How to automate lechon? Food makers look to post-pandemic normal

Cathy Yang and Joel Guinto, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 24 2020 04:35 PM | Updated as of Apr 25 2020 09:23 AM

Lechoneros arrange stacks of roasted pig in Manila in this file photo. The coronavirus pandemic has prompted food manufacturers to reflect on how to automate their processes to comply with physical distancing requirements. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News/file

MANILA -- Food kiosk operator Fruitas got lucky with its motor delivery acquisition before the lockdown, allowing it to quench customers' thirst for coconut water while its stores are shut.

The same ease with technology however, cannot be applied to Fruitas' other new venture, lechon, which is traditionally made with as much mechanical as human hands.

At food making San Miguel's top-selling Purefoods hotdogs, the firm is balancing how to keep plants running with machines while maintaining physical distancing among workers that need to be on the floor.

As Metro Manila and other high-risk areas ride out another lockdown extension, food manufacturers are looking at ways to integrate as much automation as they can into the process.

"Imagine the lechon, that will be so hard to automate," Fruitas co-founder Lester Yu said in an exclusive video conference with ANC's The Boss.

Automation and AI are a part of the long-term strategy of Fruitas Inc, which operates the eponymous fruit shake brand, Jamaican Pattie Shop, Soy Kingdom and its recent acquisition and new best seller, Coco Delivery.

Food manufacturing overcame the initial pains of the lockdown that started last March 17 and scheduled to end on May 15, said San Miguel Food Group president Francisco Alejo. Panic buying has also abated, he said.

San Miguel Foods Group president Francisco Alejo, D&L's president and CEO Alvin Lao, and Fruitas' Lester Yu and Calvin Chua speak to Cathy Yang for ANC's The Boss

San Miguel Food is "lucky" to have mechanized many processes before the lockdown, Alejo said.

"Plants that produce hotdogs will still require lots of workers. What we've done, we prepared measures for safety," he said. Plant workers wear masks, gloves and are misted with disinfectant.

Alejo said San Miguel Food was working at testing all employees.

While logistics issues have been overcome, D&L Industries CEO Alvin Lao said the "big issue" is the drop in demand. The company manufactures food product components.

"We do see the benefit of extending the lockdown. For us, our operations are continuing," he said.

"For us, a lot of our customers, the restaurants, are not able to open and it's still a big concern," he said.

"We have to continuously adjust and be aware, be aware of what the market is doing in terms of supply and demand," he said. "It's a never-ending adjustment."

Catch the full interview on ANC on May 1 at 8 p.m. after TV Patrol as The Boss looks ahead to the new normal for the economy with the COVID-19 pandemic.