No entrepreneur’s story is without challenges. It’s often their ability to navigate them that demarcates their success or failure. This past year has tested almost every industry, and few more so than for those in catering, food & beverage, and events.
As recently as December 2020, more than 110,000 restaurants had closed permanently or long-term across the U.S., turning a difficult situation into a dire one. From indoor dining bans to full city-wide shutdowns, small independents were hit especially hard as revenues dropped to zero overnight. Coming into 2020, the restaurant industry was thriving, now, we await a future of unknowns and uncertainties. But it’s caterers who are now struggling to pivot even more than restaurants, as party-less holidays and the endless postponement of large-scale events, weddings, and corporate outings have devastated the industry.
Yet, at the core of catering and events is a group of entrepreneurs and small business owners who refuse to quit. And among them, there are some who know pre-pandemic challenges all too well. In fact, in some cases, hardships have come to define and even lead them to their successful adaptation. Allow me to introduce you to Olivia Colt, who is a living example of this.
Surviving 3 Strokes And Starting A Business
Colt is an entrepreneur whose passion for cooking started at a very early age, stemming from a beloved tutelage under her great-grandmother who introduced her to traditional Dominican cuisine. These early cooking sessions eventually manifested into a true passion for the art of cooking and an embrace of her Dominican culture. And what started as just a hobby would eventually turn into an impassioned occupation.
“As a little girl, I never watched cartoons or played outside. I always wanted to cook,” says Colt. “I grew up in a household of strong Dominican women who lived and worked through historical hardships. I’m grateful that I learned not only the love of good food, but also the work ethic it takes to achieve your dreams.”
While working as a fundraiser for disaster victims at the Red Cross full-time, Colt used cooking as her side-hustle, catering small nonprofit events in the Bay Area. However, in 2010, at age 27, Colt survived two back-to-back strokes. After her second stroke, she knew that if she wanted to start her own business, it would be now or never.
The result? Colt turned her side hustle into a full-time gig with the opening of Salt & Honey Catering + Events.
“Starting my business with seemingly many obstacles was scary for me, but I’m so glad I took the leap,” she says. “I’ve found that these challenges have only helped me to resolve problems better, to persevere and ask for help from my friends and family when I need it.”
So she did. And then in 2012, she suffered her third stroke and was diagnosed with Paroxysmal Nocturnal Hemoglobinuria (a rare blood disease that presents through strokes). She manages this illness with a chemo-derivative drug which she’ll take for the rest of her life. It’s necessary to keep her alive, and also has exorbitant costs.
The strokes have left her disabled and she shares, “Beyond managing a disability, my illness is more debilitating than a disability. The biggest challenge I’ve faced early on was being a woman of color in an incredibly fast-paced and competitive industry. Yet, this challenge was one I was able to meet head-on with confidence, which I credit to my family for always pushing me to adapt, grow and pivot.”
Using These Lessons to Grow A Business During The Pandemic
The experiences Colt faced while getting her business off the ground is what ultimately made her feel fully prepared to take on the pandemic. In February 2020, Salt & Honey Catering started receiving its first event cancellations, and by March 2020, all of her planned events had been cancelled. Olivia knew she needed to pivot her business quickly and efficiently to support her 12 employees.
Her strategy was then to overhaul her business model and shift from being a catering business to offering grocery delivery through her “Famous Market Pantry Boxes.” The boxes offer local grocery items (produce, meat, cheese, etc.) to the Bay Area, a model that also supports other local businesses that have been heavily affected by the pandemic.
“Being hit early by the pandemic came as almost a silver lining. I was able to act fast to pivot my business to an emerging need I was seeing for no-contact grocery delivery in the region. Also, it was important to me to help other businesses during this time. I’ve been able to build my relationships with small business owners in the industry, so when I bring my catering business back, I’ll have that network of vendors for life.”
An Unexpected Helping Hand
More than ever, the shift to digital brought on by the pandemic made tapping into your network and creating an online presence critical to the success of small businesses. As in-person shopping and dining all but ceased, companies like Colt’s had to meet customers where they are in order to stay afloat: online.
As a result, Colt turned to Facebook to reach out to friends, family, and local mom groups to get the word out on her new offerings. The approach was a major success. By the end of June, Salt & Honey Catering had consistently sold out of their Market Pantry Boxes through Facebook orders alone. Now, she is expanding her business to include an online order platform and even hired new staff as demand has only increased over the last few months.
Equally important has been Olivia’s use of Facebook’s Small Business Grant to help fund the employee benefits Salt & Honey Catering now offers. Supporting her employees continues to be Colt’s most important goal, and this grant has helped to make it a reality.
Colt remains optimistic in her ability to pivot and weather whatever storm comes her way. Her advice to other small business owners and entrepreneurs is as simple as it is profound:
“Only you know what your business can withstand and endure. Make a plan and be prepared for a plan B. Hard decisions are a part of the process.”
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This article was originally published on Forbes.