5 Tips to Help Caterers Handle the Effects of COVID-19

By Ryan O'Neil

Whether talking with an old friend or complete stranger, you'll likely hear a story about how someone was exposed to Corona Virus (COVID-19) or how the virus is impacting their life--even if only indirectly.

As the media continues coverage of the virus, a sense of fear and uncertainty has gripped many and caused major events--from cultural to political to sporting events--to be cancelled.

As a result, caterers around the globe are faced with event cancellations, refund requests, and the possibility of closing their doors for good.

Unlike a major weather disaster, where it happens and a path forward is determined relatively quickly, the questions of if/when normalcy will be possible loom overhead for you, your employees and your clients for weeks--or even months--on end.

To help you navigate this time, here are five tips to help you handle the effects of COVID-19 on your business.

1. Make sure your workplace is safe for employees

The safety of your team should be top priority. At the end of the day, your clients will come and go. But your team becomes like family and each member holds a unique place in your heart. As such, you want to make sure that you're doing everything you can to ensure their continued safety in the face of this situation.

As a caterer, you are no stranger to best-in-class hygiene practices. Much of what you should do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is likely already in place. However, it's a good time to remind employees of what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends, including:

Encouraging employees to take time off if they are exhibiting symptoms is also a critical part of keeping everyone safe. This can be a particularly difficult thing for hourly workers who need to work every hour possible to provide for their families.

Gusto recommends making a payment plan for hourly workers that factors in how and when to pay nonexempt employees who are sent home. While this may mean taking a small financial hit up front, that minimal cost is far less than the costs and end results of having to cancel all your events because one of your employees failed to go home.

2. Help your clients stay calm

Planning an event is scary business. It's even scarier when  you could have a hurricane, blizzard, death in the family or organization, or some other disaster (like COVID-19). Keeping clients calm and maintaining trust with them will go a long way in minimizing the impacts of COVID-19 on your business. 

Share your plans with them for keeping them and your employees safe. Even if you think the situation has been overdone, emphasize that you recognize the legitimate concern for safety and are taking necessary precautions.

Be sure to let them know how these precautions are directly impacting their event(s). For example, that means they will get literal white glove service for no additional cost, make sure they're aware of that change. Or if it means that the staff will be slightly delayed in clearing tables because they need to change their gloves more often, let them know.

Your goal is to make sure they trust that you have their best interest at heart. When they trust you, you'll have less of an issue dealing with them if they have to cancel or postpone their event.

Bonus Tip

One way to help gain their trust is to have a preferred event insurance provider to recommend if a client is concerned about their event. Many clients fail to realize that event insurance even exists. By helping them navigate the process of getting event insurance, you'll be seen as more trustworthy.

3. Stick to your contract clauses while providing excellent service

Even as you share what you're doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, you also need to re-establish what is required of both you and your clients. 

The reality is that once a client books with you, you start working on that event. You block off that spot and even turn down other events because your schedule is full, you do floor plans, you host staff meetings, you order equipment, and you possibly even order food. Chances are that you have already made significant financial investments into events for clients who are canceling at this point.

That said, have your legal team check over your contract and advise you of what you need to do contractually and discuss any specific cases where you may be considering acting outside of your contract to help a client.

In many cases, you may have a clause that would allow you to do an audit of each event that is being cancelled/postponed and refund the remaining balance or use it towards a future event.

If you're unable to offer a refund, being transparent about your processes and why they money is unavailable to be refunded will help the client understand that they do have to pay, even in the event of a cancellation.

If your legal team clears you to make an offer outside of your contractual obligations, take a good look at your financials and overall business model to find ways that you could offer extra value to your clients without hurting your bottom line. Your goal is to make them thankful for having had a difficult conversation with you, even if they failed to get exactly what they wanted (ie a refund).

Julia Conway, of Assaggiare Mendocino, has been gracious enough to share the letter they crafted regarding cancellations or changes as a result of COVID-19 or PGE Public Safety Power Shutoffs. While you should feel free to use it as a template, please run the verbiage past your attorney and liability carrier for applicability in your market and coverage. 

4. Develop a disaster plan for your team

Even if you have a disaster plan in place, it's likely missing what to do in the case of a pandemic. Here are a few tips that OSHA recommends to help develop your pandemic disaster plan:

  • "Prepare and plan for operations with a reduced workforce. 
  • Identify business-essential positions and people required to sustain business-necessary functions and operations. Prepare to cross-train or develop ways to function in the absence of these positions. 
  • Plan for downsizing services but also anticipate any scenario which may require a surge in your services.
  • Provide training, education and informational material about business-essential job functions and employee health and safety, including proper hygiene practices and the use of any personal protective equipment to be used in the workplace. 
  • Assist employees in managing additional stressors related to the pandemic. These are likely to include distress related to personal or family illness, life disruption, grief related to loss of family, friends or coworkers, loss of routine support systems, and similar challenges. Assuring timely and accurate communication will also be important throughout the duration of the pandemic in decreasing fear or worry."

We also recommend making sure that all of your events are up to date in a software to ensure that they can be executed on in a case where your executive culinary team members need to be out. Likewise, ensure that your event proposals are consistent across sales team members so you can divvy up events across your team if a sales team member is impacted.

5. Prepare for economic uncertainty

A general slowdown in spending could impact your business. As Gusto explains:

"Disruptions to your workforce and supply chains are two of the most evident effects of a pandemic like the coronavirus. So, start by identifying essential business functions, jobs or roles, and critical elements within your supply chain that are required to “keep the doors open.”

Document a business continuity plan; this is a plan for how your business will operate if there are broader implications of the issue, like increasing absenteeism or supply chain interruptions. Areas such as inventory, suppliers, employees, subcontractor services and products, and overall business logistics may all be impacted.

Speaking of inventory, don’t forget to increase or decrease your quantity counts now in case your supply chain is affected in either direction."

No matter where you’re located, the truth is that the coronavirus has disrupted the wedding [and event] industry.

Wedding plannerr JoAnn Gregoli of Elegant Occasions by JoAnn Gregoli, explained some of what she has personally seen:

“Travel plans that were scheduled for March have been postponed; shipments have been delayed for wedding gowns that were coming from China; and, of course, weddings in affected areas have been postponed or moved entirely," she says.

As Alison Laesser-Keck, of Alison Bryan Destinations, said,  "It's a waiting game right now. Things are changing day by day and week by week. Don’t do anything drastic before you have a chance to be properly informed.” 

As the situation progresses, there may be some help available from government and private entities. Be sure to be aware of what options are available to help your business weather the storm.

Talk with your leadership and legal teams and develop a course of action in case of a prolonged situation but also be prepared for a situation in which this all disappears and you have a dozen clients who postponed their events ask to schedule for the same day.

Final Thoughts

In my lifetime, I've seen my share of pandemics and mass hysteria. While each of those events may have had an impact on businesses around the world, things do eventually normalize.

If you're one of the caterers who has already had to lay off staff because of event cancellations, my heart goes out to you and your team. But things will get better. 

In the meantime, do what you can to keep yourself, your team, and your clients safe and calm, be prepared for whatever else may come, and make smart decisions that are best for your clients and your business.


Tags: Small Business Sally, Corporate Cate, Established Ed, catering


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