Lessons from the Unexpected: One Business’s Boom Amidst COVID-19

A former screenwriter shares her story of sustainable food.

BY Jon Bell Author & Outdoor Enthusiast

Nov 12th 2020

COVID-19 brought a shocking plot twist for curated food box delivery service Narrative Food. Business boomed.

“We suddenly had 500 people on our waiting list that we couldn’t serve,” says founder and CEO Jennifer Piette. “We had to shut down to new customers because I wasn’t set up to quintuple overnight. It was insane.”

While there’s a lot to learn from businesses buffeted by the pandemic, there are also invaluable lessons from the 1-2% of small businesses who say COVID has triggered a large positive impact on business. That narrow slice of businesses includes Narrative Food.

Piette has had to make quick decisions to meet soaring demand, adapt to supply disruptions, collaborate with business partners, and leverage Narrative Food’s designation as a certified B Corporation.

The Narrative Food Backstory

Before founding a food business, Piette worked as a screenwriter and lived in Europe for 25 years. As a young mother in the UK shopping for healthy food for her family, she started thinking about the possibility of food boxes that came with pantry items, dairy, and grass-fed meats, along with fruits and vegetables from local growers.

The idea came to fruition when she moved to California with her family in 2008. The country was in the depths of the Great Recession. But, there was emerging consumer interest in locally grown food and sustainable farming as part of the larger environmental movement. And, Piette had just finished a screenplay for a Greenpeace feature film.

“I pulled that business idea out of the drawer and was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m in the perfect place, and this is the perfect time,'” she recalls.

Her model is a simple one: Assemble and deliver curated boxes of local food every week.

The company rode the farm-to-table wave for its first few years, becoming a certified B Corporation along the way with a commitment to balance purpose with profit.

When growth flattened in 2016 Piette sought funding to invest in marketing with an eye to grow her reach. In late 2019, she set out to raise $200,000 through a Wefunder campaign. Two days after launching, however, Piette was injured in a car accident, throwing off the campaign’s momentum.

Then came COVID-19.

Lessons Learned from Sudden Growth

The pandemic had two surprising effects on the business. First, it sparked demand for Narrative Food’s services overnight, and it helped amplify the Wefunder campaign. By April, Narrative Food’s campaign had raised $80,000, exceeding the $50,000 minimum necessary to fund the offering. But, Piette didn’t have a second to think about investing in marketing because she was working seven days a week to source food and pack boxes.

Piette says the boom in business initially overwhelmed her and her small staff of nine. Beyond the sheer volume and the logistics of assembling and delivering food boxes to so many more people, Narrative Food also had to contend with pandemic-related supply chain disruptions.

Piette took a breather recently to reflect on Narrative Food’s journey during the pandemic and share 4 lessons learned:

Be nimble during supply disruptions

With the supply chain in disarray at the start of the pandemic, Piette found it harder to source some of the foods she’d come to rely on. For example, one local egg supplier had to temporarily stop supplying Narrative Food so it could meet new demand in its own community.

But Piette stayed nimble, offering customers the best local produce and food that she could find, even if that meant more “chef-driven” items.

“There was agretti for numerous weeks,” Piette says, referencing the relatively uncommon Italian green vegetable. “We turned this into an opportunity to educate our community on an ingredient we had never used before, and many embraced it. That period of time coincided with a renewed passion and interest in cooking. Happily for us, people were baking, cooking and chopping their way through the pandemic, gaining new confidence in the kitchen and open to trying new things at home.”

The shortages were temporary, but flexibility and product knowledge helped Narrative Food pull through.

Tap your team’s creativity and industry knowledge

Difficult times can drive internal change, and they can lead to new partnerships. For Piette, working seven days a week month after month was unsustainable. There were only so many operational improvements she could make to meet the demands of her huge new customer base—and those on her waiting list.

When orders overwhelmed the team, a co-worker with connections to the broader food business suggested Piette shift from assembling produce boxes in-house to partnering with organic farm County Line Harvest, which now assembles the base produce boxes.

The partnership was mutually beneficial. County Line Harvest’s clients include restaurants hurt by the shelter-in-place closures. The new relationship helped both businesses keep operating.

“Successful partnerships can result from committed co-workers and their industry expertise. Now, our two teams are working together to power through these challenging times.” says Piette.

Be intentional where you network

As a certified B Corporation, Piette is also a member of We the Change, a group of women CEOs running B Corps. Through that organization, Piette had already been talking to Michelle Hirons, the CEO of B Corp customer service company Higher Ring, and dreaming of the day the business would be large enough to engage them for customer service.

“I used to do my customer service, but there was no way I could with four times as many customers and a lot of them in a state of panic,” she says. “Being a certified B Corp gave me a networking edge during this economic downturn. My conversations with Michelle set the foundation for her to come on board and just totally take care of all of my customers, which was amazing.”

Invest in Customer Retention

Now that Narrative Food has found its pandemic-era groove, Piette says she’s focused on maintaining the momentum, even as people settle back into more regular routines. That means it’s time for her to tap into the Wefunder funding earmarked for marketing.

Having built the capacity to serve her larger customer base, she’s focused on enhancing their experience. Part of that will be through investing in packaging and storytelling.

“All of us have the power to vote with our forks.”

“We want to engage with people on the narrative of regenerative agriculture, and how it is beneficial to our climate crisis, communities, and individuals,” says Piette.

While she expects demand for Narrative Food’s offerings may level off a bit, she believes the interest in local food and personal connections will remain strong—and that fostering those interests through investing in her brand will pay off.

“I don’t think it’s going to go back to normal tomorrow,” she says. “The better the experience and the more personal the connection is, I think the more hope we have that people will stay with us.”

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