How Emelle’s Catering are Pivoting to Survive COVID-19

On February 21 this year, at a glittering gala ceremony, Emelle’s Catering became the first ever double winner at the Small Business BC Awards, scooping Best Marketer and Best Employer. It was a validation of the efforts Mary Lee Newnham, CEO, and Nicole Burke, Director of Catering Sales, had poured into the business over several decades. It also looked set to lend further credibility to their marketing efforts, with a big and splashy campaign laid out for the year.

Three weeks later, Nicole found herself sitting alone in an office wondering how the business could survive through COVID-19.

“2020 has been a crazy year for Emelle’s so far,” Nicole says.

“I went from the highest of highs, texting Mary Lee to tell her we’d won two awards, to two/three weeks later I’m looking at my team and the COVID-19 shutdown thinking, ‘what do we do here?’ – so we started packing up groceries we had on hand for our team members and sent them home. We made soup and took it down to the Downtown Eastside and started doling it out. I mean, there’s not much more you can do.”

Navigating the New Normal

COVID-19 has been particularly devastating to British Columbia’s food businesses. Emelle’s Catering trades on their reputation as one of Vancouver’s finest caterers, providing flexible and delicious options for events of all sizes. Their business was instantly decimated. And, with no way of knowing when large-scale events can proceed again, they needed to develop a plan of action to survive. Their multi-pronged approach involves pivoting to meal delivery, offering grocery boxes, and delivering staff lunches to frontline essential workers.

First, they had to navigate a travel-related hurdle.

“Mary Lee had hopes of travelling a lot more and enjoying her property in Panama. This winter/spring was going to be a big test for the future of Emelle’s. She planned to head off for a few months and have less involvement in the business . (It’s as if she chose a remote location with spotty internet on purpose!)   We were going to see how we did without her for a while. Unfortunately, the last few months kinda threw us a curveball!

“Initially, she got stuck in Panama and I had to make the decision to temporarily close the business down. Thankfully, she’s here now, she made it back. Once she was out of quarantine, we sat down and had an honest discussion. We asked each other, ‘are you scared?’ – Yes, but we needed to open, we needed to figure it out.

“We made the decision to open back up and see how we could help. We needed to do something. We wanted to create some positive energy and feeling that something better is going to happen. To us, it’s a better way of handling it than just sitting and waiting.

“Our re-opening team consists of Mary Lee and I, our beloved dishwasher and our kitchen manager. The four of us are wearing every hat possible. We are the delivery people, the packers, the cookers and the phone answerers. We’re doing this to keep the lights on by doing our own sort of pivot strategy during COVID until we can go back to catering events.”

Finding Reasons to Celebrate

For 2020, Emelle’s marketing theme was centered on finding reasons to celebrate. With good news hard to come by so far this year, this campaign seems more relevant than ever –  even if it needs to be slightly adjusted.

“Our big marketing push for 2020, and part of the campaign we submitted to win Best Marketer at the SBBC Awards was ‘what are you celebrating this year?’ Reopening, it’s about finding, at least for us, the things you can still celebrate.

“I know everyone is getting bogged down in bad news, most of us are terrified about our health and about our business, what the world’s going to look like etc. but it’s still really important to think of the things we can still celebrate.

“We can still bang our pots and clap to celebrate healthcare workers, we can still celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and we can still be grateful on so many levels. It’s about finding that real core of what we call hospitality for us – it’s kind, caring, giving, warmth – all the stuff we talked about before is still just as relevant, we just need to reframe it to fit in this new application.”

The Challenges Posed by COVID-19

No matter the industry they’re in, businesses face common challenges in navigating COVID-19. Demand has fallen, while staff are understandably reluctant to step outside when asked to stay home. How businesses plot a course through these issues will make all the difference in the short term.

“We realize not everybody wants to come to work when they’re encouraging you to stay at home. People have the absolute right to stay home because they’re afraid. A lot of our team here takes the bus or transit and they didn’t want to be out in those public situations – and rightfully so.

“When Mary Lee got back, we personally started doing the delivery service. Her and I are taking the bullets, being those frontline staff and doing what we can to keep the lights on and be a part of our community. We’re delivering lunches to frontline workers; we’re doing prepared meal deliveries and grocery stuff.

“Can we support a team of 40 people right now? No, we absolutely cannot. However, still guided by our principles of being kind, caring, giving, we can get them groceries once a week. We still have our supply chains open, so it’s the least we can do. We can help folks with rent and do other things to try and support our team.

“Getting food to the DTES has been a big community goal for us. We don’t have much, but we are coming from a place of abundance compared to others so the responsibility is there for us to help. Eventually it’ll come back around.

“The times we’re living in are so much bigger than ourselves. Sure, many of us are terrified about our businesses and, rightfully so. But it’s not about business. It’s about community. This is a global problem and you have to get out of your own bubble and know that everyone is in the same boat. Once we all realize this, we can work together and get all of us out of this in decent shape.”

Learning Lessons from COVID

The last few months have proved a crash course for many business owners. Business plans have had to be revisited, and a keen interest in public health has become a necessity. For Nicole, the crisis has allowed her to reflect and reassess what is important to her as a business leader.

“I’ve learned a lot since this started! Here’s one thing: I wrote an acronym on a sticky note I keep on my desk. The acronym is CARE

  • Compassionate
  • Adaptable
  • Resilient
  • Emelle’s

“And that is what I’ve learned. When you don’t think clearly in these times you can make rash decisions. We’re all feeling under pressure right now. People talk about your productivity going down when you’re fearful, when you have anxiety and are stressed out, right? It’s understanding that you need to be compassionate to yourself and those around you at this time. Adaptable for your business and those depending on you, and being resilient, which means we’re going to make it to the other side of this and things are going to be ok. And then, with all that in mind, I focus on my business, Emelle’s.”

Find Out More

Small Business BC’s COVID Support Service is designed to act as a one-stop resource for businesses and individuals with questions regarding COVID-19 supports. Find the latest updates and connect with an advisor over the phone.