Pinellas County -based catering company reinvents itself to survive COVID-19

Laurie Simpson, co-owner of Delectables Fine Catering, knew when coronavirus made it to the United States, that it wasn’t going to be an easy obstacle to overcome.

“[Our business] really depended on large groups of people that congregated together and I knew right away that we were doomed because I knew it was not going to end in a couple of weeks,” she said. “I knew it was not going to end in a couple of months. I was hoping we would get somewhat back to normal in October.”

Co-Owners and Chefs, Delectables Fine CateringSimpson owns Delectables Fine Catering with her husband Jeff, and another business partner. Delectables is an off-premise, full-service catering company for a variety of events, including weddings, large corporate events, social events, and more.

Simpson says the key for them has been to react quickly. “We had 75 part-time employees and 25 full-time employees and once this hit, we went down to three employees, basically just to answer the phones,” she said. “The business just stopped dead in its tracks. We lost about $500,000 worth of business the first couple of months.”

Although they had to lay off employees and all of their big events were canceled, the trio reinvented the business model. “We worked out a deal with Meals on Wheels and the Network to End Hunger where we deliver pre-made meals for kids and adults at their homes and we’re doing like 3,000 of those a week,” Simpson said. “So that enabled us to rehire some of our employees and at least not continue to lose money.”

In addition, Simpson turned to Bill Burnham, a business consultant at the Florida SBDC at the University of South Florida, for assistance. In January, Simpson was seeking assistance in submitting the paperwork for the upcoming Super Bowl and becoming a certified woman-owned business with the State of Florida. Burnham initially connected her to business consultant Eileen Rodriguez at the Florida SBDC at USF, who stepped her through both processes.

“She took me right under her wing,” she said of her meetings with Rodriguez. “She helped me fill out my paperwork the proper way [for certification] and she helped us submit our Super Bowl packet for approval. Eileen called Tallahassee and they actually answered on the first ring and I was amazed.”

Simpson got her woman-owned business certification and Delectables Fine Catering was one of 200 finalists for the Super Bowl interviews.

Once COVID-19 hit, Simpson walked herself through applying for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). While the PPP came through with no problem, the EIDL was a different story. “We got the PPP and then the EIDL, but the EIDL was sitting there and they were saying that it was submitted to us but they couldn’t get it through our bank.” With that, she reached out to Burnham for assistance again.

“He made a phone call and it was fixed the next day,” she said. “I was going back and forth trying to get this resurrected and he did it in one day.”

After more than 30 years in business, Simpson says she’s never come across an organization like the Florida SBDC at USF, that’s just there to help businesses. “Sometimes you feel like you are all on your own and everybody’s against you,” she said, “but when I worked with these two people, they just helped me so much.”

With the funding in place to carry the business through the slow season and hopefully towards normalcy, Simpson is focusing on the future of the business, with Delectables Delivery. This new venture consists of chef-made meals with no additives or preservatives delivered to customers’ doorsteps throughout the state of Florida, via online ordering.

“I think we’re gonna make it,” Simpson said. “My own daughter had to cancel her wedding this year and move it to March so I’m hoping to be able to get back to normal by then but in the meantime, we’re just going to reinvent ourselves and work around it and do the curbside pickup and the meal delivery program.”

The trio has been able to rehire 10 to 12 of its staff members and Simpson says she’s thankful for the clients they have that keep coming back year after year for family events. And although she says things may never be the way they were before, and the business may have to continually keep reinventing itself, she’s appreciative to have the assistance of the Florida SBDC at USF along the way.

“If you feel like no one’s there for you, they’re there for you, and I’m so appreciative,” she said.

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Sometimes you feel like you are all on your own and everybody’s against you, but when I worked with these two people [Florida SBDC consultants], they just helped me so much.”

Laurie Simpson, President — Delectables Fine Catering, Inc.