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Local Manufacturer in right spot as consumers push for more plant-based foods

For Sam Schachna, CEO of Roma Food Products, the COVID-19 pandemic has created new opportunities and highlighted the importance of the local supply chain.

Schachna said the reality of the pandemic, with supermarket shelves being stripped bare, highlighted the importance of local manufacturing and a stable supply chain in order to meet demand.

“I think when you start looking at the local sector you can say COVID has sparked a renaissance in the Australian manufacturing process and Roma is part of that renaissance,” Schachna said.

The family-owned business was founded in 1984 and moved premises five times before finding it’s home in Carrum Downs, Victoria, where the company’s facility remains today.

The CEO, appointed just days before Australia’s first confirmed COVID-19 case in January 2020, brought with him more than 20 years of experience in the consumer goods, financial and IT advisory services industries. This included six years at KPMG and seven years at family food business Menora Foods.

“(Now) my role (at Roma) is to support the team on implementing the strategy to take the business to the next horizon of growth,” Schachna said.

The unforeseen pandemic meant Schachna had to pivot his approach in order to successfully implement the new direction.

“My initial response was to stabilise the business to respond to the pandemic and then we undertook the strategy,” Schachna said. “It included investing in our people and our brand and our infrastructure to respond to the growth in the market.”

For almost four decades Roma Food Products has been a dedicated manufacturer of allergen and gluten-free food, distributing to 3,000 local customers and exporting to 70 countries.

All of the company’s facilities are free of the seven major allergens, milk, eggs, fish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybean.

The CEO said the company was able to navigate the obstacles created by the pandemic because of a number of factors, including its loyal and dedicated local team who stepped up during a challenging period, strong relationships along the supply chain and customer base, and the capability to scale up production.

Roma also saw limited interruption in its manufacturing process as a result of that capability.

“Importantly, we were able to accelerate innovation and respond to market demand. We have the ability to significantly scale up our response, given our dedicated workforce and really strong relationships and supply chains,” Schachna said.

“I think when you look at supply chains, it sort of took the pandemic for Aussies to realise and appreciate what has always been in their back yard.”

Roma met the unprecedented demand for products because it was running on a one to two-shift rotation prior to the pandemic.

Schachna said demand for products they already manufactured, along with demand for inventory they were still developing, resulted in huge orders.

“At the peak of the panic buying, we were getting one month of orders in a day,” Schachna said.

“And for us, our customers and our consumers are everything, particularly when you are dealing with people who have dietary requirements. You truly become an essential service.”

The growing awareness around support for local manufacturers also played a part in Roma Food Products having a record year during a global pandemic, with company growth of over 20 per cent, coupled with a 30 per cent increase in employees.

Schachna continues to reemphasise the importance of strengthening the locals and food manufacturing sector.

“You’ve got stable supply chains within the country, you support local farmers, you can support local jobs,” Schachna said.

“Out of COVID local manufacturing has never been seen to be more important, and it’s the great local manufacturers that have stepped up to respond.”

Conditions created by the pandemic have presented opportunities for manufacturers who are equipped to take advantage.

“This isn’t a temporary shift, COVID has forever changed the dynamic of the grocery supply chain,” Schachna said. “A more stable local supply chain means retailers and shoppers can access what they want when they want.”

As a result, the CEO said he welcomes support from the government created initiatives designed to help the food manufacturing sector, such as the Modern Manufacturing Initiative.

“The Modern Manufacturing Fund creates a platform for Aussie manufacturers, such as Roma, to continue to invest, to be more competitive, more resilient, more scalable, more innovative,” Schachna said.

“And you’re seeing that support of food and manufacturing to be a key platform for growth, the food and manufacturing sector is one of the fastest growing parts of the economy.”

The rise in government support has come off the back of a realisation that local manufacturing channels are extremely important, especially in a post COVID world.

“The Australian food and grocery sector has been under pressure for many years,” Schachna said. “While the industry is benefiting from all these policies, we need to recognise we are only at the starting blocks. Now is the government’s chance to really build a sustainable industry right here in our own back yard.”

The record year couldn’t have come at a better time for Roma, with the launch of two new brands into mainstream categories, complementing its existing strong positioning in the health food aisle.

“The launch of these two new brands is the first of a number of brands that will be going into that mainstream category,” Schachna said.

“We have launched these first with the independent channel and that responds to the DNA of our family-owned business.”

While continuing a strong presence in the independent sector, Roma also has strong relationships with all major retailers including Coles, Woolworths, and Aldi, further helping with product growth.

“For us it’s providing the right offer to the market,” Schachna said. “Being pioneers within the space we have seen significant growth; I think what you’ll see in the next decade is continued promotion and dedication to healthy lifestyles.”

The two new products, the new allergen- and gluten-free Pasta roma!, and vegan-based snack, Spliits, are just the first of a new brands to be introduced into the market, as the company continues to put emphasis on innovation.

“For us it is about being good corporate citizens and responding to market trends,” Schachna said.

The release of Spliits was in response to the ever-expanding ‘better for you’ snacking subcategory, one of the fastest growing sectors in the market. The company is also proud that Pasta roma! is the first and only Australian made pasta range in the mainstream category.

“It’s a significant development because our business is very well known, now we have launched, and they are in market, they are performing very well,” Schachna said.

Schachna said Roma Food’s manufacturing facility has a solar grid attached to the roof as part of the company’s move towards a more sustainable future.

More than 600 solar panels were installed at its Carrum Downs facility in 2019, with the capability to yield 276,000 kWh per year.

As part of ongoing sustainability initiatives, the company is reviewing programs around recycling, waste reduction, responsible sourcing of raw materials and the use of rainwater tanks being as new systems enter the market.

Meanwhile, the Carrum Downs site has no animal derivatives.

“We are also a vertically integrated operation,” Schachna said.

“So, we do everything from milling the grain as they come in to blending them and then production through to packing. Across our sites we have seven production lines.”

In 2016, prior to taking on the role of Roma Food Products CEO, Schachna was also appointed as a Director of SecondBite – Australia’s leading food rescue organisation. SecondBite aims to solve two problems, ending food waste, and ending hunger in Australia.

“What’s quite startling is over 25 per cent of the food we produce actually goes to waste. And before COVID, 20 per cent of Australians experienced some form of food insecurity,” Schachna said.

“We collect food, minimising waste, and redistribute it free of charge as a charity. Over the last 12 months we have redistributed the equivalent of over 50 million meals.”

In FY20, SecondBite managed to rescue over 26 million kilograms of food across Australia, equating to 53 million healthy meals per year, or 145,000 healthy meals per day. With more than 5 million Australians experiencing food insecurity every day, there is still much more to be done.

Schachna said the increase in people choosing to either eat less meat or go wholly vegan was also a positive sign for further growth and investment in the future for Roma Foods.

“Plant based diets are driving a reduction on the intake of dairy or meat. Plant based is not a category, it is a movement that is here to stay,” Schachna said.

Roma’s ability to know what its customers wants is an important aspect of the company’s success, Schachna told the publication.

“Our long-term success of Roma has always been underpinned by our respect for our people, our customers, our business partners and our suppliers,” Schachna said.

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