How I Positioned My Business to Survive 2020—and Thrive Into 2021

The last year has been a long, uphill battle for those of us in the catering and events business. We’ve all had to make tough calls and get creative to survive. But now, I want to focus on how we’re thriving, and share some of the things we’ve done at Puff ‘n Stuff to help get us through challenging times. 

In the spirit of getting through this together, here are some strategies and changes we’ve made to help build resilience into our business, the new opportunities we're chasing down, and how you, too, can be ready for what’s next.

Get a lay of the land, and pay attention to your customers

We’ve learned a lot over the last eight months. We’re located in central Florida, where people typically take events indoors during hotter months, so a summertime pandemic was a complete assault on our business. Unfortunately like many others, we saw an immediate 80-90% reduction in business. But we’re still here, largely because we’ve evolved to meet our customers where they are.

You’ve got to fish where the fish are, and tap into some empathy to give your customers what they need and want most. 

On an individual level, people have been making more use of their homes. In the beginning, it might have looked like ordering in to support local businesses or splurging on the special dining experiences they enjoyed pre-pandemic. But motivations have shifted, especially as the school year resumed. We’ve seen customers looking to battle cooking fatigue and the monotony of being at home each night to families wanting the ease and convenience of meals after a day of work and home-schooling. These are immediate opportunities.

On a social level, gatherings otherwise hosted in public spaces were canceled, postponed, or moved into the home and made more intimate. As caterers for larger events, this is an immediate hurdle that affects how we estimate quantity and scale, but also how we approach these events from a creative perspective. We needed to rethink what we do in order to complement intimate spaces and restrictions on gatherings—and be thoughtful about it. So far, we’ve experimented with entertainment and found some fun, mini-holidays to celebrate. We’ve hosted dinners with magic shows and also created kits for clients to celebrate National Bourbon Day at home with a special Old Fashioned recipe.

We also watched how corporate clients evolved its events. Work-from-home mandates forced companies to find new ways to nurture culture and care for teams. Without an office to deliver to, one client hosted an online “event.” We delivered ready-made meals to 130 households to groups of anywhere from 2-15 people that they virtually shared. It was fun, low-risk, and engaging in a time when remote work was taking a toll. 

Structure and staff your operations for the “new normal”

As you look at your business model to find new opportunities and expand your offerings, look at your team structures. With a larger company like ours, we had to rethink our team structures in order to adjust headcount. When you have a team of people you love but you can’t afford to keep every single one on board full-time, you have to make tough decisions. However, take note: staffing decisions shouldn’t be based on the bottom line alone.

One area we’re actively expanding in is the number of event leads on staff. Since most events are smaller, we want to be able to handle more events simultaneously. Event leads directly contribute to our top line growth, but pre-COVID, finding and training leads was a lengthy investment. Today, we’re able to right-size the job requirements to fit the needs of smaller events in order to open the pool of qualified candidates. 

For us, a partner like Instawork has made temporary workers a viable solution. Instawork pre-vets for experienced, polished individuals who show up on time, ready to work. This helps me reduce overhead but get the support I need on-demand. This shift also requires a bit of upfront investment. For instance, we’ve purchased more uniforms for our on-call staff to further integrate them into our operations. It presents a more polished, unified front to the customer that  sets us apart.

As we, and the rest of the industry, learn to adjust, I believe leaning on partners like Instawork will be the most seamless way to staff our teams flexibly and with confidence.

Find new avenues to deliver value with existing resources

Even now, there are plenty of opportunities for catering companies out there. But not every one will be the right fit for you. Be very clear about who you are as a company, and go after the opportunities that will be sustainable for you operationally and leverage what makes you unique and successful. 

For Puff ‘n Stuff, shifting to meal delivery and prepared foods has been a big play for us. The food preparation and event capabilities were there. Scaling that vertically and horizontally has meant rethinking and optimizing everything to utilize our resources wisely—whether it’s synergy between menus and prep to pre-packaging and limiting delivery dates in order to optimize food cost and quantity.

We knew our meal delivery options would compete with nationwide meal kit services, prepared grocery store meals, and local delivery, so we focused on differentiating ourselves with truly fresh, seasonal meals delivered weekly to our customer’s homes. This has also evolved into its own brand, Heirloom by Puff ’n Stuff.  These heat and serve fresh meals are prepared in our Orlando and Tampa kitchens then delivered to their homes locally, void of delivery fees or minimums. We feature seasonal menus that rotate weekly in family sizes and individual portioning. Heirloom launches in January 2021 with everything available to order right through our new web-app. Each week a more interactive meal will also be offered, featuring items like assemble-it-yourself ramen, fajita kits, etc. Our team is excited to see Heirloom grow into a significant part of our business that keeps us closer to our customers and hopefully makes dinner time feel more like a special event.   

We’ve also scaled our side business, Chef’s Commissary, which provides a culinary partnership for restaurant chefs dealing with resource shortages such as labor and ingredients. It’s been a natural avenue for us to grow as more restaurants outsource aspects to meet demands with fewer hands on the line. 

Keep your chin up, and keep your eye on phase 2—and beyond

All of this has come with pretty significant adjustments—and some silver linings. We’ve all had to adopt more of a startup mentality, pitch in where we can, and wear more hats. Our sales team has even chipped in with some line prep work. We’ve all found a little bit more camaraderie and appreciation for each others’ craft. 

For phase two, we’re working hard to be ready for the new corporate office landscape. The days of going downstairs and meeting up for a big buffet lunch are over. Instead, we’re looking into hot lunch deliveries with the idea that we can create some synergy there with evening delivery menus. 

We’re not out of the woods yet, but the end is in sight—I have no doubt. And remember: if there’s a hurdle to get over, most often, the way over it is with each other. Stay close to your teams, lean into partners who can get you the high-quality help you need, and stay positive! There are brighter days ahead.

Warren is Owner and President of Puff 'n Stuff Catering, a premium catering and food service business in Central Florida. A native of Trinidad, West Indies, Warren began his career with Puff ’n Stuff Catering in 1985 and left the company in 1994 on a mission to broaden his experience and hone his business savvy. And he did so through successful tenures at Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, The Disney Institute, and Scott Kay Platinum. But in 2002, he came back and never looked back.

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