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. If you have not yet read the previous episodes – be sure to start from the beginning!
The Abrupt Shutdown
We all arrived to work the Monday after our all-team meeting and the day started out like usual – for about an hour until we realized that we actually have to figure out how to abruptly shut down our business. The scramble began. We close our business for a few days every January to give our team a much-deserved break after the insane hustle of the month of December, but we do not actually fully shut down, more like a deep clean. This was a true shut down – of everything. Let’s talk about the first layer – events needed to be rescheduled, deliveries needed to be canceled, 200+ employees needed help filing for unemployment, all the questions from our team needed to be answered, our initial policy for how we were going to handle what would be hundreds of rescheduled events needed to be made, the templates for our sales team needed to be written so we were sending out universal messaging to all clients, our offices and kitchen needed to be deep cleaned, signs needed to be made for all the doors saying we were closed, vendors needed to be notified, deliveries needed to be canceled and the kitchen needed to be shut down. More on the kitchen soon. That could be an entire blog.
In addition to fully shutting down, we also needed to figure out how to reduce our budget significantly. The company went on an immediate spending freeze, but we needed to do way more than this to lower our current expenses and mitigate the damage that COVID-19 was about to bring. We immediately requested rent abatement, we called all of our credit card companies and requested COVID-19 relief terms, we reduced the number of vehicles on our insurance (since they wouldn’t be leaving our parking lot), we requested a workers comp reduction based on reduced employees, we actually started to use better payment terms we had in place but had never needed to use with our vendors. We canceled knife services, plant services, laundry services, and the monthly retainer for our marketing agency. We suspended water delivery services, compost services, GPS services of all vehicles, reduced trash pickup to once per week instead of every day, turned down the hot water heaters and HVAC systems, unplugged all electronics that would not be needed, reduced cell phone plans, reduced the number of software, computer licenses and email addresses in use. We exercised the new ILCC laws to return beer we no longer needed for a credit. We called the local police department to request extra patrols. Are you still with me? I am sure I missed a few things. It was exhausting to think about every layer of our business that needed to be abruptly shut down. Once all of this was done, we had a leadership meeting and went through every single bill – line by line – and came up with solutions to find additional cost savings. At the end of that meeting – the question was asked – what are we going to do with all our inventory?
A Stocked Kitchen, But No Events
We moved into our current building in 1991, and not once have we ever shut down all 10 walk-in coolers or our entire kitchen. Our kitchen is 30,000 square feet. We typically have about $250,000 of food inventory in our commissary at any given time. We had chefs scheduled in our kitchen for a few more days so we set to work trying to use as much food as we could before it would go bad. Some of the obvious things were done first – anything that could be frozen and used later was processed to be frozen. One of our immediate offerings to help our furloughed team was a complimentary employee meal pickup service. We sent out a simple ordering link to our whole team and set to work making as many individual and family meals as possible for pickup at the end of the week. Like always, Friday came around too quickly and we watched our entire team pack up their things for what we thought was going to be two to three weeks at home. We all felt all the emotions as we packed up that day– fear of the unknown, the uncertainty of the future, anxiety about the virus, sad to be furloughed but also hope and laughter about all of the things on our quarantine to-do list while we had all of this time. Time is a valued commodity and not something you have in excess when you work in this industry. We were facing two to three weeks (so we thought) of nothing but time to do so many things that never make the cut in the hustle and bustle of the event grind. Looking back, for me, I never had a second of leftover time to do anything but work and that was one of my hardest emotional struggles to overcome. I saw everyone else reading, relaxing, binge-watching Netflix, going on walks, doing house projects and I found myself jealous and sad that I did not have any time to do anything but work really hard to keep us moving forward. I am so proud of what we accomplished and continue to accomplish, but when you go from running a company with the combined brainpower of a 40+ office team to 4 people in the middle of a global pandemic that is decimating your industry, time is not something you have on your side.
The leadership team arrived to work on Monday after the closure and the silence of an empty office and walking through the closed kitchen brought me to tears. That is when reality truly hit for me that we were closed. During difficult times, every decision we make and every action we take can transform a bad situation into one of positivity, and we knew we could help
We took inventory and still had an insane amount of perishable food in our walk-in coolers and knew we had to continue to find ways to make meals, even though we were closed. We sent an all-team email asking for volunteers to come in and help cook so we could continue the complimentary employee meal pickups and make meals for so many people in need in the communities we serve.
We got a great response and created two teams on different days for the utmost safety to come in and volunteer their time to make a LOT of food. We had people from all parts of our business including venues, operations, sales, culinary, and leadership offer their time. We created recipes based on what we had in stock, adjusted the kitchen for physical distancing, pulled out any food-safe containers we had (quite the variety) from our warehouse, and set to work. I do not know the exact count, but our volunteers made meals in the thousands. Even after making hundreds of meals for our employees, we had quite a bit leftover.
We partnered with Niles Township Food Pantry, a division of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and brought them hundreds of meals. We donated meals to Northwestern Settlement to help their fight against hunger and to the Lurie Cancer Center doctors at Northwestern Hospital who spent hours away from their families every day to rise to the enormous challenge of caring for all those in need. We brought hundreds of meals for drive-thru pickup to Family Focus Highland Park for all their families in need. We brought full pallets of fresh fruit to North Shore Hospital to give to all their amazing front line workers who are making magic happen every day. We brought pallets of food to a local restaurant that was providing groceries to furloughed restaurant workers.
Our sole focus for several days was making sure that all our perishable food from hundreds of canceled events would be used for the greater good in the communities we serve. One by one, we shut down our coolers as they were emptied. It was sad but also so gratifying to reflect on how many mouths we fed that week and how many people in need we served with the food from our canceled events. In everything, you can always find a silver lining, bring good from the bad, inspire hope over fear, and this was our silver lining. Stay tuned next week for our crash course in phase one of leading our company through a global pandemic.