When the COVID-19 pandemic started to emerge in the United States last winter, many in the food industry thought the shutdowns and quarantines would be a temporary phenomenon. But as the weeks of restrictions turned into months, restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs were forced to adjust in ways they couldn’t have imagined before.
After a rough year, there are some green shoots showing in the restaurant industry’s recovery. Restaurant sales are starting to recover since hitting a nadir earlier this year. Still, many restaurants are relying on strategies they employed during the early days of the pandemic to sustain themselves. Some swapped their seated dining rooms for takeout staging areas, or they became ad-hoc grocery stores, selling their wine collections or DIY sushi kits complete with fish flown in from Tokyo. Faced with an existential crisis, food entrepreneurs were forced to change the way they did business overnight, and many made changes their customers will never know about. We talked to three small business owners about all the ways, seen and unseen, they made shifts happen behind the scenes during the pandemic.
Using Technology to Streamline — and Finding New Customers
From the minute the pandemic started, restaurant owners knew that they needed to tighten their belts wherever possible. Identifying exactly where they could cut costs, like reducing their food orders from vendors and streamlining their menus, is easier said than done — which is why entrepreneurs turned to technology like QuickBooks to get a comprehensive view of where their money was going.
“COVID-19 made me track expenses more diligently,” says Kate Williams of Kate’s Ice Cream. “I was able to home in on expenses and deduce where I could shave off costs and stay as lean as possible.” The tech also allowed Williams to take a deeper look at her inventory tracking and pull detailed reports about what was sitting and what was selling. She was also able to minimize expenses during a time when every penny counted, using tools to seamlessly handle tax payments.
“I’m able to see where costs needed to be reduced in real time thanks to QuickBooks,” Williams says. “It’s effective, quick, and understandable for an entrepreneur balancing several different roles and tasks. I don’t know how my business functioned before it.”
Tammeara Dyson, owner of Souley Vegan, has also been working to get organized and streamline her operations. “Your business is nothing without the backend,” she says. That planning took on renewed importance during the pandemic when Dyson’s time was at a premium and she needed to apply for relief and find a path forward. “One of the things that the pandemic taught me is to have everything in order, and QuickBooks is an essential tool for doing that,” she says. Dyson uses the platform to track every dollar that goes in and out of her business and says she has found it to be an indispensable tool.
Technology also allowed small business owners to find new revenue streams by making it simple to do things like deliver food. Jasmine Beck, owner of the Sunshine Alchemy food truck in Decatur, GA, found that using third-party e-commerce and delivery platforms has given customers a reliable way to order from her truck. The consistent business has been a lifeline.
“We’re staying open for lunch and dinner six days a week now, and the consistency of online availability has allowed us to generate new business one customer at a time,” Beck says. She set up an online ordering platform connected to her website and point-of-sale system, making it easier for new and returning customers to order food and for her to track order volume. QuickBooks has let her get a clearer view of where every cent is going. “It’s been an integral part of tracking spending, sending invoices, and preparing for tax season,” Beck says. “The platform offers me peace of mind in an unprecedented time. I can count on QuickBooks when nothing else is a sure thing.”
The pandemic has given small business owners a crash course in adaptation, and those working in the food industry have had to learn quickly. In addition to becoming community grocery stores and slinging to-go cocktails, restaurants also slimmed down their menus to reduce food waste and sold meal “subscriptions” in order to frontload revenue.
Beck knew she needed to change the way her food truck did business — and quickly. “Resilience, a good attitude, and a willingness to change course are essential to our business’ survival during this pandemic,” she says. “A lot of the people who dug in their heels at the start and refused to change aren’t operating their businesses anymore.”
In addition to the technology-driven shifts Beck made, she also made operational changes, like giving her employees a commission on food sales during their shifts. She also leveraged some of the gloomier realities of the pandemic into cost savings. Because the truck wasn’t moving as much, she was able to negotiate more favorable insurance rates and use it as a hub for online orders. This online pivot now accounts for the majority of her revenues, and has allowed Beck and her employees to weather the pandemic.
Dyson also rethought her vegan soul food restaurant’s business model once the pandemic hit. The slow period allowed her to explore a stream of revenue she hadn’t had time to consider before — ghost kitchens. A company had approached her earlier to lease ghost kitchens, but she says she didn’t have the energy or time then. In the midst of the pandemic, Dyson toured a facility in San Francisco and was sold. She ended up securing five locations, two open now. “It was a way to save Souley Vegan, a way to save the brand,” she says. She could finally leave survival mode to begin thriving.
The change hasn’t been easy, but Dyson is used to making big swings — just like when she first left her job to open Souley Vegan as a single mother with no savings. She had to look inside herself to remember her determination. “It’s still a challenge because I’m in the middle of opening up these locations during COVID, and the money’s not coming in anywhere near what it was,” she says. ”I kind of jumped off the cliff again, just like I did when I first launched Souley Vegan. But now, in the same way as before, I feel 100% that this is the right move to make.”
For Williams, adaptability meant going from a brick-and-mortar ice cream shop to a buzzy digital brand. She started taking pre-sale orders on limited runs of special flavors and the scarcity played a dual role in helping her sustain her business. Since they could dictate when and how much of the ice cream was available, it gave Kate’s Ice Cream better control over inventory and reduced wasted costs. The brand also saw its national profile rise through social media, and the shop soon began shipping its plant-based treats to customers around the country. It’s a silver lining of the pandemic for Kate’s Ice Cream, and shows that flexibility can pay off in unexpected ways.
Fostering a Sense of Community
For many food industry entrepreneurs, the pandemic provided an opportunity to embrace their neighbors. Restaurants that were no longer serving hundreds of customers every day became community kitchens, serving meals to those that need them most. And the rise of “community fridges” gave food service operators a direct way to feed their communities.
Williams knew that people needed a light in their lives during a dark time — and there was no better way to do that than by serving them ice cream. “Ice cream is special because it brings people together,” she says. “I knew we were helping bring some small joys to the lives of our community.”
Williams started partnering with other local makers who were similarly impacted by the pandemic to create special runs of ice cream and other treats. They created ice cream sandwiches with Toast’d, a hand pie company run by a local mother, and collaborated with local vegan chef Plant Based Papi to make a fried “chicken” and mac and cheese waffle cone. Williams also started donation weekends, when portions of all Kate’s Ice Cream proceeds would go to social justice organizations and local nonprofits. “My focus has been drawing inspiration and support from the community and giving back how I can,” Williams says.
The pandemic isn’t over, and small business owners like Williams, Dyson, and Beck are still figuring out how to navigate this brave new world. But by staying resilient and flexible, looking to their communities for inspiration, and using tech solutions like QuickBooks to streamline their operations, they’re in a position to thrive when things go back to normal. 2020 may have taken them all by surprise, but the behind-the-scenes transformations they’ve made they and other entrepreneurs have made ensure they’re prepared to bring joy to their customers again this year.