Managing the coronavirus crisis – lessons from a small business going through it

30 March, 2020 · 6 min read

A few weeks ago, Feast was a food catering business delivering lunch to agencies in central London. 3 weeks ago they became a home delivery food company, the exact time coronavirus spread through the UK and businesses quickly isolated their staff. Here’s a few lessons in crisis management we have learned from speaking to their founder, Dom O’Neill.

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Feast started out 3 years delivering a more interesting lunch option for meetings than the standard fare of carved up Pret sandwich platters – serving the advertising and media industry which Dom had left to start up his own business.

“Our business had been growing steadily every year with 40% annual growth, and we had seen our record week at the end of February 2020”. Feast had even invested this year in a new electric delivery vehicle, spending a large portion of the company’s capital to lower their carbon footprint.

Dom talked us through the last 3 weeks at Feast, and what happened to his business – we have applied the learnings on crisis management to what he told us.

#1: You can’t plan for every crisis

It’s very difficult to create a crisis management plan for every single eventuality, but it’s still worth planning for a few. “For all the contingencies in the world you can’t plan for this”. But Dom had been planning for a few scenarios, “we had planned for many things, from fridges breaking, not being able to deliver the food, or working as a smaller team due to illness.” Having these plans already in place put the business in a better position than looking at everything cold.

Dom also knew whether he closed the business or kept open – his costs were the same – rent and wages. He had 12 weeks worth of cash to keep himself afloat, which is time to think of a plan, even if the exact plan wasn’t already in place when the crisis hits.

In the first 2 weeks of March our orders reduced by 50%. By the 16th, orders had hit zero

#2: Spot the crisis early 

If you haven’t planned for a particular crisis, spotting the signs early are the next best thing. With coronavirus, many people didn’t predict the velocity that business in central London would close and send staff to work at home – catching a lot of businesses in the area off guard.

For Feast, business in March quickly hit rock bottom as Advertising agencies sent staff home to have video-conference meetings and work at home – which is a bit of a killer when your business caters for gatherings in office spaces.

“In the first 2 weeks of March our orders reduced by 50%. By the 16th, orders had hit zero”. 

Feast made a brand new menu in 24 hours as the crisis hit
Feast made a brand new menu in 24 hours as the crisis hit

#3: Analyse your options and act quickly

While planning for scenarios gives you a set of actions and ideas you can use in a crisis, creating a path and executing it quickly is even more vital when the time comes. This is also when it becomes very helpful to have thought of a few contingencies in the past already, even if they weren’t about the exact crisis you are in.

“We were very pragmatic – we all sat down on the Monday morning to discuss what to do. We had considered using Deliveroo in the past, but they take 35% of your order cost, and although they could reach a bigger audience, their fees would have meant charging our customers more and put a big strain on the team making food all day, with 16 hour days just to keep going”.

Changing to serve evening meals to people at home (rather than cold lunches) involved going into Feast’s corporate catering menu, testing out the recipes, testing which dishes could be scaled up easily and making sure they could be frozen. Side dishes couldn’t freeze, so they would still be made fresh. Within 24 hours Feast had a new menu and 100 of each main dish already tested, made and ready for delivery.

Feast also supply cakes to coffee shops – so they quickly set up an online store and are now posting gluten free brownies to customers across the country via Big Cartel.

Dom also furloughed 3 of his team using the Government’s offer to cover 80% of the wages of any furloughed staff. Those who could isolate themselves away from London did so, taking the total team size down to 3 which kept costs as lean as possible.

#4: Retain your values

The crisis will be over eventually, and when things return to normal it’s important you haven’t forgotten the core values that you built your business with in the years before the crisis. For Feast, it’s about organic produce, wholesome dishes and a low impact on the environment, using local suppliers and their electric delivery van.

“When we started home delivery we stuck to meals you could have every night with your kids. It’s healthy and wholesome food at a decent price (£6 per portion), not the usual takeaway meals”.

Feast also teamed up with their fruit and veg supplier to deliver boxes of essentials to anyone who orders a hot meal. “Our supplier was struggling as much as we were, they supply a lot of the top London restaurants. We were making the deliveries anyway, so we’ve teamed up to help people get hold of things that weren’t available in the supermarkets”.

We’re expecting volume to pick up once people have cleared out their fridges from the initial panic buying

#5: Understand your “new” market

A crisis may make companies look to new markets for revenue, but it can also create the illusion of a new market – when in fact your customers are the same people, just in a new situation. 

“Orders are modest so far, but we’re expecting volume to pick up once people have cleared out their fridges from the initial panic buying”. 

Feast isn't doing a big Marketing push, but trying to grow organic business from the people they already made connections with in the Advertising industry, who are all now stuck at home.  “We can’t really afford it and it just feels too noisy with everyone talking about coronavirus, and glued to the news”. 

Feast is serving a local set of postcodes in West London (brownies are still nationwide), within a few mile radius that is feasible for delivery, and trying to spread word via online groups in the area, whether it’s sports clubs or NCT groups. They are also continuing to do leaflet drops in the closest postcodes to their kitchen, and working outwards from there. “Our website traffic is up 2000% over the last weekend so we know people are checking us out, we’re just hoping it turns into orders in the coming days and weeks”.

The long term plan for Feast at Home is to get back to the lunch catering that they’ve built up once business gets back to normal, whenever that is. In the meantime check out their site here and order some meals if you live around W2, W9, W10, W11, W13 & NW6 in London. 

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