For months, Chris Schulz and his wife Heather were battling to get their dream food business off the ground. Then Covid-19 came along and everything went ballistic.
We sat, crumpled in a heap on the couch. It was nearing midnight and my wife and I were exhausted. In just a few hours, we’d have to be up before dawn, picking up bread, pastries and doughnuts from bakeries around Auckland, then packing and delivering more than 200 orders over Mother’s Day weekend. In 2020, that celebration was being held with the country in alert level three.
In front of us lay the things we’d need to do this. Branded paper bags hand-stamped by us with our company’s logo were piled on tables. Boxes containing thousands of eggs were lined up in rows. Bags full of avocados, pancake mixes and sauces were pre-packed, ready to be loaded into cars and delivered to customers by mates we’d roped in to help.
To navigate our lounge you’d need to pick your way through carefully. A thin strip between the front door and the kitchen was the only visible floor space. Put a foot wrong one way and you’d smoosh a six pack of eggs straight into the carpet. Step the other way and you’d knock over a leaning tower of pre-made cake boxes.
Everything was squished into our humble Te Atatū home: us, our kids and our rapidly expanding food business. We were bulging at the seams. In one of our fridges, packets of our favourite bacon supplier lined the shelves, packed as tightly as we could fit them. In the other, cheesecakes, chocolate cakes and brownies were stacked neatly, intoxicating smells of chocolate and vanilla wafting through the house whenever the door was opened.
As the clock hit midnight, we felt frazzled and fried. We’d been working every day for weeks as Brunch Box, our twice-weekly delivery service of brunch essentials, took flight when the country went into alert level four. In the year previous we’d been limping along, trying to make our dreams a reality. We were about ready to give up on them.
Back on March 25, when lockdowns bound millions of people to their homes, we were sitting on the same couch having a different conversation. My Food Bag was considered an essential service. So were Woop and Hello Fresh. Our small delivery service wasn’t the same size, not even close. But all the small producers who supplied our business had nowhere for their food to go. Cafes might be closed, but eggs still get laid, avocados still ripen, and the bacon’s already packed.
Couldn’t we pick those products up, package them safely and deliver them to people stuck at home? Surely our tiny food business was also an essential service?
After many confusing email chains and phone conversations with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), it turned out we were. As soon as we made that decision, business went ballistic as people in our local area flooded our site and helped spread the word. Excuse the pun, but those Covid-19 lockdowns saved our bacon.
Yet Mother’s Day weekend was different. It was huge. Mother’s Day is known as the biggest day in hospitality all year, and yet cafes were only allowed to serve takeaway items. The orders had flooded in during the week, the numbers getting so high they’d lost all meaning. We’d never done 200 orders before, and we were terrified.
Could we pull this off?
Side hustle to main hustle
Here’s another question we kept asking ourselves: how did we get here? At the beginning of 2019 my wife and I quit our office jobs. Disillusioned after nearly 20 years in our chosen industries – Heather had worked in the fashion industry, I’d spent a similar amount of time in newsrooms – we decided to take a punt. Our side hustle was going to become our main hustle.
For years, we’d each been cheating on our careers by having small flings with food. Sick of terrible supermarket avocados, Heather found a Katikati grower, persuaded them to courier her boxes of avocados every week, and delivered them to homes around Te Atatū, organising orders through an invite-only Facebook group.
By accident, I’d created a seasoning mix that worked well with almost every meal. It seemed to be addictive, and friends and family nagged me to make more. Finally, I called it Redspice, got a label made and began selling it through local grocers. The first day it went on shelves, then prime minister John Key was photographed with a jar. New Zealand, eh?
One day, Heather roped me in to help deliver avocados. I got bored and began throwing ideas around. “Why aren’t we delivering more things? Why not eggs? Bacon? Sourdough? Coffee?” It snowballed from there. We couldn’t stop talking about it. We knew all too well how hard it was to experience a long, leisurely cafe brunch with noisy kids in tow. Why couldn’t we box all our favourite brunch ingredients up? Who wouldn’t want the best bacon, eggs, bread, juice and coffee arriving on their doorstep on Saturday mornings?
A quick Google search found there was no competition. All food bags and boxes catered for weekday meals, not leisurely weekend treats. No one else offered that kind of service. Soon, the thought dominated our conversations. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, we chose the name Brunch Box, gave a bloke $300 to design a logo and asked a family member to take some cheesy photos of us.
Then we lost a bunch of our savings to a website designer who promised amazing things but disappeared once he’d been paid.
Eventually, with a new designer on board, our site launched in January 2019. Looking at the video I took of us at the time, we look pensive, wide-eyed, terrified. Heather had already left her job. I was about to leave mine. We had no startup capital, no investors, no real business plan, and just a few thousand in savings. Did I mention we have kids? And a mortgage?
The startup grind
After that very definition of a soft launch, I harangued all my media contacts and spammed PR friends for advice. To promote it, we started attending farmers markets. We made a paltry $80 that first weekend, but feedback was fantastic. Determined to spread the word, we committed to more markets: Grey Lynn, Parnell, and Te Atatū Night Market. They were hard work, with low financial rewards, but crucial for building our confidence.
The only noise coming from our website was crickets. Very occasionally, when an order came through, we’d gasp and high five. With our leftover market offerings, we launched Dessert Club, delivering healthified treats like paleo chocolate cake, vegan fruit crumbles and bliss balls with flavoured centres to local homes on a Sunday night. That began to flourish. People liked our food, and that gave us inspiration to keep going.
But farmers markets and desserts weren’t the business we’d planned. Along with the avocados and Redspice, our business had become a multi-tentacled mess. None of it was even close to giving us enough money to live on. Our savings dwindled. Imposter syndrome was a daily struggle. Others had spent their lives cooking, cheffing, living and breathing food. Who were we to storm in and set up shop?
Online, without big advertising dollars to spend, things built slowly. Across 2019, our busiest day of Brunch Box deliveries was just 10 orders, delivered between the kids’ soccer games. We expanded our catchment area and found ourselves driving to Pukekohe and Ōrewa for single orders, time and petrol costs negating any possible profit. By February 2020, we’d run out of cash. We were ready to give up.
Sitting on the same couch we’d find ourselves in just a few months’ time slumped on, over-run by orders, we discussed closing the website, selling the house, and giving up our dream.
How Covid changed everything
As it did for every single business on the planet, Covid-19 changed everything. With cafes and restaurants shuttered during alert level four, and lengthy queues formed around supermarket buildings, people turned online to order their food. We already had a website, and Facebook and Instagram groups containing hundreds of members. Our audience was ready and waiting. Spreading the word was easy.
Suddenly, the previous 12 months didn’t seem like such a waste of time after all.
So we “pivoted”, quickly. One part of our sprawling business model suddenly came sharply into focus. We folded everything up into an online farmers market: a choose-your-own buffet of delicious, hard-to-find, freshly picked, quality brunch-centred products, from producers that shared our ethos. We added our own products into the mix, put everything into recyclable or compostable packaging, and delivered to doors safely and contactlessly. Money supplied by the government’s Covid-19 business fund helped pay for a business coach and a newly streamlined, deli-style website.
With our MBIE certification in hand in case police stopped us, signs that read “Essential Service” stuck to our car windows, packs of masks in the front seat and a constant supply of hand sanitiser nearby, we began operating. And we began selling out. Stuck at home, and shopping online, people couldn’t get enough of us. Almost overnight, we went from doing a handful of deliveries to dozens and dozens of them. Orders would come in faster than we could keep up.
We’d be up late most nights, sitting on laptops around the kitchen table, collating orders, talking with suppliers, sorting delivery routes, persuading friends to drive for us. Orders would arrive from all over the place: Facebook, Instagram, email, phone and even text messages. Every available surface was used to prepare orders. Some days, we packed and delivered from 6am until well after 6pm. If we needed a breather, we’d collapse on our couch, too tired to move. There was no home-schooling going on. Sometimes, even our 11-year-old son would help out, demanding payment in chocolate croissants.
During lockdown, it felt like we had an inside eye on the human psyche. At alert level four, our customers craved comfort food. That meant two things: doughnuts and bacon. As alert levels went down, healthier food would take over, like gluten-free breads, haloumi and organic salad mixes. During the recent alert level yo-yos, the same thing happened again. One recent weekend, we offered and quickly sold out of hot cross bun-flavoured doughnuts. We didn’t even get to try one for ourselves.
We know we’re incredibly lucky. We didn’t launch our business with lockdowns in mind. We had no idea Covid-19 was coming when we quit our jobs. We also know many food businesses – especially those with fixed retail spaces and expensive overheads – are struggling. Some weeks, we do too. We’re nowhere near making it out of the woods. But we’ve found ourselves a small clearing that seems to be sustainable. Our regulars love us, rave about us, keep coming back and invite their friends to join too. We’ve found several suburbs that work for us, and focus our deliveries and marketing on those.
Yes, business yo-yos between lockdowns. When alert levels go up, Brunch Box gives us something to focus on rather than Ashley Bloomfield’s daily presentations. We know we’re helping our suppliers, who would be throwing away their incredible food. We know we’re helping those stuck at home eat delicious, healthy food during lockdown. “Thanks for being the lighthouse and ray of sunshine on each delivery,” someone wrote on our Facebook page in the middle of lockdown last year. Kind words like that kept us going. That makes us feel good. That makes us feel like we’re doing the right thing. One year on, we might even find time to celebrate with one of those doughnuts. They do look delicious.