“Our projected revenue for the rest of 2020 went from $17 million to $0”: How a catering company for Toronto schools and daycares had to pivot overnight
My wife, Lulu, and I own a company called Real Food for Real Kids—which we have temporarily rebranded as Real Food Kitchen. Since 2005, we’ve catered healthy meals to children in schools and daycares across the GTA. We cook all the food in our own facility to ensure we stick to our philosophy: to steer kids away from bland, processed foods and toward fresh, local dishes that reflect the cultures in our city. Our Sri Lankan curried chicken, chickpea patties and beef and mushroom patties are just a few items made with fresh, local ingredients. The recipes and philosophy caught on. By February 2020, we were cooking and delivering meals and snacks to 20,000 kids at 450 daycares. We had 115 employees and a projected annual revenue of $17 million. Then Covid-19 hit.
We had a long-awaited family trip planned for March break—10 days in Costa Rica. My wife, Lulu, fell in love with the place years ago. She couldn’t wait to share it with us. Lulu’s a fan of the Costa Rican “pura vida” philosophy: to relax and let things take care of themselves. Well, the opposite happened.
We left Toronto as scheduled on March 11. The WHO had already declared Covid-19 a pandemic, but there were no travel restrictions for Canadians. We boarded our WestJet flight to Liberia and looked forward to our trip. The next morning, we woke up in our hotel and tuned in to a news conference with Premier Doug Ford. He said he wanted Ontarians to enjoy their March break but that the situation could change at any time. He also announced that all schools and daycares were to close for two weeks following March break. That’s when we started getting nervous.
For the next 11 days, Lulu and I were in panic mode, albeit a focused one. With daycares and schools closed, we had to figure out how we could pivot our business—fast. There would be no zip lines, jungle tours or relaxing days on the beach with the kids. Instead, Lulu and I spent every day holed up in our hotel room on VOIP phone calls and Google Hangouts while our kids, aged 13 and 18, played volleyball in the pool. We faced a three-hour time difference, shaky internet connections and a lot of questions about the business back home. At first, we discussed how we would keep our employees and customers safe. Then we had to face the possibility of a truly grim situation: having no employees or customers at all. So much for the family holiday. We only saw our kids at mealtimes and at the end of long, stressful, very difficult days.
We had a video conference with our leadership team on March 14. We had to plan for the effects of the two-week school shutdowns. We contemplated a variety of scenarios. Schools and daycares could shut down, fully or partially. Or maybe they would reopen but parents would voluntarily keep their kids home as they sheltered in place. We discussed what would happen if there were substantial reductions in enrolments or if there were supply chain disruptions.
Every scenario was a nightmare. We had to face a hard fact: without kids in daycares classrooms, we didn’t have a business. Our projected revenue for the rest of 2020 went from $17 million to $0 overnight.
With heavy hearts, on March 16 we brought everyone together—virtually, of course—to make a devastating announcement. We had no choice but to lay off more than 90 of the 115 people employed at RFRK as of March 18. We told them to get EI, and we hoped the layoffs would be temporary, but the news was soul-crushing, especially for Lulu, who put her heart and soul into the company. As I broke the news to our employees, Lulu began to cry. We built a staff of people who were just as committed to our philosophy as we were. Some of them had been with us since the beginning, and now we had to lay them off. To watch what we built crumble overnight was crushing.
“We always find a way,” Lulu said. “That’s who we are.” We would have to find a way this time, too. For the next few days, we had to let our remaining staff back in Toronto take the helm as Lulu and I scrambled to meet our next challenge: getting home.
We were scheduled to return March 21. On March 16, Justin Trudeau told Canadians abroad that it was time to come home. That night, Lulu and I slept fitfully. I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to the sound of her coughing and unable to breathe properly. The doctor at the resort said she was having a panic attack. It wasn’t surprising given the stress we were under.
Unable to return to sleep, I grabbed my computer and obsessively searched travel websites to find an earlier flight. I found a 7 a.m. Delta Airlines flight that would require us to leave our hotel at 3 a.m. the next day and make a connection through Atlanta. However, a pilot friend of ours cautioned us that U.S. airports were a mess and we could easily miss our connection and get stuck in Atlanta. We made the decision to wait it out and leave on our scheduled flight.
Meanwhile, back in Toronto, our remaining staff went to work on how to keep the business afloat. Their idea was genius: pivot to home delivery. A few years ago, we ran a pilot program that would allow parents to pick up our food when they picked up their kids from school at the end of the day. It went well but nothing ever came of it—the day-to-day demands of our growing business got in the way. But in just one week, our staff took that idea from theory to reality.
On March 21, we boarded our flight. We’d never been happier to go home. Once back in Toronto, we found our dedicated staff had already redesigned the website and packaged food for home delivery. They’d also begun catering meals to some of the daycares that remained open for the children of front-line workers. We now have about 100 new home delivery customers and can’t wait to take on more. We’ve had great feedback. One mom told me that, over Zoom, her daughter ate lunch with a friend from daycare. They both enjoyed Real Food meals, and that made everything feel somewhat normal again. Parents are busier than ever it seems, working from home and homeschooling their kids at the same time. If we can make their lives a little easier by doing some of the cooking for them, it makes us happy. We’re a month into our pivot now. Thanks to the federal subsidy for businesses, we’ve managed to hire back five of our workers. Our dream for 2020 is to keep the lights on, weather the storm and hire everyone back.
—As told to Raizel Robin