More people cooked in their own kitchens during the pandemic, but it also increased demand for at-home meal services.
By Shane Snider | Photography by Lauren V. Allen
The concept of personal chefs during pre-pandemic life wafted an air of indulgence. But as COVID-19 stifled even our most menial activities (relegating grocery shopping to an exercise in fear and paranoia), we’ve developed a taste for delivered convenience beyond an iPhone-hailed pizza. Local caterers and restaurants have benefited, and outfits offering at-home meal service for casual and higher end fare are still feasting on a market boom.
According to McKinsey & Company, the global food delivery market boiled over during the pandemic, with a gluttonous $150 billion revenue haul in 2021 (more than tripling since 2017). Even with inflation pinching pocketbooks, it seems the at-home meal market is holding steady (for now, at least). Considering the anecdotal evidence laid out locally, our appetite for catered cuisine is no passing fad.
Caterers used the concept of at-home personal deliveries to address the drought in events during that first year of COVID-19 and to bridge the revenue gap while waiting for federal loans for much-needed financial respite. Still, many Durham businesses have kept the personal delivery option even as event business returns. And they say demand is still strong for prepared meals.
SERVING UP A NEW NORMAL
Matt Northrup’s pre-pandemic future was pretty bright. His Redstart Foods operation, which began in 2015 as a private chef service, had a budding new catering business with a client roster that included the Durham Bulls and many more. When COVID-19 reared its ugly head, he feared the worst. “The pandemic hit, and all the catering business dried up,” he said. “I was really worried.” Things seemed to only worsen in the short term. Fear began to settle in as clients fretted about virus spread through delivery contact. Everything was an unknown at that point. “It was a month or two before people started to realize that’s not how it was spreading,” Northup said. “It was crazy. And I was 100% worried that was the end of my business.”
But the pandemic didn’t end up devouring Northrup’s dream. Instead, his business flourished as the at-home orders started rolling in. The idea, luckily, was nothing new to Northrup. He was serving up personal catering even before the pandemic, but on a much smaller scale. “Back then, I only needed a few clients, and it was really personalized,” he said. “That business was just baked in.”
Fast forward to an almost-post-pandemic-existence – Redstart’s at-home delivery service now makes up 85% of its business. And overall revenues have doubled, exceeding Northup’s expectations and forcing him to forge a radical new business path. “Now, when I think about what we do, I think of us as a meal delivery company that also does catering,” Northrup said, adding that his staff has increased from three workers to eight. “This is our business now.”
Queen Precious-Jewel Zabriskie, co-owner, CEO and executive chef of Indulge Catering LLC, had a similar pandemic epiphany after COVID-19 shutdowns canceled 95% of her bookings in the first year. “We were mourning our business and mourning our freedom,” she said of that first shocking week of U.S. lockdowns in March 2020. Still, after sharing some prayers and tears, Zabriskie alongside wife, co-owner/COO and sous chef Jacqueline “Jay” White, realized they needed to make some drastic steps to save their business.
Zabriskie credits late Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken owner Tom Ferguson (who died unexpectedly in February), with throwing her a lifeline piece of advice: “Do whatever you can to save the business.” The Indulge owners trimmed costs and started an aggressive at-home delivery plan. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we reimagine the business,'” Zabriskie said. The company started packaging “IndulgentCelebration” boxes – a three-course meal dropped at the front door. They added a family option with pans of food to feed four to six people. As events start heating up, the delivery side of the business reduced to a simmer, but demand for at-home services are still stronger than they were pre-pandemic.
“This is a new norm,” Zabriskie said.
AN UNLIKELY BUSINESS EDUCATION
Delivered family dinner offerings gave Sage & Swift Gourmet Catering a business and marketing boost. Owner Amy Tornquist’s “Meals-To-Go” menu proved popular and led to more catering opportunities. “We started in January, just before the pandemic, as a way to broaden our business,” she said. “We didn’t do as much personal catering at that point, but we saw it as a good way to make new friends. Doing it during the pandemic helped me keep 90% of our staff.”
While Sage & Swift returned to mainly event catering, Tornquist and her staff of nine full-time employees have held on to the smaller personal delivery side of the business. Tornquist said there are times when it’s not possible to handle personal orders along with a large event. “Sometimes we can’t do our dinners to go,” she said, adding that she expects to continue offering the service even with the pandemic winding down. “There’s really not a bad thing about it – it’s always good to meet people. We build more customers who might need us for larger events. It’s a win-win.”
Indulge’s Zabriskie said the pandemic served as a reset – pausing what was a hectic catering schedule and forcing the company to examine every aspect of the business. That meant not only bolstering at-home options, but also exploring a product line that included spices and sauces with Indulge’s branding. “We were able to sit down and concentrate on recipes and sauces,” she said, “and now we have a full-fledged line of products.” For Redstart, the business shift was dramatic and lasting. “We have to think of ourselves as more of an e-commerce company now,” Northrup said. “And we have to have a shipping and logistics end of the business we didn’t have before.”
All businesses are also dealing with the macroeconomic realities that have caused massive inflation spikes across the board. “It’s not like things are slowing down,” Northrup said. “But everything is more expensive … like, a lot of things are 80% more expensive. That’s the new dynamic, and it means we have to do more volume.”
Zabriskie is also wrestling with inflation as her business changes. “This new normal is still scary because we still face sourcing issues, and everyone is dealing with rising costs,” she said. “But now we can sit back and do projections – that’s something we didn’t do before the pandemic. This has forced me to become a better businesswoman.”