First Class Catering:
We survived 2020
This is our story of how COVID-19 impacted us as a small business. The event industry, along with others, was hit especially hard. We detail the many ideas, trials, and errors we went through over the course of 2020. We want to thank all of our amazing staff that has stuck by our side, and the clients that believed in us through it all.
Never a down year. 10% sales increase for 10 years in a row. Averaged an additional 100 events over the previous year four years in a row. These are the mantras… points of pride… that our business has been built on for the past 14 years. 2020 changed all of that… so we wanted to take a chance to reflect.
January 2020 came full of excitement. We rebranded all of our companies, and launched two new ones. Hangar 5 Catering was born of a need to separate First Class Catering’s service and avoid brand confusion. Hangar 5 Catering took over most of our corporate work – and anything served on disposables. First Class Catering elevated its pricing and model to provide a more elegant experience. This was a change two years in the making, made possible by a rare (or so we thought) break in our calendar that allowed our team to spend 3 weeks doing nothing but brand and design menus and systems. First Class Events was born – giving life to a dream of Jessica’s, and setting us up as a player on the Southern Indiana wedding and event planning scene. Tours, tastings, and bookings were at an all time high, and we hunkered down for our fundraiser filled winter season.
March brought an opportunity to fulfill a career-long dream, attending Catersource in Las Vegas. Two weeks before leaving came whispers over COVID-19 in Indiana- but I flew west in bright spirits, excited to learn and network with others in my industry.The first two days were everything I had hoped. I have pages of notes, conversations in our slack channel, and dozens of pictures of all of the things I wanted to try. On the third day, everything changed. People would step out of lectures to take phone calls and come back in tears. I sat next to a conference center owner in Boston who received an email canceling a $2,000,000 conference in a single line of text. Lecture topics changed from “How to Wow Your Guests with a Buffet!” to “Will Your Contract Hold up in Court?” or “How to Convince People not to Cancel.” The trade show shut down early. We packed up and went home, not sure what we were flying back to.
Three days later the world shut down. We told our restaurant staff at noon that, “today would be our last day.” We weren’t sure for how long. Go home and file unemployment. Go work at Kroger or Amazon. Get a job delivering pizzas. We can’t employ you right now, but you have a job if you want it when we reopen. Do whatever you can to make ends meet. We set up base camp in the dining room and begin to call every client we have booked for the year. “How can we help, how would you like to proceed, please call us with questions.” We finish late and drink heavily.
I stayed home for two days. The longest single break with no work I’ve had in years. On the second night, I go to bed but can’t sleep. I wake up at 4 AM with the next idea. Hangar 5 Meal Service is branded by noon, and has a menu online at 3:00 PM. Frozen meals for contactless delivery – all menu items you can get in the restaurant – but ordered online and left on your front porch. The next day we delivered food for over 25 orders – and felt like maybe we’d actually make rent. However, as we would learn in the coming months, nothing works for long in 2020. By the beginning of April we were averaging 4 deliveries a day – enough to keep me a little busy, but nothing that would make a financial difference. I got a phone call from my produce company, Piazza Produce. They have a warehouse full of product going bad. They need to get it to customers any way they can. Two days later, they drive a 30-foot refrigerated truck to Columbus, park it in a parking lot on a highway, we print a sign and make a Facebook account, and Blackerby’s Market is born. Drive-thru and relatively contactless, we supplement the produce with ground beef and toilet paper. No need to wait 6 days for an Instacart order, we’ll put it straight in your trunk for you. We served 350 people the first day, and over 1200 in the first week. Another idea, another temporary pop, some more bills paid and some employees back to work.
By late April, we have applied for the PPP, and by the first week in May we have funding to get our staff back to work. Blackerby’s Hangar 5 reopens for carry out, Hangar 5 Meal Service is still operational, and the market sees 100 guests a day. Things work for a little while, but the PPP is, (at the time) an 8 week program, so we get to work deep cleaning our facilities and polishing and inventorying equipment. On the 7th week of our PPP window, they change the rules allowing PPP funding to last through the end of 2020- but our money is already mostly spent. We have to reopen Blackerby’s Hangar 5 for dine-in. The grocery stores have things figured out, and Instacart is back to a single day wait time. Blackerby’s Market shuts down. Every chain restaurant starts a take-home meal service. This is our curse. We can adapt quickly, and be operational in hours, but the large companies with R & D departments will always catch up, and national branding means they can do it better. Shop Local was a mantra for many in April, by June they don’t care. Papa Johns and McDonalds have record months while local companies shut their doors. We wait out July, knowing that our busy catering months are coming.
August brings our first real weddings. We are rusty and out of practice. Pre-Covid our events were 95% buffets. Now every event is a plated meal. We learn new skills and invest in new equipment. First Class Catering can now serve a plated meal for 100 in 8 minutes. Book us, we’ll show you. September and October feel almost normal. We do 3-5 weddings every Saturday, and Friday and Sunday bookings to supplement. We spend 2 months serving 2000 box lunches a weekend to a local factory. The small staff we have remaining is exhausted, but exhilarated to be doing what we love again. October 10th, a day we had been looking forward to for a year and half, brings five weddings instead of the original 11 that were booked, but it goes off without a hitch. We drink to celebrate and then deliver 400 box lunches at 2:00 AM – and reload for the next week. We think maybe this will actually work.
November brings a new challenge. A project that has been in the works for months starts to come to fruition. Henry House, an industrial barn venue on the western edge of Columbus, starts to take shape, and we are meeting in it as a new governmental shut down comes to our attention. We have a six day window to move a wedding we have been working on for months into a brand new venue that isn’t even operational yet. We are still in the middle of a 9 round fight with county zoning on Henry House, but the Smith/Swift wedding will not wait. Abby and Josh were dream clients. The rare combination of a couple with vision who also trusts us enough to give us some leeway. We treat their wedding as a showpiece – debuting simultaneous service and tableside cocktail service. It goes off without a hitch. Confirmation that we are, in fact, capable of competing with the big companies in Indianapolis. You’ll see more of us in the city in 2021 and we’re coming fast.
The end of November is always slow. We use the time to rest and reset, hoping that our typical busy December will come. In December 2019, we catered 120+ Holiday Parties in three weeks. In December 2020 we did 8. Blackerby’s Hangar 5 saw record low sales, as restaurants all over the Midwest closed for good. We are truly scared for the first time.
In the face of all this, hope is on the horizon. The second stimulus package has targeted programs for restaurants and hospitality. We will use the time to get better – and will debut more new packages and menu items than ever before in the coming months. First Class Events has 6 weddings booked for 2020, and we expect more as couples feel more comfortable beginning to book weddings again. Hangar 5 Catering is picking up as corporations start to bring more people back to the office. Henry House has another zoning meeting in February, and we’re hopeful for a favorable result. The Factory 12 Event Loft, the last of our headaches in 2020, has an almost fully booked fall. Blackerby’s Hangar 5 will be debuting new menu items and cocktails to keep the guests who are still willing to dine indoors entertained, and we’re hopeful for the addition of outdoor seating this spring. First Class Catering will continue to evolve into the high end brand I have always envisioned. New projects are coming. 2021 will be a better year, and we can’t wait to serve you in it.