Beyond COVID-19: Caterers Pivot to Survive

Jun 30, 2020

Catering businesses are finding inventive ways to make ends meet, including corporate dining packs for work-from-home Zoom meetings and chef-made dinner parties.

In January, Sophie Storen felt sure 2020 was going to be a massive year for her Melbourne catering company, Cookes Food. By mid-March, 98 per cent of her events had been cancelled and she was in despair.

“I was crying eight times a day,” she says.

Between bouts of tears, she took stock and swiftly moved to take-home meals, alerting followers on Instagram and contacting corporate clients.

The meal service was about maintaining cashflow but also keeping her staff busy. “Financially, it was a drop in the bucket, but hospitality people don’t want to be home staring at four walls,” says Sophie. “It was about psychological well-being, too.”

As corporate clients switched to Zoom meetings, Cookes stepped in with food. “One day we delivered breakfast boxes to 100 employees from the same company,” she says. “We made pumpkin-and-quinoa bread, avocado with dill dressing, vine tomatoes and a green smoothie. They toast the bread, spread the avocado and get on with the meeting.” One Friday lunch she delivered boxes with individual lasagnes and wine. “Some of it has been really fun and innovative,” she says.

When restrictions eased and visitors were allowed into homes, Cookes started offering dinner parties. “We’ll do most of the prep off-site then finish it and serve it up in the home,” says Sophie. “We’ve had menus like oysters, salt-crusted rib-eye; the kind of stuff you missed out on while you were cooking for yourself.” A waiter pours wine, then stays to do the dishes. “Customers aren’t left with the catastrophe that is having people for dinner,” says Sophie.

Despite restaurants reopening, demand for the service is strong. “Not everyone is ready to go to a restaurant,” she says, noting many restaurants need to enforce booking time slots while numbers are restricted. “At home, people can stay for hours and just sit around and enjoy the meal.”

Blakes Feast catering company also refocused to take-home meals. For owner Neredah Blake, a technological solution was the difference between chaos and calm.

“As everything shut down, we took a gamble and did a post on Instagram offering take-home meals,” she says. They were inundated with 2,000 enquiries as people succumbed to the fever of panic-buying.

“People were stockpiling and we were suddenly frantic,” says Neredah. “It was taking six of our office people all week to facilitate orders, payments and logistics. The reality is we were never set up to be a take-home meal service.”

A contact put them in touch with ordering platform Cookaborough, a start-up initially designed to help small home-based meal providers. “They set us up within a week and redesigned the software around our needs,” says Neredah. “Now it takes one person half their week to manage the orders. It turned it into a viable business.”

Blakes Feast has now added dinner parties and TV footy packs to their offerings and anticipates these income streams will persist even as normal life returns.

“Of course, we are looking forward to getting back to events,” says Neredah. “But we feel there are legs for a business that helps people who want to entertain at home. They might love to have friends over but don’t have time to shop and cook and spend a whole day prepping. I think this was a niche that needed to be filled anyway.”

An initiative of Fine Food, Hospitality Unites is the voice of the foodservice industry, dedicated to sharing the collective experiences and solutions to thrive in a post-COVID economy.

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