Coping with coronavirus in catering

My name is Ren.

My catering company, Rens Kitchen, has been trading 12 years now, specialising in bespoke weddings.

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The best part about my job has always been the personal bonds my team and I create with our couples over the whole planning process, and by the wedding day we have become friends for sometimes two years! I never wanted to grow my business exponentially and lose the personal touch with my clients, so we always close our books for the year at 100 weddings. 

Having trained as a chef in London’s fine dining scene, I love being able to be front and back of house, and as much as I sometimes miss the life of a restaurant chef, I love the fact that in my industry, we can create memories that our couples will keep forever.

For this reason, we are obviously used to high pressure – the option for failure is just non existent on event day. ‘Whatever it takes’ or ‘Not on my watch’ are a caterer’s motto. When the whole corona outbreak arose, our first job was to manage expectations for our couples. It was the first time ever we had had to warn them that there was a small possibility we may not be able to get the exact ingredients for their wedding menu. 

Also, it was the first time we had to say that we were not able to guarantee 100% that the agreed staff members would be present on the day, such was the worry about self-isolation.

We had no idea that mere days later, we would be having to contact every single one of our wedding couples for the Summer to inform them that they would have to put their entire wedding day on hold! This has been the most heartbreaking part of the whole process, way above the potentially disastrous ramifications for my business.

Financially, it’s going to be a really tough challenge. Our year is so seasonal, and we have spent all our cash reserves in the Winter months, confident of another successful fully booked wedding season- so to find out (without a degree of certainty on when it will end) that we will have no cashflow coming in for the next three months minimum is a kicker!

Luckily, we have built up great relations with all of our wedding venues, regular photographers, bands and djs etc and it is by working together as a team we are going to get through this difficult period, both for ourselves, and our clients. We are able to all come together, compare diaries, share contacts and resources, and in nearly all cases, we have been able to pretty much re-organise a wedding for a later, safer date!

…So that’s been our week!!

What we’ve found is that everyone can calm down a bit once the new date has been agreed and set. It’s a horrible choice having to weigh up your own personal hopes and dreams against the potential safety of family and friends. My advice for anyone in this situation planning a wedding or event this Summer, is find a date to reschedule, get it moved, and just lean into it!

So now, we just have to get through the next few months as a business and team without going to the wall. I imagine there must be a lot of restaurants, cafes, pubs etc that must be weighing up whether it’s worth carrying on- what’s the point in a government backed loan with unspecific terms that still has to be paid back in 6 months. 

The minute the crisis is over is when these businesses realise all they have done is get into yet more debt. I started my business with a credit card and £8,000 in savings, swearing blind that win or lose, I would not get into debt. If things went wrong I wanted the option to be able to walk away clean – and with my integrity, knowing I had paid my debtors. 

It is this belief in business integrity that makes this option unimaginable, however. I could not live with myself if I let any of my wedding couples down!

I have today heard about a government helpline to explain how the loan/grant system works- I can’t vouch for it, but am going to try them tomorrow. I have read that in other countries with more strict legislation to combat the virus, they have added mandates to ensure all businesses, however large or small, are not allowed to fail. 

I think we have all found our government way short of providing us with that kind of assurance. I hope I am proven wrong, but fear we may be down for a while. I wish all of my fellow caterers my best wishes – God knows there are easier ways to make a living, even in fair weather.

By Ren Esack, who runs the Ren’s Kitchen catering company on the South coast

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