Small Business Stories with Gusto is an ongoing effort to collect stories from small businesses across the country during COVID-19. We hope these stories can be a resource for other business owners, providing inspiration, ideas, and insights as we navigate this new economic reality. If you’d like to be spotlighted, share your story here.
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Steven Hollifield trained as a chef in San Francisco with the intent of working in the fine dining industry. When he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis soon after he graduated from culinary school, he thought that career was over.
“At the worst part of it, I couldn’t even lift a gallon of milk,” Hollifield tells us. But he persisted in his work as a chef, and after taking jobs at a few restaurants—and falling in love with barbecue along the way—he started his own catering company, Seismic BBQ.
Hollifield thought this was the year he’d finally get out of the kitchen—in fact, he hired a sous chef for that purpose. But, when shelter-in-place orders took hold amid the coronavirus outbreak, the corporate orders that provide one of Seismic BBQ’s main revenue streams dried up, and plans changed.
The impact of COVID-19
“We went from feeding 700-plus people a day through our catering to zero. Almost overnight, too,” Hollifield says.
While Seismic’s team of three was prepared for an eventual downturn in the economy, the Bay Area can be somewhat insulated from national recessions, and they weren’t expecting the impact that COVID-19 has had on local businesses. “We were working on cheaper menu ideas for our corporate clients in case they had leaner budgets this year. But this totally blindsided us,” he says.
Hollifield is also the owner of the industrial kitchen Seismic BBQ operates out of, and he rents the space to other businesses. So he’s felt the impact of the pandemic twice, as both a business owner and a landlord losing out on rent.
“I remember distinctly the last order that we did. I knew when I walked out of the building that day that we were in for a cataclysm,” he recalls. “I immediately took myself off the payroll, but I knew I was gonna have to let my sous chef and prep guy go.”
Hollifield applied for government relief, a process which came with its own challenges. And, adding to the stress, his wife is a San Francisco doctor on the frontlines of battling COVID-19.
How they pivoted
As the team waited for a loan to come through, Seismic BBQ received relief in the form of a large corporate order from Silicon Valley biotech company, Cepheid. The company is working seven days a week on rapid COVID testing kits and needs to feed 500 to 1,000 of its employees per week.
The Seismic team adapted their practices to meet current needs, but keeping up with the new norms hasn’t phased them. “Thankfully I think we will be in a good position to weather this,” says Hollifield. “We will have to pivot away from buffet style meals and into boxed service, which will add costs in labor and materials. But I’m confident we can adjust to whatever the ‘new normal’ looks like.”
Fortunately, Hollifield had a good line of credit and savings to rely on when the pandemic hit, and profits from 2019 would keep the business going for a few months.
But to ensure he did everything he could to keep his two employees on payroll with benefits like health insurance, Hollifield applied for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan—which wasn’t a walk in the park. He was concerned his application might get overlooked by his commercial bank.
Hollifield says, “We really felt like we were in limbo, waiting on any updates.”
Then, Hollifield decided to submit his application and secure a PPP loan through Gusto’s partnership with Cross River Bank. He received his disbursement during the second week of May.
“PPP will go a long way to normalize us,” he says.
While Seismic BBQ has found some relief in the PPP funding and current projects, Hollifield knows more challenges lie ahead.
“July 4th is our biggest BBQ day of the year,” he says. “Even if we’re back up and running, we’re not sure about our vendors. Is our meat guy going to be back? Is our vegetable guy going to be back? We’re not clear on supply chain. There’s so many unanswered questions.”
- Explore new customer pools. Your regular customers’ needs may have shifted, but there might also be other client bases that are newly in need of your products or services. Keep an eye out for those opportunities.
- Consider a PPP loan, and get help with the process. Gusto has tools and resources that can help make the application and forgiveness process a little easier.
- Give yourself hope. Hollifield has a tattoo of a chef’s knife on his arm that serves as a reminder of his strength. “I wanted to tattoo it so when I have a rough day, like we’ve been having, I can look down and say we can do this,” Hollifield says.
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