By Geoff Robertson, Business Assistance Director, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund

Her business vanished virtually overnight, but with creativity and coaching, Sugarsnap Catering is back stronger than ever and optimistic about 2021.

Over a seven-day period that she refers to as “Twilight Zone Week,” Abbey Duke, owner of Sugarsnap Catering in Burlington went from a full schedule of weddings and corporate catering events to a blank calendar. With large gatherings banned during COVID-19, her book of business vanished virtually overnight. “We lost two months of events within 24-hours,” said Duke, “and the next few weeks were just a rolling wave of cancellations. We were aware that COVID-19 would impact our business as early as February, but never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined the train that was coming down the tracks.”

Duke, who was presenting at the International Caterers Association meeting in Las Vegas when news of COVID-19 broke in March, scrapped her talk on “Profit Strategies for Small Market Caterers” and instead initiated a brainstorming session with her colleagues around the world. “Everyone was impacted,” she said, “but caterers are used to being tossed curve balls every day. This was a big one, but really it’s about an optimistic, can-do mindset. You deal with small challenges the same way you deal with big ones, and caterers are an exceptionally creative and adaptable group.”

That was March 12. By March 15—aka the end of “Twilight Zone Week”—Duke had laid off all but four of her staff, who she reduced to half time. “We stripped back to basics,” she said, “but even then I figured I could only stay open for 45 days.”

Online Delivery and the Sugarsnap Market

Chris Hechanova, Executive Chef, Sugarsnap Catering VT
Sugarsnap Catering Executive Chef Chris Hechanova prepares food at the company’s kitchen in South Burlington. With some small events starting to return, Sugarsnap’s event calendar has started to fill up again, though nowhere near the number or size pre-COVID. Photo by Erica Houskeeper.

Duke and her team refocused their efforts on delivery, packaging individual and family meals such as quarts of soup, casseroles, and shepherd’s pies. They transformed their online ordering system and added items they could sell from their storeroom including eggs, milk, flour, beer, wine, and spiced nuts. The Sugarsnap Market, as it came to be called, was pivot number one for the company. With some quick, creative thinking and a few boosted Facebook ads, they were soon making up to 35 deliveries per day. “We made a lot of shepherd’s pie those first few weeks,” said Duke, “but it was a hard way to make money.”

A business of scale, Sugarsnap went from catering events for dozens, if not hundreds, to small orders for families averaging about $100 per order. “Every week the landscape shifted under our feet,” said Duke. “We kept asking: What worked this week? What didn’t work? How can we reinvent ourselves next week? We threw every idea at the wall to see what would stick.”

“In marketing, we are always thinking about the customer. What do they want? What problem can you solve for them?” said Carolyn Cooke, a marketing expert and business coach with the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) who was working with Sugarsnap last spring. “This is where Abbey shines. She was immediately thinking about where new customers might exist, who needed to be fed, and how Sugarsnap could help.”

With many of their clients in a tailspin, VSJF ramped up coaching to support companies through COVID-19, offering weekly calls with businesses coaches. Through these calls, Cooke and Duke worked together to figure out where those new opportunities might exist and how Sugarsnap could appeal to the rapidly evolving needs of potential customers. “Every week, I would get off our call and think ‘okay, now I have a plan’,” said Duke.

Meals for Essential Workers, Homeless

Jen Wool, Sugarsnap Catering
Jen Wool scoops beef chili into containers on an October afternoon. Recognizing that catering needs volume to stay in business, Sugarsnap Catering owner Abbey Duke and her team began to think about scenarios where there remained large numbers of people to feed. Photo by Erica Houskeeper.

Recognizing that to stay in business, catering needs volume, Duke and her team began to think about scenarios where there remained large numbers of people to feed, which led to pivot number two.

A longtime partner of COTS, the Committee on Temporary Shelter, through Cookies for Good, Duke reached out to her corporate and private clients and asked them to hire Sugarsnap to prepare meals for the daystation at COTS, which many were happy to do. Simultaneously, she contacted essential manufacturing companies like Rhino Foods and Revision Military and offered to provide individually packaged lunches and take-home meals for their employees, many of whom were nervous about grocery shopping and going to restaurants. “The companies we worked with felt good about minimizing risk for their workers and feeding the most vulnerable among us; it was something comforting and concrete they could do.”

By mid-April, with business starting to pick up and a Federal Payment Protection Program (PPP) loan to help cover payroll, Duke was able to bring back all of her employees who wished to return.

Even so, she continued to look for new opportunities and put in a bid for a Request for Proposal (RFP) that came out from the state in April to provide meals to people sheltering in hotels, most of whom were homeless. And on June 8, Sugarsnap started a short term contract to provide three meals a day to 100 people at one hotel in Burlington. Six weeks later, she won a longer term contract to provide meals to about 400 people at 12 hotels—a total of 1,200 meals per day. She also picked up a contract to provide meals for students living in a private dormitory, delivering dinner six days a week.

Those two contracts are enough to keep her entire staff employed through the end of the year.

Samantha Kilhullen, Sugarsnap Catering
Sugarsnap employee fills containers with beef chili. The company started a short term contract with the state to provide three meals a day to 100 people sheltering at one hotel in Burlington. Six weeks later, the company won a longer term contract to provide meals to about 400 people at 12 hotels—a total of 1,200 meals per day. Photo by Erica Houskeeper.

Flexible Planning for 2021

With some small events starting to return, Duke has started to see her event calendar fill up again, though nowhere near the number or size pre-COVID. Still, with the state and dorm contracts, she is back to 100% for now and was able to tuck her disaster loan away into savings as protection against an uncertain year ahead.

That said, she is not planning anything more than 60 days in advance, part of what her business and marketing coaches at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund refer to as flexible planning—i.e. planning that is responsive to the environment, not tied to the calendar. Duke has transitioned from one-to-one marketing coaching with Cooke to strategic planning with VSJF business coach Peter Cole, who will help her chart out a path for 2021. She is also part of a new cohort of Vermont businesses that will meet regularly through VSJF to share their experiences and ideas, as well as receive input from business coaches.

“Owning a business can be lonely, especially when you’re caring for staff and working through something difficult like COVID-19,” said Duke. “Having peers and coaches who show up, listen, and support you during these past few months has been invaluable.”

Coupled with her contagious optimism and positivity, Duke is not worried about the year ahead. “I’m optimistic,” she said, “because I am confident that I can adapt; and that my team can adapt. People need to eat, and we will find ways to feed them. And remember, the 1918 pandemic was followed by the roaring twenties!”

About VSJF Business Management Coaching

The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund provides tailored, high-touch planning, coaching, and advising for business owners and their management teams to advance profitability, job creation, and sustainable job development. During COVID-19, VSJF has ramped up business coaching and introduced peer-to-peer cohorts that meet regularly to focus on industry-specific challenges and opportunities. Click here to learn more.

Lead Photo: After the pandemic hit, Abbey Duke, owner of Sugarsnap Catering in Burlington, and her team refocused their efforts on delivery, packaging individual and family meals such as quarts of soup, casseroles, and shepherd’s pies. Photo by Erica Houskeeper.

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