Handling the Next Snowmageddon

Why winter is the most challenging season for alcohol distributors—and how they conquer it

Photo credit: iStock.

Snowmageddon. Arcticgeddon. Bomb cyclone. In this social media age, what used to be known simply as “winter” has really taken on ominous overtones.

But when it comes to beverage alcohol distribution, the winter really can pose enormous challenges, especially for companies working in the Northeast or throughout central portions of the country—places where winter can sometimes begin as early as Thanksgiving and may not quit until around the opening day of the baseball season in early April.

While it’s easy to make light of these hashtag descriptors for major winter events, the fact is that the storms proved particularly memorable in one way or another to the distributors who had to contend with them—and had to take them quite seriously.

When asked a few days after the latest snowstorm, in February, if he thought winter was the company’s most challenging season, Gary Thompson, the executive vice president and general manager of Powers Distributing in Orion, Michigan, said, “Well, let’s put it this way, Friday we brought back about 18 stops, and we never bring back 18 stops, anytime. So the short answer is, ‘Absolutely!’”

About 620 miles due east, in Norton, Massachusetts, Mike Epstein agrees. The executive vice president and chief operating officer of Horizon Beverages Group cites the shorter daylight hours and frigid temps that descend on his state along with the often snowy weather when his business of beer, wine, and liquor distribution is at its busiest—during the holidays and the Super Bowl, for instance. “It presents a great challenge,” he says, “and it really is up to us as a distributor to ensure that our customers have what they need when they need it. Winter weather is our problem to reckon with.”

Photo courtesy of Horizon Beverage.

And the hazards that go with that weather can be very costly. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, motor vehicle crashes cost American employers $60 billion annually in medical care, legal expenses, property damage, and lost productivity.

Navigating Road Conditions

Both Thompson and Epstein—industry veterans of many years—report that, with such hazards in mind, much planning and monitoring goes into staying ahead of the winter each year. The key is flexibility—being able to adjust their distribution operations in accordance with an expected snowstorm, whether early in the morning or early in the week. During a recent blizzard, for example, Horizon loaded its trucks as much as possible before the storm and then sent the its employees home; work continued after the storm passed.

“You can’t be rigid with the weather, because you never really know what you’re going to get,” Epstein says. “And you always have to keep in mind the safety of your team—and the safety of the general public as well. Most of our trucks are not tractor-trailers, but nevertheless they’re heavy trucks, and it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we’re operating at the highest level of safety.”

Bill Dawson, the senior vice president of maintenance, reliability, and engineering for Ryder System, Inc., in Miami, says a good way to do just that is to empower your fleet’s drivers. “Let them know that they’re captain of their ship,” he says. “If conditions are not right, the drivers should be able to assess that … make a decision, and ensure that they’re not putting themselves, [or] the public, in harm’s way.”

It may come as a surprise, but according to government statistics. there are actually fewer accidents during the winter months in the U.S. It may be precisely because of all the attention paid to planning, training, and precautions by companies like Powers and Horizon in response to winter weather. Only 4 percent of vehicle crashes were caused by snow or sleet between 2005 and 2014, for example; another 4 percent were caused by slushy roads, and just 3 percent by icy roads.

Dealing with Freezing Temperatures

Winter weather hazards for beverage alcohol distribution extend well beyond dangers on the road, however. The distributors say it’s the cold air that presents most of the challenges for fleets like theirs.

The alcohol content will keep much of the product—such as wine and liquor—from freezing during ordinary shipping, though problems can occur with some lower-alcohol beer. “Big beers that are 8% to 9% alcohol by volume (ABV) are more like wine,” so along with spirits, they can “stay in frigid temperatures longer than an American light lager that is somewhere around 5% ABV,” Thompson points out.

He adds, though, that the jostling caused by the delivery truck often agitates the liquid just enough to prevent even the lower-alcohol beers from freezing during delivery.

But when Articgeddon pays the occasional visit, even starting up a fleet’s (mostly) diesel engines can be a challenge. That’s why many delivery fleets rely on engine-block heaters to ensure their trucks start up quickly in the morning, and they make sure that their fuel contains the right additives to keep it from gelling up.

Powers took things one step further by having a truck custom built with what the company calls a start-all device—a self-powered electric starter with a plug that connects directly to truck tractors, allowing them to “boost” battery power during tough start conditions and cold weather. The start-all truck also has a lift for tires, a toolbox, and the necessary tools for doing just about anything you’d need to do to a truck in a parking lot to get it running. Powers’ director of operations, Dave Kessman, equipped all the company’s tractors with direct-connect plugs for the Start-All Device, which means that the start-all truck can be driven to any of the fleet’s tractors, and once plugged in, get it started in a matter of seconds.

Managing Problems at the Delivery Location

These distributors also report that getting to an account’s location during the winter can often be the easy part. It’s what drivers encounter once they arrive that can be the biggest challenge. Drivers often arrive to find a store that hasn’t yet been able to shovel itself out from the latest snowfall. To prepare for this possibility, some distributors equip their delivery drivers and helpers with snow shovels and salt for melting ice. Powers also equips each of its delivery trucks with two hand trucks during the winter season—a traditional one and a pneumatic-tire version. “Thin, hard rubber tire hand trucks won’t get you in and out of every place when you’re fighting snow and ice,” Thompson says. “Whereas a larger, pneumatic-tire hand truck will get you through a lot more.”

Powers also regularly tosses play sand onto the floors of its trucks to provide some traction for drivers so they don’t slip and fall while moving products.

In fact, distribution consultant Chet Willey says his biggest concerns during the winter months are things like slippery delivery ramps. “Most of your wine and liquor companies use box trucks for delivery, and a lot of them use ramps on the back end of the truck to wheel product down, and that’s very, very dangerous,” he says. “In winter weather, if you get any ice buildup on those ramps, you can have really bad accidents occur.” He adds that loading deliveries on carts that can be easily wheeled into an account’s premises has its advantages, especially during winter—it reduces the amount of time delivery workers have to spend outside.

Epstein says that after 18 years in the business he’s developed a kind of sixth sense when it comes to winter weather and how to handle any challenges it throws Horizon’s way. He starts paying closer attention to weather forecasts in December—and doesn’t stop until the first pitch at Fenway. “We always feel pretty good,” he says, ”myself and my Ops team here—warehousing, trucking operations—once we get into April. Once baseball season starts, once the Red Sox open up, we feel like, okay, we’re probably not going to have to worry about any sort of weather conditions for another eight months or so.

“I can’t think of a winter when we haven’t had at least one snow event that resulted in at least some sort of change in process,” he continues. “It’s just the nature of the weather up here. I always like the summer because it means this one aspect of my job goes dormant for a while. But it always springs back to life again, usually the following December.”

Andrew Kaplan is a freelance writer based in New York City. He was Managing Editor of Beverage World magazine for 14 years and has worked for a variety of other food and beverage-related publications, and also newspapers. 

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