For the last 13 years, Savor Seattle Food Tours has been offering guided food and wine tasting tours that explore the city through a foodie lens. The tours showcase the best that Seattle has to offer with a focus on fresh, local, organic, and sustainable foods. Owner Angela Shen has created a well-known and extremely successful tour business with 18 part- and full-time employees. As her team was gearing up for the summer of 2020, they were planning on hiring 18 more tour guides, but that plan was halted in late February when COVID-19 hit the city.
Angela responded by making a shift in her business that has not only helped generate revenue for her company, but also provided opportunity and cash flow for many other small businesses in her community. Angela recently told us more about her new business strategy and how COVID-19 has changed things for Savor Seattle forever.
How did the virus impact your business initially?
We will never forget leap day 2020. It was devastating to watch our entire tourism sector get obliterated overnight. Then we were personally devastated once restaurants were forced to close. With us being in the food tourism business, everything came crashing down in a matter of days.We had to let 12 of our 18 people go, and even though it wasn’t necessarily a surprise to people, it still hurt a lot.
We had over $200,000 worth of prepaid tours booked that had not been taken yet. Like the airline and hotel industries, we were—and are—continuing to hemorrhage refunds as people’s trips and conferences are being cancelled. That’s a really difficult position to be in. You have money constantly going out the door and absolutely nothing coming in.
When I realized everything I was faced with, it was like gosh, we need to find a solution. We need to do something, anything. We have to try. Even if it was a total flop, I didn’t know what else I could do but pivot my business. I have always been an entrepreneur and a creator, so I came up with an idea that would allow me to tell my team: We’re so sorry that we have to let you go, but we hope to bring you back, and here’s how we think we’re going to do it.
What was the idea to pivot your business?
An iconic Pike Place Market box program. Each week we work with a variety of vendors to showcase the best of Pike Place. Included in every box is a bouquet of beautiful market flowers, a box of fresh produce from Frank’s Quality Produce, whole bean coffee, and a rotating assortment of other market food brands. When this started, the concept was to take market favorites to the homes of Seattle residents when they couldn’t come to Pike Place themselves.
We weren’t sure if it would be popular or something folks would be interested in, but we wanted to test it out. Within two days of our layoffs, we created a GoFundMe and a flyer that we distributed via social media using PayPal and Venmo links. Donations enabled us to keep the lights on and give tour guides their jobs back, putting them to work bringing the Market to your doorstep. We need donations to buy food inventory from restaurants and supplies like bags and ice packs. Donations also provided us the means to get the website built and the marketing needed to spread the word about it. Looking back now, I can’t believe that people were willing to do that and trust us, but we had to be creative and try new things in order to operate during COVID-19.
How has the new program been going?
It has been incredible. In the first week we had 48 orders. By week eight we were up to 950 orders! We started doing themed boxes—highlighting different cuts of meat or market favorites for Mother’s Day and Memorial Day weekend. Then we expanded to offer a Market Favorites Box with nationwide shipping, so that our customers, fans, and friends can enjoy Pike Place Market anywhere in the country during COVID-19.
It’s been awesome to watch the Market Favorites Box launch. We sold out of our first 50 boxes within a half hour. We then decided to add 50 more, which also sold out in 30 minutes. We added 108 more after that and those sold out in the next hour! At that point, we had to put a pause on the orders and call all of our suppliers to ask if they could please, please, please come up with more product for us and see how fast they could get it to us. That was a great feeling.
What’s been the hardest part so far?
Honestly, the shipping. Figuring out the right-sized box and then packing everything so it doesn’t break in transit. You also realize things as you go. We had some incredible chocolates in our first boxes. Turns out shipping chocolate to Tampa in May isn’t a great idea. We had to change that item up!
We’re learning so much all the time. I’m dealing with vendors and quantities that are so big that they don’t carry that much inventory on hand. No one carries that much inventory on hand, so they educate me. One of my vendors, Frank, has these funny conversations with me where he’s like, “I know you don’t really know produce, but I don’t just have 1,500 bunches of carrots laying around right next to a stack of 1,500 avocados. Just letting you know.” So we’re all just figuring it out together. Making funny mistakes along the way, but that’s how you learn and get a good laugh out of it.
How have the boxes benefited the community and participating businesses?
Everyone who buys these boxes is basically making a small micropayment to help support these businesses all in one go. And with every box purchased, we donate $5 back to the Pike Place Market Safety Net Fund, which supports merchants and residents of Pike Place that have been economically impacted by COVID-19. To date we have donated over $14,000 to the safety net fund. We’re very proud of that.
The high volume of orders has been able to support so many businesses in ways we couldn’t have even imagined. We featured a hot honey sauce in our salmon theme box a few weeks ago, made by Ros of Herban Farm, and he told us that our one order of 765 hot honey bottles enables him to pay for his operating expenses for the entire month. That’s unbelievable. Frank’s Quality Produce laid off two dozen employees, and within two weeks of our box program, they hired back two employees because of our boxes. Now they have brought back four employees in total because of our boxes. And Dylan, who owns Bonnie B’s Peppers—all he’s doing is making pickled peppers for us—he just keeps bringing us the maximum of 108 jars every Tuesday and Thursday until we say stop. He says, “Whatever you want, sure, just take it, take it all.” So that’s really neat.
Why are these boxes so important for small businesses?
Small businesses need the community now more than ever. If you love the Pike Place Market, if you want your community to look the way that it did before COVID-19, this is your chance. Lean in. Be a part of that. Be part of the bigger solution. You can—I’ve seen it happen every single day.
Will you continue this post-COVID-19?
We love what we’re doing, and we can’t imagine not continuing to do it in some capacity. So as long as people across the country want Pike Place Market shipped to them, we’re going to do it.
Photos from Savor Seattle
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