It’s a part of any business, but surviving the slow times can be particularly challenging in the food industry, as Linnet Good reports.
What happens when the phone stops ringing … and stays that way for weeks? You slow down: there’s less to do, and yet somehow it takes more time. You worry about what it means for the business. You have things to do, but somehow, you don’t get around to it. It’s official: you’ve hit the doldrums …
Any catering business will have slow periods, usually mid-year. Adam Bishop of Adam’s Catering, in Mitchell Park, SA, admits that slowing down can result in some motivational challenges.
“You’re in a routine, always on the go with the next event to plan. And then it stops and you fall out of the routine.”
But slow times are also golden opportunities for you to work ‘on’ your business rather than ‘in’ it.
Jacqueline Kenney teaches strategy at the International College of Management in Sydney. She has a number of suggestions for small catering businesses when they have a window of time available.
Giving away a free lunch with friends to your most loyal customers will charge their “loyalty battery”, Kenney says.
“Visit a different suburb and look at how some similar businesses present, offer and do their business. When you work in one place all the time, you become blind to the small details that negatively influence your customer’s perceptions. And they’re usually simple to fix.”
“Think about when you’re going to do your staff training and recruitment, when you will locate, trial and select new suppliers, products and customers; plan, introduce new offers for customers; and take holidays and time out for you,” says Kenney.
“Write personal, business and financial goals.” If your normal working week leaves you exhausted, pick the one job you hate most and pay someone else to do it.
Look critically at your product range. Don’t keep selling those items that people rarely buy—develop some more
appealing alternatives based on what sells. Also look online for free tools and templates to improve your processes.
Of course, slow times are also a good opportunity to take some time off.
Megan Tough, from Complete Potential, which assists businesses solve their strategic and personnel problems, says that when she experienced a downturn not long before Christmas two years ago, she panicked.
“I wondered what I was doing wrong. I was still doing all my usual marketing.”
Her response was to find new markets and plan ahead. “I introduced myself to a bunch of people who hadn’t heard of me. I invested in an expert marketing consultant and a new plan.
“And then suddenly, the phones came back—with a vengeance. I was busier than ever, and none of the work came from my new marketing campaign—it all came from the people I’d already been in touch with.”
The lesson she learnt was to treat downtime as a normal part of business, and a good time for a holiday.
But what if the holiday lasts longer than you can afford? Adam Bishop spends every February and March planning what to do when things slow down mid-year. “You do need to plan ahead,” he says.
Bishop chooses to update his website and advertising, which involves a couple of days taking new images.
This year, he has also launched a new product range, The Passionate Foodie, which is inspired by the best items on his menu. For instance, he repackaged his popular salt and pepper squid seasoning mix, as well as a special chilli, lime and coriander dipping sauce.
During the development stages of the new venture, he participated in workshops with Flavour SA, which assists in product development and marketing for the State’s food industry. While business was slow at home, Bishop made trips to Sydney and Melbourne to showcase his products and network with potential stockists.
Another marketing tool that helps to boost business is, of course, the web. No catering business can afford to be without it, but it also has to be, like any marketing tool, well thought-out and executed. Make sure the design of the site is simple and easy to navigate. Have it Search Engine-Optimised (SEO) so your business appears high up on the first page of search listings.
Use a copywriter to bring the content to life, with all the information that your customers are looking for at their fingertips. Write a blog, send out an email newsletter and keep the content up to date, vibrant and interesting.
Sion Harwood of Gourmet Palette, in Chippendale, NSW, says it’s not motivation but worry that affects him during any downturn in trade. And this is enough motivation in itself to drive him out of the office in an attempt to drum up new business.
In these times, it’s the niche nature of his business that ends up keeping it afloat.
Gourmet Palette caters for fashion photo shoots and corporate events, and Harwood says the slow times only account for three weeks or so at the most. Designers want to shoot their new range about four times a year, and there are also monthly shoots for consumer titles like Vogue Australia. On top of that comes the end-of-year parties that are a mainstay of all catering businesses.
Harwood and his partner Fiona budget for the next year’s marketing at the end of each financial year. He says they are also about to hire a marketing consultant and business coach to look at growing the business.
And a mentor or business coach can also help with more than just motivation.
Ibrahim Safi, of Fiesta Events and Catering in Brunswick, Victoria, says he and his partner’s decision to use a business coach has been invaluable.
“Some things we already knew, others were new to us. Sometimes we just needed a kick up the backside. It’s good to have an unbiased, third-party opinion,” he says.
Fiesta caters for corporate, private and public events, and develops custom menus in Moroccan, Middle Eastern and African cuisines. Halal food is a particular specialty. Safi also runs two other seasonal businesses, which fill the gaps in slow times.
But while keeping busy is good advice, if you’re truly in the doldrums, it can be hard to get going. Michele
Hackshall of Hahn Writing Services offers five tips:
1. Get out of the office. Go for a walk, go to a café, refresh yourself. “Be inspired and
enjoy the break without feeling guilty. Have faith that when you get back to your desk you will be mentally ready to get back to work.”
2. Stay informed. Keep up to date with the industry and with your management of it—read the relevant news, look at other businesses, “learn from their success and integrate it into your own strategy.” Attending seminars to gain new skills can also help boost motivation.
3. Plan ahead. Set aside half an hour at the end of each day to review your work and plan for the following day. Write down all your goals,
set yourself daily tasks and deadlines to achieve them.
4. Brainstorm. Speak with a friend or colleague in the industry who understands your business and faces similar issues.
Get feedback from them and learn from it. Attend networking events. “Share your excitement about a goal with others—it makes it more achievable. Then you can celebrate together over a drink or a meal when you’ve completed your goal.”
5. Reward yourself. “The rewards should fit the task. A small daily goal could be rewarded with a trip to a local café, while a major goal could be rewarded by a holiday.”
And finally, Hackshall says, remember to always enjoy whatever work you do.
A common factor in most of the characters in this article is not only their ability to use the opportunities inherent in their particular markets to avoid those financial doldrums, but also a genuine passion for their work to get themselves out of a slump in business whenever they need to do so.