08 October 2020, 11:12 AM
  • How three food and drink start-ups pivoted their business in the midst of a pandemic
Three food entrepreneurs on how they made a success out of lockdown

The Covid-19 pandemic threw the food and drink industry into disruption, with supply chains breaking down and the hospitality industry closing up shop overnight. But many keen entrepreneurs have shown they are undeterred by this challenging new landscape.

For agile small businesses, there was only one way to get through the lockdown: adapt. “What we’re seeing is entrepreneurs seizing the opportunity they see. Moving forward, those with a flexible, adaptable business model will be better able to survive and thrive through the pandemic and beyond,” said Emma Jones, founder of small business support network Enterprise Nation.

Small fine food businesses have adapted to the challenges caused by Covid-19 by increasing digital services, implementing delivery options and creating new, relevant products. “For many, this has been their first experience of the digital world, but it opens up so many new possibilities,” Emma said.

Speciality Food has spoken to three entrepreneurs who have pivoted their business amid the lockdown and found success in these challenging times.

From a bar hire service to alcohol gift boxes
Jimmy Emmett co-founded Black Ducks towards the end of 2019. He and his partner Clare had planned to provide high-end bar setups for private, public and corporate functions, and their summer was booked up with weddings, birthday parties and even a small camper van festival. Then Covid hit, and all of the events were cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

Faced with the prospect of returning thousands of pounds of deposits and with no source of income, the two realised they would need to flip their business fast.

“The weather was beautiful at the time, and we were sitting in our garden having a ‘business meeting’ trying to work out what we were going to do to save our business. The sun beat down, water condensed on the outside of our glasses of gin, and we realised that the pivot which Black Ducks needed was in our hands,” Jimmy said.

After posting a few photos of a selection of alcohol gift boxes to social media, their alcohol delivery business had begun. “The response was immediate and overwhelming, and we were possibly a little unprepared for how popular the boxes became. At the peak, Clare and I would spend up to five hours driving all across Northampton dropping off up to 20 boxes a day.”

Online alcohol sales were one area that saw a pandemic-related boost. In fact, OnePoll found that 25% of people who drink said they were drinking more in lockdown. So it’s no surprise that Jimmy and Clare found success after making their pivot. “At a time when everyone was somewhat alone and the normal summer social gatherings were cancelled, the boxes became an ideal way for friends and family to show that they were thinking of each other.”

Going forward, even as events begin to book up again, Jimmy and Clare plan to continue their alcohol gift box deliveries. “They’re lots of fun to do, we can tailor them to the seasons and different holidays, and honestly, without knowing which way the Covid restrictions are going to go, it would be foolish to stop the main income stream of our business.”

Their most important takeaway from lockdown? “The importance of social media, and also how time consuming it can be,” Jimmy said. “All of the success our company has had so far has been directly related to the work that Clare has done on Facebook and Instagram.”

Boosting online business
Kate Saunders, the founder of veggie-infused cake brand Blackberry Cottage, had already been selling her cakes online for years when the pandemic hit, but the lockdown gave her a newfound drive to boost her online business.

One way she did that was by taking part in the Food and Drink Bootcamp run by the Amazon Small Business Accelerator. Through that course, she gained the confidence to list her products on Amazon. “I had always wanted to take my business to the next level of online sales, and Amazon was on my bucket list although it always eluded me a little. I had looked into listing my products a few times, but I didn’t have the confidence to storm ahead with listing my products, just due to the enormity of it.”

The pandemic had its difficulties for a baker as supplies ran low in shops. “I actually closed up shop for a couple of weeks at the start of lockdown as ingredients started to become hard to get hold of. Then, my local customers were asking if I could provide them with cakes and treats. I took a hard look at my products and cut out a few and had a revamp of some others.”

Kate also began taking social media more seriously and used it to share her products and newsletter. “I learned how to use Google Analytics to show me what key words worked, where my online sales were coming from and at what time, so I could put more focus in those areas. As people have come out of lockdown these habits are changing again,” she explained.

Opportunities have also sprung up out of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as the increased focus on healthy eating. “We have seen a drive towards healthy living during lockdown, and businesses like ours can support and enthuse the customer. By creating a cake with some nutritional value we certainly had many repeat customers.”

Kate also found success by offering mini online courses. “That is something I have always wanted to do, but it was a pandemic that made me actually do it.” In her courses, she aims to teach people to make great-tasting cakes with vegetables. “I will be adding to these online courses over the next six months,” Kate said.

Spicing up the kitchen for reluctant cooks
Mallika Basu started her spice business SIZL late last year, but when the lockdown hit, in response to depleted supermarkets and the rise in home cooking, she decided to create multipurpose spice and herb blends to take the stress out of mealtime. “The idea was to give reluctant cooks and busy people a shortcut to flavour. Since then, our blends have been in our top five bestsellers on our website.”

Despite the success, Mallika said she and partner Amar Dani ran into challenges at every step. “Nailing the blend recipes was no mean feat during lockdown with my fellow food loving co-founder in Kent and me in London working on the recipes, which have no cheap bulkers or fillers. We operated a factory with reduced capacity and had to all get stuck into filling tins. Packaging was hard to come by, so we worked with what we had readily available.”

However, there were opportunities too. The speed with which the team pivoted to a new product meant that they were able to collect important consumer feedback in a short space of time, leading to a better product. Mallika said she learned to look for the opportunity in every situation. “The food and drink industry is more resilient than we realise,” Mallika said.

How has your business been affected by the pandemic? Get in touch with courtney.goldsmith@aceville.co.uk

Image courtesy of Blackberry Cottage

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