How 4 Businesses Pivoted During The Pandemic

The hospitality sector has been one of the hardest hit by lockdowns and restrictions. But it has also shown itself to be one of the most inventive and resilient, with Michelin-starred meal boxes, DIY kits and pre-batched cocktails now a staple in households across the UK. Despite the lifting of lockdown being on the horizon, many food and drink businesses won’t go back to doing things exactly the same way they did before. Here, four top caterers tell us how they’ve reinvented themselves in the face of crisis and what’s next for their businesses…
STRAZZANTI

THE FAMILY-RUN BUSINESS: Tori Rouse, Rocket Oven

George’s Kitchen was launched in London almost a decade ago by George Rouse. When the pandemic hit, business evaporated overnight. Now based in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, he and his wife Tori have spent lockdown bringing up their newborn daughter, while delivering food boxes to the local community and building a new venture together: The Rocket Oven, an Airstream-style trailer serving a selection of homemade flatbreads.

My husband George has a chef background. When we met, we always talked about setting up our own thing. George’s Kitchen was born in the middle of 2013 and since then it’s grown organically. We were based in south London and started off small, catering for weddings, dinner parties and milestone birthdays, then we won a contract with a hedge fund in Green Park, which made our business grow suddenly. The year before the pandemic, we had just got involved with a big events company, and they were about to use us regularly. The business seemed to be going from good to great, getting better and bigger. Then the pandemic hit and the calendar for George’s Kitchen had red crosses through it for every single event. 

I think we spent the first week of lockdown like deer in headlights. It seems silly now, but at the time we thought all this would maybe only last three to six months. We looked at our figures and finances. I was on maternity leave as a teacher, so we weren’t in a position where I could increase my hours or do something different. We had a newborn, so we just thought let's just see how we can survive this. That week, I remember sitting down with George for the daily TV briefings with a gin and tonic in my hand. But by week two, George’s suppliers in London began to ask if we wanted to start distributing food to households because they needed to pivot too. This was when nobody could get deliveries – and all the stupid stuff like loo roll hoarding was going on – so we decided to do it locally, offering two types of boxes: one with dry goods, meat and dairy; and one with fruit and veg. I distributed flyers down our road – with a little baby in tow – and then it really started to pick up traction. People liked that the stuff they were getting was different to what you’d get from the supermarkets.

It was week two when we pivoted, so we didn't have loads of time to dwell and think, ‘Oh my god, the business is over.’ We just picked up the new business and it grew quite quickly. It wasn't a massive operation: we turned our lounge into a supply chain of three trestle tables; I did the behind-the-scenes admin like logistic management and George did all the distributing into different boxes, and – as he already had his work van – just started delivering.

We tried a few things before we hit upon The Rocket Oven. We did the food boxes up until the beginning of August. We also did some meal deliveries for a bit, but the financial return made it unviable: people only really wanted to spend a tenner per meal and George was working all hours to get them out – plus the shops and online supermarkets had caught back up with demand by then. One Friday night, my sister and brother-in-law told us about a local takeaway that served fish and chips from a big food truck where you could order in advance, pick it up and eat it in the garden. On the Saturday morning, I thought ‘Wow, that was easy, we just turned up, and it seems to be pretty popular.’ So we set up our own mobile food business. I started researching and mind mapping all the options from there. Should we go old school and get a VW truck or should we go more modern and get something that's going to be more reliable? We found this amazing company called Rocket Caravans which sells these Airstream-style but newly built trailers. That’s when The Rocket Oven was born. 

When we launch in April, the truck will focus on modern flatbreads. We went for flatbreads because they’re super versatile. George came up with the idea of getting a tandoor oven that cooks up to 300ºC, so you can just whack the flatbreads in there for 30 seconds and they come out beautifully light and puffy, and really fresh. It felt like the most business-savvy idea – it's relatively low cost to make dough and it goes with everything from slow-cooked lamb to falafels and halloumi. We’ve got a children’s menu too. It's inspired by both our 15-month-old and a lot of market research we did, where a consistent message was that parents loved to order takeaways, but could never find anything the kids would enjoy too.

Becoming a parent is hard enough, let alone chucking a pandemic into the mix and starting a business. We've had to juggle and come up with a militant way of running our weeks. Luckily George and I are polar opposites, so there was an obvious fit when it came to who did what. But it was very hard. I think my perspective on parenting is skewed – and I'm sure lots of new first-time parents feel that way – as we haven’t had the real picture of what it would have been like if there were classes or places I could go to offload. As for everyone, lockdown intensifies and exacerbates everything, but having a newborn has also been a great distraction.

One of the best things about the new business has been the local element. We moved to the area just before our daughter was born, and we’ve got to know people through doing the food deliveries. The area is so community driven. As for me and George, I think we've learned we work well together. We did work together loosely with George’s Kitchen, but during the pandemic we’ve had to work in harmony, and it's really put a spotlight on the fact that we’re a very natural fit – George is all about front of house and doing the food, logistics and supplies, and I'm much more about marketing and communications. It's just felt very natural to launch a business together and it's been really exciting.

We’ve already started getting inquiries for small weddings and other events so we’re still trying to work out how to run the two businesses together. George’s Kitchen is going to carry on, but it will look different. George will definitely keep his hedge fund client in London, as they’re such a brilliant company to work for and a great source of income, but whether or not George starts scaling it back a bit in terms of other events, that's up in the air. We’ve had one or two weddings add The Rocket Oven onto their catering plans already, which shows that our new venture could be a nice addition to the existing business. We just need to work out how we amalgamate the two and make them both work brilliantly.

I think there's been some hope and positivity to come out of this pandemic, as well as the really sad times. It’s been a perspective maker for a lot of people, and it certainly has been for us in terms of what we both value and enjoy. I think both of us are coming out of this a lot happier in many respects. We have a new business, but it's also a lifestyle and I think that's really exciting for us. George doesn't have to travel into London all the time; he’s got business on his doorstep and that is pretty beautiful for a family. And I can't stress enough how nice it’s been getting to know everyone, from business owners to families when we’ve done meal drop-offs. It’s not been without hardship, but it’s also been pretty amazing.

The Rocket Oven will launch at a local pub in Chesham on 23rd April, with a ‘Rocket Route’ planned across Buckinghamshire later down the line.

Visit TheRocketOven.co.uk and GeorgesKitchen.co.uk

THE BIG-NAME CATERING COMPANY: Kate Bendall, Bubble Food

In normal times, Bubble Food hosts events and weddings at the likes of Kensington Palace and the Roundhouse. During the first lockdown, it repurposed its unit to provide meals for a local foodbank. More recently, it has been creating meal boxes for Michelin-starred chefs such as Tom Aikens and Andrew Wong.

Bubble Food is a luxury event caterer. We work in some of London’s most prestigious venues and private homes across the UK and Europe. We’ve catered for everything from the Baftas – which involved serving 1,500 main courses in a 25-minute window – to a James Bond wrap party at Somerset House and Barbie’s 60th birthday party.

When the first lockdown came into effect, we took our laptops home and had to postpone all our weddings and events. We spent much of our time on Zoom calls with venue clients, just to chat and offer support. We repurposed our London HQ to support a local foodbank, raising funds and producing meals for vulnerable people. We also decided to produce a selection of hampers. We catered some intimate garden parties, when restrictions allowed, and offered a drop-off canape service. A great deal of our time was spent planning for the future and refining our business model. We decided as a business not to go too far down a certain avenue, as we knew rules and legislation would constantly change, and we wanted something solid that couldn’t be dashed by the changing of restrictions. 

We also started producing meal kits for Michelin-starred chefs. The founder of StarChefs, David Swann, knew of Bubble Food as he used to work in catering himself. We were selected for the partnership based on our ability to scale up quickly without losing the finesse. It’s been a huge success so far and we’ve created meal boxes for Andrew Wong, Robin Gill and Tom Aikens, with a host of great names in the pipeline.

As a business we are slowly returning to our pre-pandemic selves, however it has become clear that the customer has changed. We believe hampers and meal delivery kits, in particular, are here to stay as a complementary offering to the traditional restaurant experience. These will also allow hospitality providers to diversify their income streams through 2021, 2022 and beyond.

We’ve realised we are resilient, creative and supportive of one another. Every department has come together, stepped outside its comfort zone and helped in an area of the business that was new to it – all for the greater good of the business. We owe a lot to our loyal clients that have supported us by buying hampers and checking in regularly with us. We’ve also been bowled over by how caring people can be in moments of crisis – our work with the food bank was testament to this, witnessing the many volunteers who give their time and energy to help others.

We have lots of weddings coming up. We also have lots of lovely corporate enquiries and confirmations for the third and fourth quarters. I am most looking forward to coming into work and feeling the ‘Bubble buzz’ in the office when everyone is organising showstopping events and parties – we are ready! I also can’t wait to be back on site with all of our fellow suppliers and venue friends. We would love to have the amount of wedding we have booked this year, every year. We are predicting a boom in weddings and absolutely love catering them. If couples want to wow their guests and leave them with an experience they will never forget, we can make that happen. 

Visit BubbleFood.com

THE SUPPER CLUB: Sofia Strazzanti, Strazzanti

Strazzanti is made up of three British-born sisters who celebrate their Sicilian and Neapolitan heritage at supper clubs, weddings and private events. When the pandemic hit, they had to completely change their business, developing an e-commerce platform overnight, creating pasta kits and make-at-home cakes using ingredients direct from Sicily, as well as selling pasta sauces, olive oils and vinegars.

We were very much a physical experiential business hosting popular supper clubs and masterclasses across east London. One of our favourites was themed around a Sicilian almond blossom grove. We approached McQueens Flower School to bring my sister Emilia’s vision to life with an incredible flower installation. It was a wonderful week. We also had a thriving wholesale business which we were extremely proud of, selling our cakes to restaurants across the capital and the food halls in Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Sotheby’s and authentic delis like Salvino.

The first lockdown was one of the hardest moments in my career. It became a time of survival, which pushed us to our limits many, many times both emotionally and physically. Wholesale stopped, and supper clubs, masterclasses and private events were all cancelled. We had no income. We were a physical experiential business in a world of no social contact. 

Survival adrenaline kicked in – we had to do something. If our customers couldn’t come to us, we had to go to them. Within four weeks we had created a weekly at-home supper-club concept – something for people to look forward to and relax them into the weekend. Our passion is bringing people together through the food of our heritage, and this was our new way of sharing this. We would announce a new four-course menu every week offering add-ons like our signature pesto alla trapanese. Customers would order online, and Emilia, me and our brother-in-law would deliver them to doorsteps around London.

We quickly realised there was a real appetite for our ingredients. We also saw how shopping online for food and experiences was accelerating across the market, and here to stay. As soon as we were allowed to travel, Emilia went to Sicily to meet with our producers and develop The Sicilian Collection, our ‘Made in Sicily’ signature family recipes using locally sourced ingredients. We launched five in total, including supper club favourites such as sugo alla norma. 

Next we created our 'Il Piccolo Pacchetto' pasta kits. These were inspired by the food parcels we received as children from our relatives in Italy. Each recipe parcel is designed to transport customers on a journey across Sicily. They include our family sauces, an ‘Anti-Mafia Pasta’ in an authentic Sicilian shape, our very own extra virgin olive oil and recipe cards for a dish native to a particular Sicilian town. Then we invested in our website and set up nationwide delivery. 

We didn’t stop there. Everyone was missing our cakes, but they couldn’t be delivered nationally, so we created make-your-own cake kits in three flavours (Sicilian pistachio, Sicilian almond and citrus, and Sicilian hazelnut and chocolate) instead. We now launch seasonal specials and offer them as gift hampers. We also host regular live virtual cook-alongs for corporate clients and our customers.

Our digital experiential offer has become business as usual for us now. We are focusing on developing The Sicilian Collection, launching our seasonal recipe e-books, and getting ready to relaunch the supper club when everything hopefully reopens in the early summer. We need to grow our team now as it’s too much for me and Emilia to handle (our third sister, Nina, is on maternity leave with our first niece).

Over the last year, I’ve learnt that authenticity, transparency and staying true to your passion and vision is paramount. Where it has been tempting to say ‘Yes’ to requests for a quick buck – which we have definitely done at times to survive – we have learnt that now we need to stay focused on the path ahead and not be distracted. Honestly, it can still be challenging, but we’re trying hard to enjoy the journey.

Our digital business is here to stay. We are not short of ideas for how to develop this along with our product and gifting lines. We love this part of the business as it's both creative and has longevity.  We’ve now pivoted our business to a multifaceted one, where we have a foundation to withstand future lockdowns. There are two pillars left to reopen: our physical experiences and wholesale will start again later in the year, but in different formats and with different products. We are so looking forward to seeing our customers in person again, and also travelling to Sicily to launch our Sicilian Experiences there too.  

Visit Strazzanti.co

THE NEW BUSINESS: Ayesha Pakravan Ovey, The Plattery

Launched in 2019, The Plattery focuses on picture-perfect grazing tables, catering at weddings, parties and corporate events. Due to Covid-19, founder Ayesha Pakravan Ovey launched the Vital Meals programme, providing free cooked meals for anyone in need during the pandemic. She was included in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours as a result.

I had only been trading for six months before the pandemic hit, so I was still figuring everything out. I was making grazing tables for medium to large-scale events (both corporate and private) and we had catered for some amazing names such as Facebook, Virgin and London Fashion Week. My business model was very much to just say yes to everything and figure out the lay of the land I was operating in. I had never run a business before, so this was a huge learning time for me. At this point, Vital Meals had not even formed as an idea in my head – I never thought I would end up running a food charity. 

At the first sign of lockdown, my catering jobs were cancelled and The Plattery came to a grinding halt. I was facing weeks of no work and nothing to do. As someone who can't sit idle, I decided to start Vital Meals, an initiative providing free cooked meals to anyone in London unable to feed themselves. Starting as just ten meals a day from my home kitchen in Battersea as a temporary operation, we have grown to providing over 25,000 meals so far, running a cooking school for children and running our ‘Parcel to Plate’ scheme, which is for anyone who receives a food parcel, but still struggles to cook or prepare meals. Vital Meals changed the way I ran The Plattery as well as the business model, which quickly became one with both profit and not-for-profit operations. 

We have been working solidly to keep both sides of the operation moving. The Vital Meals side of the business takes priority when needed. We changed The Plattery’s offering from large grazing tables to small grazing platters and now allocate £15 from the sale of every platter directly back into our Vital Meals initiative. Our platters can now be posted anywhere within the UK, and work in a similar style to a meal kit at home – but with less cooking!

I have been lucky enough to have been recognised by some amazing people. I was awarded a British Empire Medal by the Queen in the 2020 New Year’s Honours list, was given a Points of Light award by Boris Johnson, welcomed to the FA's Lionhearts Squad by Marcus Rashford and chosen as Richard Branson's Start-Up of the Year. 

I’ve learnt to hold my nerve. The best thing you can do in business is deal with the issues as they arise, and try not to worry about tomorrow or next week. I have also learnt the importance of a team and surrounding yourself with exceptionally good people. My business was always a one-woman band, but with the growth that was not sustainable. From the moment I brought on my first team member, we have gone from strength to strength and, as a team, we have achieved so much more together. I could not have done anything without them. 

We are looking forward to being able to put on our large grazing tables again and, of course, running big events once more. However, for us, the changes we made during Covid are here to stay and so we don't see it as being 'back in action' as such. Covid actually spurred us into action and so when things go back to 'normal', our business will remain as it currently is. We hope to really push our cooking classes forward and to see these grow, while still continuing to provide as many free meals as needed. The Plattery will continue to cater to homes, events and more, and will continue to pivot whenever needed – who knows what will happen in the future?

If you’d like to donate to Vital Meals – which needs to raise another £35,000 this year – head to its Go Fund Me page here.

Visit ThePlattery.com and VitalMeals.org

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