My name is Lisa Ware and I am the Director of Business Development & Special Projects at Catering by Michaels. I have been writing each week about our journey through COVID-19. This is about my personal experience as we have been living through COVID-19 in our business. If you have not yet read the previous episodes – be sure to start from the beginning!
We took the redeye flight home from Las Vegas after Catersource. This was Friday, March 13th so at the very beginning of COVID-19 – still before any official mandates, travel advisories, or any guidance on any level. Our leadership team which has now been dubbed our Crisis Management Team – includes our Owner, Stewart Glass, our Executive Vice President, David Sandler, our Director of Operations, Jeff Ware (also my husband), and myself – Director of Business Development. We set up a meeting for later in the day so we could get a few hours of sleep.
I remember the drive to the meeting vividly – I was tired, scared, and a little nervous. This was the first meeting about COVID-19, and I had just witnessed how it affected so many other businesses while we were at Catersource. I knew this meeting would be hard. I knew we were going to have to make some very hard decisions. I had no idea of the marathon meeting adventure we were about to go on. We met on Friday for a long time and came up with a solid plan. By the time Saturday came around, literally less than 10 hours from when we left the meeting on Friday night, our plan was out the window due to new guidance that there could be no gatherings in Illinois greater than 50 people. So, the leadership team met again all day on Saturday to come up with a new plan.
We are an employee-first company. We believe that if you take care of your people, that will trickle down to your clients and the overall guest experience. Prior to COVID-19, Catering by Michaels had never bounced a paycheck. Not through 9/11, and not a single paycheck missed during the recession of 2008, which was hard, extremely hard to survive as a company. I say that to preface what a big decision and crisis we were up against. So here we are facing this tsunami of a virus that we still knew nothing about. We analyzed the COVID-19 situation from every single angle possible, for hours, and always came back to the solution that we need to temporarily shut down. There were a lot of sighs and that slow head nod you do when you agree with the decision, but you are heartbroken by it. We decided we were going to stay open for one week but at reduced operations so everyone would get another paycheck and then cease all operations for two weeks, hoping that we would be ahead of everything and it would be safe to come back to work. We had planned to re-open in time to execute Passover and Easter events the week of April 6th. Hindsight is 20/20 and we never would have dreamed that Catering by Michaels would still be closed on May 12th – the date I am writing this blog, but that story is for a future episode.
So here we were, we made the decision to close – now what. We absolutely knew that we could not tell our 200+ employees that they were (temporarily) out of a job in an email or phone call, so we called an all team, in-person meeting for the next day. We figured out how to set up a zoom account so we could live stream to anyone who could not attend in person. To try to get as many people there as possible, we offered this meeting as a paid shift. In our heads, we knew this might be the last hours available to most of our team for a while. We knew we had to write a script. This was not the type of meeting we could just wing and not have a very thought out message. I am typically the scribe in these meetings and try to keep track of everything that everyone is saying, it is kind of like a loud and fast ping pong match. I am sure I asked some questions about how we should begin, and I was answered with silence. How do you begin a meeting to tell your employees they no longer have a job? How do we reassure them that this is temporary? How do we answer their questions about a virus that we still knew nothing about? How do we abruptly shut down our business for the first time ever? How do we also offer all this messaging in Spanish and have it translated by tomorrow? We had our work cut out for us! It was a long day, but we had a script, the meeting was set up, we all had our marching orders of everything we needed to pick up or buy for the meeting tomorrow. We all took a deep breath and headed out. Jeff and I were responsible for printing the script, writing the unemployment letter that every employee would need, and printing any information we could find to help make their path easier. I think we got home at midnight.
I had shared with my family via text what we were up against and what our plan was the night before at some point and when their responses came in, that was my trigger for the tears. Prior to that, I had kept it together and was solely focused on getting our to-do list done. I say that because in the car on the way to the meeting, I knew that I should not send any messages or call anyone in my family before the meeting or the tears would come, but I couldn’t help myself. I was nervous, scared, heartbroken and so overwhelmed with what we were about to do, and I needed their words of encouragement. I sent my sister a text about being nervous and she responded with, “It’s going to be terrible and it is ok to show emotion!” That undid me. The tears were coming on stronger with every mile we drove. Jeff held my hand and said this is what you should be feeling, this is going to be terrible and it is ok to cry. I gave myself one of those internal pep talks about being strong, I thought about things that made me happy, I laughed at something Jeff said to try and cheer me up. And I faced the day. Our team brings me an insane amount of joy. Seeing them gave me strength. Our team was smiling, laughing, and offering so much encouragement before the meeting even began, even though they had to know what was coming. The script was a lifesaver and we got through the meeting. Our Spanish translator fell through because of the very hard topic and one of our team members from Independence Grove stepped up HUGE and handled the Spanish translations for us. We survived. I expected anger and our team responded with strength. I expected fear and our team responded with encouragement. I expected sadness and our team responded with support. All of us were absolutely feeling all those things, but in a time of chaos, we came together as a family and chose support, and that speaks volumes about our team. I knew we had a special team from the beginning, I have worked for 4 other catering companies and none of them even come close to Catering by Michaels. After this meeting, after we told all our employees they are out of jobs, because of their reaction, I had hope again. I had hope that whatever faces us in the next weeks and months, we will keep our employee-first approach and get through it together. We will be candid in the decisions we make for the company and do everything in our power to provide as much support as we can. We were confident that we had made the very best decision for our employees and our company. The very next day, the first shelter in place order was announced. We weren’t surprised. Instead of racing to figure out what to do, we had just spent 3 days launching a layered, proactive, thorough, and smart plan that had been shared in person with our entire team. We were ready (at least we thought) for COVID-19 and all that was to come.
Stay tuned next week for our crash course in shutting down a business and what we did with a kitchen full of food that would otherwise go to waste! This one will be uplifting and make you smile – promise!