Learn how one of Portland’s most beloved restaurants adjusted its business plan amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Listen to this article here.
I started as a catering company in 2008. At first, we were called “Mayahuel Catering,” named after the goddess of food and nutrition in Aztec and Mayan culture, and our goal was to pay homage to our ancestors by rescuing and maintaining recipes and cooking techniques at an affordable price for all wallets. Customers actually referred to me as “Tamale Boy” without me even knowing it, and my marketing person at the time was with me when we were doing an event to promote the catering business. She heard about the nickname and was like, How Cute! So we looked up the domain and it was available. We purchased it and then we created the branding for it. It worked out, since no one could pronounce or even remember “Mayahuel.” I adapted my catering van to sling tamales as a roaming food truck. Tamale Boy blew up and we had to find a brick-and-mortar to have a home. Tamale Boy offers a seasonally changing menu designed to highlight cuisine from various regions throughout Mexico.
Initially, it dropped our sales by 70% at our shops and decimated our catering business. We have slowly gained back to 65–70% pre-COVID numbers at our shops, and catering is still trickling at maybe 10% of our pre-COVID numbers.
No. We decided to do the Employee Retention Tax Credits instead, because PPP was unrealistic and unknown.
How our team responded and pushed through, not only deciding to maintain and stay open but also to pivot and figure out how to adjust and move forward. Everyone sacrificed and went to part-time so that we only ended up losing 5 employees.
I am optimistic for the future, but it’s definitely devastating for small businesses. If you didn’t have the cash flow to maintain and/or weren’t able to somewhat pivot and maintain, its game over. We are very fortunate to have enough community support that we’ve been able to keep going.
This definitely put us more into relying on and using different tech or digital aspects of our operations for a no-contact experience with our customers, as well as minimal or no-contact operations within. Another strategy that we are starting very soon is creating a few virtual/ghost kitchen concepts to supplement our losses on catering. We hope that it serves as a small incubator for future concepts to roll out, as well as reinforce our workforce.
We were only closed the first weekend of the pandemic. We wrapped our heads around the situation and worked on how we could safely operate, obviously just doing takeout, pickup, and working with 3rd party delivery services. We were very fortunate to stay open and march on.
First, make sure that the menu you offer translates well for takeout/delivery. Keep it small and make sure you can execute it quickly and consistently with minimal personnel. Make sure you know your food and labor costs — admin and accounting is key to knowing where your break-even point is. And you should have at least six months or a year’s worth of rent in your cash flow to weather unforeseen circumstances.
Aside from making sure you have a solid product and your numbers are where they are supposed to be, this is a team-effort business if you want to scale up. After I had my product solid, having systems and controls implemented in our operations, I focused on my employees. Patience comes into play, as it takes time to finally have a team flowing in the same direction. Branding of course is very important, in order for your customers to remember or identify you, whether it’s the name or a graphic. Just as important is the culture you cultivate within your organization.
I am most proud of our team and the relationship with our community that we have created at Tamale Boy. It’s all about honoring and maintaining our culture and traditions, for our patrons to experience and enjoy.
John Prindle is Writer/Researcher at Masterplans