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How a Catering Company in Chicago Is Surviving the Pandemic Thanks to Discover’s Eat It Forward Program

Taylor Mason, a small-business owner and recipient of Discover’s $25,000 award, shares how she’s staying hopeful, giving back, and planning for the future.

Maya Mason / Thrive Global
Maya Mason / Thrive Global

Taylor’s Tacos, a Chicago-based catering company run by business partners and newlyweds Taylor and Maya Mason, was preparing for a major revenue opportunity when the pandemic first hit the United States. The plan was to host a “Tacopalooza” — a pop-up experience where diners could sample a dozen different tacos alongside their drink of choice. But when stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus were put in place, the May event was called off — along with virtually every other catering gig the Masons had in the pipeline. 

“We were just under 100% of our bookings lost when COVID hit,” Taylor Mason told Thrive Global. “I remember turning to Maya and saying, ‘We’re not going to make it. I don’t know what we’re going to do.’”  

The Masons’s concern — the sheer panic of “What are we going to do?” — is the refrain of small-business owners navigating the pandemic, and of restaurant owners in particular. As many as 85% of independent restaurants may close for good, according to a report commissioned by the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Even restaurants who managed to find some relief in the summer’s outdoor dining capabilities will face additional strains as colder weather sets in.

And there’s no denying that the pandemic hit the Black community particularly hard. “We saw data that showed how disproportionately Black-owned businesses and restaurants have been affected by COVID-19,” Julie Loeger, Discover Executive Vice President and President of U.S. Cards, said in conversation with Thrive Global Founder and CEO Arianna Huffington. Research from U.C. Santa Cruz found that a full 40% of Black-owned businesses are not expected to survive the pandemic. Recognizing what’s at stake, Discover is giving $5 million to Black-owned restaurants through their #EatItForward campaign, which called for people across the country to nominate their favorite Black-owned restaurants via social media for a chance for the restaurant to receive $25,000. Among the 200 restaurants who will benefit from this award is Taylor’s Tacos.

Thrive Global spoke with Taylor Mason about what she and Maya plan to do with that award money, as well as how they’ve managed to stay afloat during the pandemic, what’s giving them hope and optimism, and why giving back to others is a core part of their craft as restaurant owners. 

Thrive Global: Taylor’s Tacos has been primarily working in the event space. How have you pivoted during COVID to try to keep your business afloat?

TM: We pivoted quickly, we had to. Having to return a lot of money is not the best feeling. I don’t like to fail, so if I know I’m failing, I try to recognize it quickly and turn it around. We decided to go all in on the delivery service. When Tacopalooza got canceled, we said, “Let’s just do Tacopalooza delivery.” 

Making the switch to delivery wasn’t easy; we had to figure it out. Luckily, there were a lot of resources that became available to us. For instance, the point-of-sale system that we were using came up with a delivery system program because of COVID — they were pivoting too. We also had to rely more on our social media platform, our website, and reaching out to people the day before scheduling orders. Really, we had to cold call people like, “Are you hungry? Because we want to feed you.”

TG: At the start of the pandemic, you were donating food to people in your community, and serving frontline workers a few times a week through the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago. Why was giving back important to you, even in a time when you were struggling yourself?

TM: I went to Pepperdine University, and one of our mantras was “Freely receive, freely give.” It really stuck with me. Maya and I are spiritual people. We don’t go to church, but we believe in our faith, and we feel it’s important to give our 10% of what we have earned. Giving back is part of our craft. We feel like we’ve been given so much. I was born and raised on the West Side of Chicago. Maya is from the North Side of Chicago, and I brought her over with me, and you can see the different socioeconomic situations that are going on. We’re just trying to help our people. If we can help just a little bit, if we can help with a meal, why not?

TG: In conversation with another #EatItForward winner, financial expert Tiffany Aliche compares building a business to building a boat. “You’ve built this boat, and you’ve never really had to test it before,” she said. “But now with the pandemic, your boat has been placed in the water and you can see where the holes are.” So I’m curious: What holes have you found in your business, and how are you plugging them?

TM: More than anything, the pandemic put a spotlight on the fact that we need our own space. Right now, we’re nomadic — we’re like a food truck without the truck. We work out of an incubator kitchen facility, which means we have our own private kitchen, but people can’t come up and order like they can in a retail shop. We need to have a retail establishment that people can come to, and we need to make it easier for people to understand exactly what we do. 

Interestingly, with everything going on and people wanting to support Black-owned businesses, we have so many people coming into our incubator space thinking that they can just walk up and order, and that’s been very nerve-wracking for us. We want to be able to give them a service, but we can’t because we don’t have the capacity to do so. 

That’s part of why the prize from Discover is so exciting. It’s given us the confidence to start this journey of getting our own space. We’re bringing it to fruition — we’re getting the architect drawings complete right now. It’s exciting and scary all at once. We need to make sure that we can handle the next three to five years, which is a scary thing in this post-pandemic time, but we feel confident. 

TG: How do you muster that long-term confidence on days where you feel doubt?

TM: Every day we get up, we pray, we do our meditation, and we hope for the best. And then I make sure I continue learning. My goal at the beginning of 2020 — before the pandemic happened — was to tap into my resources. You can get lost just being on the daily grind, being by ourselves, and we’ve really made it a point to keep learning. That’s what we really have been focusing on: learning from people who have done exactly what we’re trying to do. It’s been very beneficial to be around entrepreneurs who are going through the same things that we’re going through, to have business mentors who have walked the path that we’re trying to walk on. 

TG: These are some of the most volatile times many of us have ever lived through. What are some of the ways that you’ve reduced stress for yourselves, and also for your staff?

TM: That’s where Maya comes into play. She’s the calm one. I’m more business, hands on, let’s get after it, let’s be workaholics — and she’s like, “Let’s go do yoga.” She’s been able to help me find a balance. She’ll say, “I’m going to be calm right now — and you’re either with me or you’re not.” Meditation has been a really big thing, making sure that we take deep breaths, and take a moment of solitude each morning before the day gets crazy. When it comes to our employees — we have a core team of four — we run our business like we’re a team. We’re a family first, and a company on the back end. And we’re learning, especially now, that we have to keep our employees happy. One way we’ve been doing this is by figuring out the ways that they learn. We want them to be able to work their way, instead of trying to plug them in to our way of working. For example, our chef is a visual learner. If there’s something in the kitchen that needs to get done, we’ll come in and show her rather than just write it down for her on a list of to-do’s.

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