HOUSTON — Sysco Corp. is making it easier for restaurants to rebuild following a tumultuous year that shuttered thousands of independent operators and left millions of foodservice workers without a job.

More than 17% of US restaurants closed permanently or long term in 2020, according to the National Restaurant Association. Sysco has worked with the organization to lobby for restaurant relief and guide operators through the process of applying for aid.

“We were the first to offer educational webinars to our independent customers on how they can access the funds available to them via the PPP programs, and the only distributor to lobby on behalf of our customers for that support,” said Neil Russell, senior vice president of corporate affairs and chief communications officer at Sysco, during a Feb. 16 presentation at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York virtual meeting. “Those efforts continue today with bipartisan efforts to move the RESTAURANTS Act forward, with additional grants to restaurants, allowing them to not only pay their employees but fund their operations by purchasing food and supplies from their distributor.”

With vaccines being distributed across the country and local restrictions on restaurants easing or lifting, Sysco is gearing up for recovery in 2021 and beyond. The company expects its US business will recover quicker than its international business.

“Our international business has some challenges in front of it, given the lockdowns in particular countries,” said Kevin Hourican, president, director and chief executive officer at Sysco. “That will be a longer recovery period for us. However, we are seeing signs of light in our US business. Assuming restrictions continue to ease, we're excited about the opportunity that consumers will quickly come back to the restaurants.”

The company is making investments in inventory and staffing in advance of business recovery.

“We've said this from the beginning of this crisis, the most difficult part of the COVID challenge is in the recovery window when you need to build back inventory, build back staffing and you're not yet receiving the cash inflows from your customers in order to pay for those products and to support the payroll of the people,” Hourican said. “Sysco is uniquely positioned to be able to make those investments with no qualms to support our customers so that we can accelerate from a growth perspective faster than the recovery.”

In December Sysco launched a program called Restaurants Rising, which waived delivery minimums on regularly scheduled order delivery days. The company isn’t pulling back on delivery frequency as part of the program, something many foodservice distributors did as volumes decreased.

“We're doing more to help small independent customers than any foodservice distributor in this industry,” Hourican said. “No order minimums is a big deal in this industry.”

The company is investing in its technology platform to better serve customers as they emerge from the pandemic. It recently updated its Sysco Shop platform to improve price transparency and price competitiveness.

Sysco also is leveraging its expertise to help restaurant operators optimize menus to focus on profitability.

“We can connect them to a delivery aggregator,” Hourican said. “We can help them improve their website to make it a clickable, orderable online menu. We can do things like help them with outdoor dining solutions. We're helping connect our customers to resources to purchase outdoor heaters and outdoor patios to extend that selling season through these winter months.”