Before the pandemic hit, Toben Food by Design was easily one of Toronto’s fastest-growing catering companies. With a venue, a food truck, and a bourgeoning event catering division in their portfolio, husband and wife duo Ryan Feldman and Elana Kochman had worked hard over the past 15 years building up their family business. Of course, nothing could have prepared them for the devastating toll this pandemic has had on their business.
Let’s talk about the old days
What was business like pre-pandemic?
We were on pace for our strongest year on record. We were forecasting revenue growth of more than 70% year over year and our bookings for 2020 were nearly 200% higher than the same period the year prior. We had built a solid roster of staff and we were even in the process of expanding the team by another 15-20% by the end of April 2020. After years, we felt our company culture had matured and morale was more positive than ever before!
What was the first “issue” or “unraveling” you noticed when the pandemic hit?
Corporate Clients make up about 50% of our annual revenue. As larger companies started discussing office closures at the end of February/beginning of March, we quickly began to sense something was about to happen. A week later, as the closing of offices commenced, our corporate portfolio essentially shut down with it. It was a massive shock to us, and we knew we were in trouble. From there, private clients began canceling in droves and we were left with zero revenue. This worst-case scenario is almost impossible to imagine and frankly, odd to say out loud.
How has your business been affected?
After more than a year into this pandemic, it is still almost unfathomable to think about going from such highs to such unbelievably challenging lows. I don’t think this is something that can be taught in business school. Very few people, if any, would draw up a scenario wherein a matter of one week, monthly revenue would go from our highest ever to $0; while at the same time going from the highest amount of staff on record to furloughing every single staff. It still makes me shudder when I reflect back.
When COVID hit and business halted we were trying to figure out a path forward for the foreseeable future. One path was to lie dormant until COVID passed. This was a real possibility as we had built up some cash reserves and were able to cut almost all expenses. Ultimately, we pivoted two weeks later to begin offering our prepared meal delivery business called Toben At Home (and subsequently Toben at Work). As a result, we were able to re-hire a portion of our staff back.
What has your company done to manage the expectations of Clients?
I am trying to articulate (and likely not doing enough justice) our staff’s ability to work with our clients to manage their expectations during this pandemic. In addition to dealing with their own stresses, they needed to become experts quickly in new offerings (e.g., virtual events, boxed meals, etc.); they also needed to become well versed in the ever-changing government restrictions and protocols due to COVID-19; and finally, be able to cope with clients who themselves are dealing with all the stresses and challenges brought on by COVID. Let’s just say the team undoubtedly gets an A+ for their customer service during this pandemic.
How has your business adapted?
As owners, we constantly remind each other how lucky we have been during this pandemic vis-à-vis some other companies in the hospitality sector. While revenue is a fraction of what it was pre-pandemic and having only been able to bring back about 1/3 of our staff, we still feel fortunate that we have been able to adapt our offerings while others – through no fault of their own – have not been able to do the same. We have a very loyal and wonderful customer base who have helped support us through our Toben at Home/Work delivery business.
When permitted, our Food Truck business has also proven successful during the pandemic as many people want to gather outside and Food Trucks are a great way to serve our clients. We have also introduced virtual events, live and taped cooking events, and boxed meal solutions. We continue to look for new ways to innovate and meet the needs of our clients and the market during these difficult times.
As owners, we felt like we let our staff and their families down.
How has the pandemic affected you personally?
Describe how you’ve dealt with some of your lowest points this pandemic?
No doubt, there have been some very challenging and low points throughout this ordeal. The lowest point professionally was having to furlough our entire organization within a one-week period. Toben is a family-owned business, and our staff is like extended family, so it was devastating having had to furlough them and still – even a year later – not be in a position to bring the entire team back. As owners, we felt (and still feel) like we let our staff and their families down.
On a personal level, this year has also had many challenges. One of my co-owners also happens to be my wife, so in some ways, I feel I have also let her down during this pandemic. Secondly, we are blessed with three beautiful daughters who were 3, 6, and 8 when the pandemic began. Seeing our oldest two daughters try to comprehend the world flipping upside down and experiencing stress and anxiety was very difficult for us and made us feel a bit helpless.
What sorts of activities have you done to keep a level head?
With the business and 3 kids, there is limited free time; however, I make a conscious effort to exercise regularly. And where possible (much to the chagrin of my wife), watching as many Leaf games as possible (Go Leafs Go).
What do you see happening for your business in 2021?
Our Toben at Home business will continue to be successful. However, I hesitate to believe there will be much change to our core business in 2021. On the one hand, there is a glimmer of hope as we have begun to have conversations with our corporate partners about them having a modified reopening in mid to late fall, but this is still somewhat speculative. On the other hand, most people need to be vaccinated and start going back to the office in order to begin the process of moving back to normalcy with people feeling comfortable in close proximity to others.
At the same time, the government needs to clearly define guidelines for re-opening and staying the course, meaning not changing “zones” frequently. In my opinion, even as numbers improve and vaccinations increase, there is still the psychological element where people need to feel safe going out. We need a bit of a “mob-effect” where people see others socializing and then begin feeling comfortable doing the same. That is not to say people do not think for themselves and just follow others, but I think in this case, people need some reassurance and seeing others socialize might offer that. All this being said, if for some reason herd immunity does not occur and the vaccines do not keep numbers down and a fourth wave was to occur, any forward positive momentum will likely be thwarted.
Where do you see your business going in the future?
Our Event Business will not see a return to pre-COVID revenue until all gathering restrictions are fully lifted as a significant % of our business is derived from large-scale events (100+ people). We anticipate our Toben at Home and Toben at Work business lines to continue post-pandemic as this provides clients the opportunity to experience our food outside of a “catered event.” We also anticipate solid growth from our food truck business. We had a few major projects in the works pre-COVID which were set aside over the last year. We anticipate revving them back up within the next 12 months as we begin to feel more confident that the path to normalcy is in sight.
Many entrepreneurs out there often feel like they are suffering in silence.
In an effort to stay positive and mentally strong, I keep giving myself two constant reminders. The first reminder is that while this is extremely painful in the short term with real financial and mental health consequences and it feels like there is no end in sight when I take the long view over several decades to come, it will all be short-lived, relatively speaking. The second reminder is that no one is in this alone. There are literally billions of people (that’s right, billions) who are going through this awful period in some similar fashion. As a result, many individuals and business owners are far more open to sharing their feelings of vulnerability. In doing so, it opens up the door for both open and honest dialog among fellow entrepreneurs.
With vaccines starting to roll out, what sort of upward momentum are you seeing?
As I mentioned above, momentum will come as people go back to the office and begin socializing. As positive cases and hospitalizations stay low, and frankly, the news cycles pivot to more positive news, peoples’ phycological view of the virus/current state improves. People want to socialize. People want to celebrate. People want to dine out. It is just a matter of time.