the trajectory has been up, from providing to local restaurants like South City Kitchen to shipping to retail giants. In 2016, the company expanded its space to 75,000 square feet.

On the High Road Slack channels, Schroeder works these days to hold his company together, focused and inspired. He monitors the news and trends from his office, and shares news, videos and tips. In addition to working with her teams, Nicki Schroeder posts on working from home, including guidance on breathing and being mindful about selecting news sources.

At the end of the working day on March 26, Keith Schroeder posted this:

“We’ll take it one hour at a time (a day is too long at this point), and will focus our efforts on staying healthy with High Road open. Take it super seriously with me. People are dying out there, and we want to be standing, thriving and part of an evolved world — once all this passes.”

Schroeder believes this will pass, and the experience of combating the virus could change the business world forever. “There’s both physical and mental space being offered to all of us right now, with some permission to treat most things as less-urgent, which I hope becomes a new reality,” he said. “With space, our souls can open-up, breathe a bit, and in that space is all of the creative energy in the universe.”

Wednesday morning, he posted the news that Georgia’s epidemic could peak between April 20 and 27.

“What does this mean?” he wrote. “We will begin to see a taper if all suggested distancing behaviors are strictly enforced. … Stay apart, physically. Stick together in spirit and commitment to understanding the brute force of this virus.”