In small ways, Laurine Wickett, head chef and owner at San Francisco's Left Coast Catering, predicted our new COVID-19 reality in February. Early reports of the outbreak coincided with her re-read of the pandemic thriller Station 11, and the parallels felt startling. Wickett cut her expenses almost immediately.
"We were a bit of the canary in the coal mine," she says, explaining that Left Coast caught wind of the potential threat as the corporate events that comprise the majority of her sales were canceled, one after the other.
As with so many small businesses, COVID-19 struck a swift and decisive blow to Left Coast's bottom line. It was supposed to be a good year; sales were in the millions, and Wickett employed around 70 full- and part-time employees. Then the reality of social distancing and stay-at-home orders brought the catering industry to a grinding halt, with no end in sight. As of mid-April, Wickett laid off all but a handful of employees. It was a huge loss for the owner, a former Top Chef contestant, who founded her company and successfully built a following by referral and word of mouth over decades.
"Initially my thought was that I was in so much shock and disbelief," Wickett says. "My business of 25 years was completely dismantled. But in the back of my mind, I know that I was going to be able to move into an aspirational point."
Left Coast Catering had to figure out what to do with its surplus inventory. Whipping up meals for first responders or others in need seemed like an obvious solution, but Wickett quickly ruled it out. "That means bringing people back into the kitchen, which is a huge risk to my staff and family," she says. "That just didn’t feel like a good decision."
With an industrial kitchen full of produce and pandemonium unfolding at grocery stores everywhere, the immediate solution seemed obvious: a curated box of high-quality fruits, vegetables, and pantry staples, maybe with a few artisanal products from local vendors thrown in. She circulated an order form among friends and clients and started distributing boxes from her facility in a drive-through setup.
The response was immediately positive. People could get the flour and eggs they couldn't find at the store, and the fresh produce encouraged customers to eat the vegetables they might only consume at restaurants. Customers have described Left Coast's box as "like opening a Christmas present."
Wickett sees this pivot as a valuable opportunity. For all its woes, COVID-19 provided her a moment to pause and re-evaluate the reasons she got into the catering business, and whether she's fulfilled by what Left Coast did each day. Only now has Wickett realized her business chose growth over mission.
"I started a catering company because I like to feed people," she says. "Feeding a 500-person conference fruit and granola bars was not why I went to culinary school, but they were great money."
"I kind of got caught up in the growth strategy," she adds. "I don’t feel like I had a good end goal in mind. I just thought that’s what you’re supposed to do."
Which is why, for now, she's not focused on ramping up quite yet. Internal calculations estimate that it takes about 50 boxes a week to cover operating expenses, and Left Coast has enough cash to last six months.
"Some people think they’re going to turn the lights on and the economy will be roaring along — I don’t think that’s true," she says. "I feel like the best model right now is that startup mentality, which is to keep it really lean. Throw out a product if it doesn’t work. Iterate, try it out again. I’m not going to invest a lot of time and resources into something. I’m going to test it and see what works."