How To Pivot Your Food-Based Business During A Pandemic

Based on the stories of 4 men and women who have done so.

We’re living in uncertain times and every woman I speak with who owns a food-based business is trying to navigate uncharted territory.

To help you figure out how best to adapt, here are five stories from men and women who have successfully pivoted their businesses during the pandemic.

If you find them helpful, you can learn more in my upcoming virtual fireside chat on June 16th.

How A Baker Used Instagram To Wind Up In Whole Foods

Janie Deegan spent years not having a home.

She struggled with addiction and was homeless in her early 20’s.

She had years of gaps in her resume, not a whole lot of work experience and no idea what she would do for a career. She became a building superintendent in the East Village. And Janie began to bake. It was an activity that gave her joy as a child, and it was something that would give her solace as a young adult in recovery. She splurged on a $35 dollar handheld mixer and began creating. She shared her creations with friends. At a time when she was low on self-love, she delighted in the love on her friend’s faces when they tried her baked goods.

2015, she gave herself a challenge. Could she sell 1 pie? She sold many pies that Thanksgiving. For two years she grew her business out of her own kitchen. Then she found Hot Bread Kitchen’s culinary incubator in Harlem. The communal space allowed entrepreneurs like herself to learn the business of food, including how to package products, meal delivery, etc.

Today, Janie is most known for being the inventor of the Pie Crust Cookie. Before the pandemic, her signature treats were sold in New York City coffee shops, but since the shutdown, e-commerce became king. Faithful customers visited her on her Instagram page and began ordering care packages of her signature cookies in Blue Raspberry, Coffee Toffee Buttercrunch, Pecan and Pumpkin flavors. She even gamified the process by creating limited edition care packages each week. Janie’s instagram following would guess which flavors would release the next week.

Her triumph came in early May when Whole Foods picked her Janie’s Life-Changing Baked Goods. Janie blushed as she remembered her packaging when she first presented to the grocery chain. Even in a crisis, folks sought sweet respite in her Pie Crust cookies.

Want to learn Janie’s story first hand? We are in conversation with Janie Deegan June 16th in a virtual fireside chat. Join us here.

How 3-Michelin Star Restaurants Transformed Into Commissaries

Kyle Connaughton’s Sonoma County restaurant had already been hit with wildfires and floods. The COVID pandemic led to a major supply chain disruption. First and foremost, he was in the hospitality business. Cooking and taking care of people was his ‘why.’ That didn’t change when customers couldn’t visit his 3-Michelin star restaurant SingleThread Farms. He reached out to investors, former patrons, and friends of the restaurant. He asked them to start donating to an Sonoma-based organization that provided free meals.

And so began his rhythm.

By day he and his team made 200 meals a day, feeding women’s shelters and out of work hospitality workers. By night, he focused on the restaurant’s takeaway business. Meals were between $75–100 and fed a group of four. He had a partner, whom he trusted to keep an eye on the numbers.

Eleven Madison Park shuttered on March 21. Chef Daniel Humm remembers furloughing 300 people. As the crisis persisted, he had to let people go. Some returned to their respective countries. “I was at a loss,” he tells NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast. “I didn’t know what to do.” Humm took long bike rides over the GW bridge to think about his prospects. Soup kitchens were closed, which meant many were going hungry in New York City. He had connections to farmers. He sat on the board of a non profit that fed hungry New Yorkers. What levers could he pull? He wrote his staff. Ten responded

They began to cook. The 3 Michelin star restaurant that once served tasting menus only, became a commissary, churning out 3,000 free meals a day. Hummer took pains to have people cook in small groups. He offered temperature checks. He ensured if one person got sick, the entire operatio didn’t shut down. He activated a second location to service another 2,000 meals a day.

“It made me fall in love with food again,” says Humm.

While the Michelin star was the long coveted carrot on the end of the stick for him, today he gleans more contentment from feeding the hungry.

How an Ice Cream Maker Dealt with Her Second Major Crisis

The COVID pandemic wasn’t Jeni Britton Bauer’s first crisis. In 2015, the Listeria outbreak forced her to close everything down. She ward forced to recall all of her Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. When the COVID crisis hit, the same mantra kicked in.

“Accept the situation. Move quickly,” she said to Guy Raz on NPR’s “How I built This” podcast

All of her signature scoop shops offering tastes of “Boston Creme Pie” or “Brown Butter Almond Brittle” were shut down. Only delivery was available.

But she knew something else about her product. In times of crisis, ice cream is comfort food. She turned to her community. She asked fans to write in with their first memories of ice cream flavors they enjoyed as children. The memories flooded in. She read them each night. The newest flavors of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams were born.

“Flavors we loved as a kid.”

Her advice? Listen to feedback constantly. Make people feel like they are part of what you are creating.

Today e-commerce at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream is 5–7x what she was doing pre-pandemic.

How A Personal Chef Launched A Pantry

Sanketa Jain runs a medical business with her brother.

But her true passion lie in her side hustle: personal chef. She got clients. Eventually, she launched a full fledged catering service, called EatKraveLove. Days, she worked at the medical office. Evenings and weekends, she catered. Sometimes, multiple events in one day.

When the pandemic hit, things changed. And fast.

Sanketa witnessed the elderly displaced from nursing facilities and too scared to visit the grocery. She witnessed nurses and medics working 24–28 shifts without breaks. With hospital cafeterias closed, there was no recourse for pushing through the next 24–48 hours.

She hung up her apron, grabbed her keys, and went to work. She effectively became a wholesaler, delivering fresh green mango, butter, and milk to doorsteps at bargain prices. The next week, she added dal (lentils), atta (flour) her own brand of dahi (yogurt) to service the large South Asian population that lived in Central and Northern New Jersey. There wasn’t a fancy online menu or app. There wasn’t a customer service hotline. Folks reached her the old fashioned way: Email. Each week, she shared an excel sheet of groceries. Folks placed orders. Organizations came calling. Would she service families in need? She did.

At first Sanketa was on her own. When the stay at home orders in New Jersey passed the month mark, she built a team. Sanketa had cancer when she was 16 and remembered the kindness of the nurses and doctors extended to her. She was determined to return the favor.

With food.

As Sanketa serviced Central and Northern Jersey, fast casual Indian food restaurant Desi Galli serviced Manhattan. In the early days of the pandemic, few restaurants were delivering. Even fewer Indian restaurants were delivering. With locations in Murray Hill and the East Village, executive Chef and owner Priavanda Chouhan started doing brisk business. It wasn’t comparable to revenue the year before. Workers were afraid to show up to work. Others elected to stay home and collect unemployment. One day, as she stood in a long line at her wholesaler, waiting for yeast, she got an idea. What if she eliminated the wait and began selling the items herself? That gave rise to DG Pantry, a play on the name of her restaurant which means “Indian alleyway.” It was also a nod to the Indian street food on the menu. DG Pantry would not only sell Indian groceries, but it would also sell easy to assemble meal kits at home.