Business as Unusual: Feeding the frontline
Coronavirus is impacting businesses in unprecedented ways. Many entrepreneurs have had to quickly pivot their operations to adapt and survive in an ever-shifting environment. In our Business As Unusual series, we’ve been reaching out to companies supported by Virgin StartUp to explore the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses and entrepreneurs. Ayesha Pakravan, founder of a London-based catering company called The Plattery, has given us an insight into how she’s had to adapt her business.
Before lockdown measures were implemented, Ayesha quickly pivoted her business model so she could make a real difference to the community. Seven weeks ago, she started delivering DIY platter boxes while also providing free Vital Meals for people in need. In less than one week, Ayesha had cooked and delivered more than 100 free meals and demand was increasing each day. She decided to focus her full attention on the Vital Meals and has now cooked and delivered more than 3,000 free meals to people all over South East and West London – while raising more than £20,000 to fund the project.
Ayesha now has two chefs in the kitchen and seven delivery volunteers to provide meals for elderly people, NHS staff and key workers, homeless shelters, housing associations, low-income households and vulnerable families. She’s also in the process of launching a new telephone line called Vital Voices – so the recipients of her meals to can call up and have an informal and uplifting chat with some of The Plattery’s volunteers. This is really just the beginning for Ayesha, and we’ll let her explain the rest…
Can you tell us about The Plattery and how you came up with your idea for the business?
I have always cooked and loved to eat. Growing up in a big Middle Eastern family meant that we were always putting on big feasts and I think that is what influenced my style of cooking and presentation. I put myself through culinary night school and by the time I came up with the idea for The Plattery, I felt really ready to make the leap. Fuelled by a bit too much prosecco, I went to the shop with my housemate, bought all the ingredients for my first grazing table and realised I wasn’t half bad at this! I then went on to test platters with my friends and family. Through sharing the images on social media, I began receiving more and more booking requests so The Plattery grew into something incredibly organically.
Where does Virgin StartUp fit into the picture?
Virgin StartUp was the catalyst for me to be honest. Without Virgin StartUp, I doubt I would be sitting here writing this. After coming up with my business idea, I decided to write a business plan to see if it was scalable, and then I on a whim I thought: “Sod it, I’ll apply to Virgin!”
Receiving a positive response and an approval on my loan gave me both the financial support and the confidence to really go for it. It’s one thing when your friends and family support you, but quite another when an organisation like Virgin likes your idea and puts their trust in you by granting you a loan. For me, that was what I needed. As soon as I received the approval of my loan, I walked straight up to my boss and politely told him I was leaving. He was not at all surprised and told me to go for my dreams, so it was a very happy ending.
You were trading for just six months when the coronavirus pandemic hit, how did you respond to the situation?
I had to think on my toes. As I mentioned above, I initially offered a scaled down service of my platters where people could order a box for two or four and dine in ‘The Plattery style’ at home. This would be have been fine, and probably could have seen me through lockdown nicely, but it felt wrong to be buying lavish and fairly indulgent ingredients, when there was panic buying and a food shortage all around me. This was eight weeks ago, when things were pretty bad in London.
As a chef with The Plattery, I had made good connections and taken out memberships with lots of different wholesalers and suppliers, so I didn’t have to rely on the supermarkets like so many other people did. This is why I started Vital Meals. I knew I was in a position to help people, so how could I not? I had originally planned to do the platter boxes alongside the free Vital Meals but, as you can imagine, the Vital Meals just took over. I then made the decision to forget about making a profit for a while and just focus on helping whoever and however I could.
I’m now also offering a service called 'Parcel to Plate'. This is for anyone that receives a food parcel but struggles to cook or prepare meals. The Vital Meals team collects the food parcel from the person's home and brings it to our central kitchen, where I cook the ingredients into nutritious meals. We then give deliver the meals to the original recipient ready for them to eat or freeze! This was inspired by my mum who has arthritis and I’ve had lots of people in similar situations reaching out for a helping hand.
You’ve now delivered more than 3,000 meals to people in need and raised more than £20,000 to fund the cause. How did you manage to pivot your business model so quickly?
Well, I think I am luckier than some to be honest. Although I haven’t been trading long enough to get financial help from the government, being a new and small business means I am the only decision maker and that I have total control of where I want my business to go. My only overhead cost is my kitchen rent and I don't have any children, pets, or mortgages, so my outgoings are relatively low. Once I made the decision to pivot the business towards the Vital Meals, all I had to do was get up and cook! It was an easy transition to make and it seems I inadvertently started a not-for-profit… It's cool, I’m rolling with it!
What has been the biggest challenge and the biggest highlight for The Plattery during COVID-19?
The biggest challenge for me right now is demand, but I‘ve just taken on another two chefs and secured two new kitchen spaces which is exciting. My limit at the moment is 100 meals a day, but there is enough demand to send out double (if not triple) the amount of meals, so I do find that a challenge. I also hear the horrendous stories of why people need Vital Meals, and I feel like there is a problem mounting faster than we can call deal with. However, I tend to not think about the negative because it gets you nowhere and many people are faced with much greater challenges. I have been asked before if it was hard to make the decision to stop doing 'paid work' and pivot the business towards the free Vital Meals service, and the answer is always ‘no’. It felt like the most natural and the most needed thing in the world.
The highlight so far was receiving a handwritten letter from one of my recipients thanking me for the meals. To know that I have made a difference, even if it’s just one person, makes everything brighter and inspires me to keep going as far as I can with this.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs trying to navigate through this difficult time?
Don't be afraid to just take a chance. Try to take a leap of faith and just do what feels right to you. Everything else will fall into place. It sounds corny but it’s important to go in a direction you can be proud of and if you have a dream, follow it. I think this is the strangest time that any business has ever had to navigate, so try to not think about what you are losing and focus on what you and others can gain or learn from this time. Keep your head above water and just keep focused.
For anyone wanting to help, how can they get involved?
If you go to www.vitalmeals.org, there is a form to fill out for volunteers! We are always looking for more drivers. I’m also in the process of launching the Vital Voices phone line, so I will need lots of friendly voices to lift some spirits!
On the other side of the pandemic, what will The Plattery look like?
I’m still figuring this out actually. It will have changed, for sure. I do not think the Vital Meals service will ever stop and nor do I want it to. I have thought so much about the 'need' for indulgent food and if I do go back to full time events catering, it will definitely be more wholesome. I’ll always continue with the not-for-profit side of the business as I really love being able to help.