From catering to COVID-19 and back

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September 15, 2020

For a catering business, things were pretty grim in April.  Gathering was essentially outlawed, and nobody needs a caterer unless there’s a gathering, Executive Chef Jay Curcio pointed out. He and his wife, Liz, own and run The White Apron, serving the Seacoast area of New Hampshire out of Dover. 

Yes, things were grim back in April, but Jay took comfort knowing that everyone else was in the same boat. 

“I’d feel a lot worse if it was just us,” he admitted back then. “But I just haven’t been able to wrap my head around this. I have no control. There’s nothing I can do except hang out and wait.”

Jay’s five full-time employees were laid off.  Their 2020 calendar of about 56 booked weddings was wiped out. Jay and Liz were still making wonderful food, serving it only to their three children at home.

“We’re shut and we’re on unemployment,” Jay reported in early April.  Work continued as Liz worked on re-bookings and Jay maintained his kitchen equipment. Occasionally they’d fill a special “to go” order.

By mid-July, however, Jay was able to say, “It looks like we’re going to be able to survive.”

In the early days of COVID-19, Jay says NH SBDC business advisor Warren Daniel provided daily updates regarding developing relief fund legislation and anything else he knew. 

“He was as overwhelmed as any of us, but he always found the time for us.  We’ll be grateful to him for a long time,” Jay said. 

One way the couple made things work at the beginning of the pandemic was to fill in with smaller events, once the stay-at-home orders were lifted.  A small wedding on a Saturday would employ Jay and three of his returned full-time workers, outside and under tents.  

Jay now gives his employees a questionnaire every day and logs their temperatures. Everyone’s wearing masks.  “That just makes good, scientific sense and we do it because we’re smart people,” he said. “We’re lucky to live in New Hampshire where COVID hasn’t been that bad, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

White Apron began in 2004, when Jay was its only employee, and he also had a full-time job.  By 2010, growth allowed him to expand and move into its current quarters in the Dover mills. That’s when he met Warren Daniel, who had offices there. Jay is upfront about his need for the kind of business advice Warren provides.  His wife is good at business, but, Jay says, “I’m a much better chef than a businessman.”  

Warren helped them clean up their books, automate and consolidate some things, and implement planning to make them more efficient.  “He’s really easy to work with.” Jay said. 

“We were lucky to jump onto the PPP program in its second round, and we also received an EIDL,” Jay said. “We were definitely injured economically, but we’ve been just so lucky to have those two resources. They gave us piece of mind.”

The pair took unemployment for 7 weeks, having missed out on PPP funding in the first, rapidly depleted round. “It was 6 to 7 weeks of high anxiety,” he said. “If we hadn’t gotten that unemployment, we wouldn’t have been able to pay our bills.”

With the PPP loan, they left unemployment and concentrated on pushing for new business, whenever gatherings would return. They “back-filled” their work with small events. Nearly everyone who had booked a summer 2020 wedding re-booked for 2021.  When that was confirmed, he said, “Liz announced she thought we were still going to be in business.”

While three of Jay’s full-time employees are back at work, the remaining two are available to be called in if needed.  Part-timers are hired for the now smaller catering events.

Besides the lifeline of the two relief programs, Jay gives credit for his survival to his customers.  Those who re-booked made their second deposit payments as if their weddings were right around the corner. 

Warren stays in constant contact. “He really keeps me on track. Things changed so rapidly, no one could keep up, but Warren did. He helped us keep our eye on the ball.”

Jay says he’s being realistic. “We gotta get through 2020 and the winter, then hope for a vaccine and we can all go back to co-mingling,” he said. “I really just want everybody to be okay. We’ve bought ourselves some time. Come May of 2021, we’ll have to see what the outlook is.”

“I’ve learned about being grateful for good things that come your way,” Jay said. “We just feel super lucky with how things have all worked out and fortunate that we had a business that was stable enough that we didn’t get knocked out with the punches COVID threw at us.”

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