The Coronavirus Economy: What it’s like running a chef-prepared meal service while there’s a run on grocery stores
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Tatiana Boncompagni is a journalist and author turned entrepreneur, having previously worked for the Wall Street Journal in Brussels and in New York before becoming a freelancer for the New York Times and the Financial Times, among other publications. And she has also written three novels.
It was at this point her career, about two years ago, when she says she had “one of those lightbulb moments—or epiphanies, as we used to call them—and realized that I had gotten away from my original purpose or reason for becoming a journalist, which was to have a positive impact on the world.” So she made a pivot into wellness and became a personal trainer and holistic health coach. And more recently, she launched a wellness-oriented food business—just in time for the COVID-19 crisis to radically shake up the way people shop, cook, and eat.
Fortune spoke with Boncompagni about her New York–based chef-prepared meals business, Eat Sunny, for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy. We asked her about how the outbreak has affected her business and her thoughts on the future, and how she has been handling this news, both emotionally and financially.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: What inspired the launch of Eat Sunny?
Boncompagni: I started a business selling nutrition and fitness e-books. One of my customers asked me why I couldn’t just make the food in the plan and put it in their fridge, and that’s when the seeds of Eat Sunny started to take hold. I saw a real space in the marketplace that I believe the Weight Watchers and Jenny Craigs are going to lose—customers who care about their health and well-being but don’t want to be marketed to for weight loss. We provide satisfying, fiber-and- antioxidant-rich meals that are also portioned for optimal health, but we are never going to tell you that you need to lose weight. I want my customers to take more joy from their food and at the same time support their wellness goals by making eating healthy easy.
One of our value propositions from the start has been immunity boosting, because when I think “health” I don’t think “diet,” but all the nutrients we know can help you prevent chronic conditions, fend off infectious disease and really [help you] look and feel your best.
For many consumers, grocery shopping has changed dramatically over the past few months. Some consumers might be turning to alternative services, like subscription and delivery programs, to stock up on food and meals for the week. How has demand for Eat Sunny fared since the onset of the pandemic?
Well, we actually just launched. The week we were scheduled to do our desk sides was the same week everyone started working from home. All of our events were canceled. I almost decided to press the pause button, but then I realized a few things.
One, my partners are in the catering business, and all their events had been canceled. They could use work delivering to homes to keep their kitchen staff employed. I wanted to do what I could to keep people employed. Two, we started delivering, in partnership with a charity, meals to frontline health care workers. My mission is to bolster people’s health, and who could possibly use our help more than our frontline medical workers?
And last, yes, I did anticipate that this terrible, nightmare scenario might mean greater demand for the product that I’d already realized was my life’s calling to provide. It worried me that a lot of people were stockpiling highly processed foods that would only diminish their body’s ability to fight off COVID. If there was a time when my meals were more relevant and needed, I can’t imagine it.
There have been some concerns about the safety of food delivery—not only of preventing the transmission of COVID-19 via food packaging but also protecting employees who are providing an essential service. What kind of precautions has your business set up, and have any of those changed during the pandemic?
Great question. We have done quite a bit to make sure our kitchen and delivery/supply chain are as safe as possible.
Here’s what we are doing: Hourly cleaning around the clock of all surfaces including door handles, press countertops, and cooking equipment, using all antibacterial, hospital-approved cleaning products. [We] created a sanitizing station for our employees to utilize prior to entering our main kitchen area as well as exiting. [We] implemented extra staff training and guidance to review NYC Department of Health guidelines in both Spanish and English, free delivery and “touch free” service to your building or door to help “flatten the curve,” and we placed a hiring freeze to ensure less risk.
We meet the highest sanitary standards, and all the public health criteria governed by the FDA Food Code. Our facility is closed to the public, and we have also tightened our employee hygiene practices and increased procedures for cleaning and sanitizing, especially during preparation, distribution, and delivery. We are constantly tracking updates from health organizations such as the CDC and WHO to ensure we protect you at the highest level.
Looking toward the next few weeks and months, how do you expect consumers will continue to shop for food? Do you expect more interest in delivered meals, even as restrictions lift in some areas? And does Eat Sunny plan to expand in this economic climate?
We are already expanding. We’ve had so much demand that we are now servicing Long Island and the Hamptons as well as Connecticut—in addition to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and parts of New Jersey. In two to three weeks we hope to be able to be shipping, and that will allow us to reach the Midwest and all of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. I anticipate this will help us double our business.
I do think people will be eating home more often, even if lockdown restrictions are eased, at least for the short term—say, the next six to nine months or end of 2020. And hopefully there will be a vaccine or a way of containing the virus, and we will return to normal as an economy and society, but what we offer will always be relevant.
COVID-19 or not, people are busy and time-pressed, but they want to feel good, and they need to eat. We can help them achieve their goals, feel good, and also enjoy their food. If need be, and if COVID is more like a dimmer than an off/on switch, we will be there for you and bring our delicious, immunity-boosting food to your doorstep.
On a personal note, how have you been faring amid all this?
Me? Oh, well, I have three kids: 15, 13, and nine, and am a single parent, so that has added another hurdle. As if being an entrepreneur wasn’t hard enough? Add launching in a pandemic and managing three kids who have all struggled with homeschooling/remote learning in their own ways. I think one day I will look back at this time and think, “Wow, how did you do that?” But that’s also why I created Eat Sunny, to support all the people out there, the moms and dads and the people who are working until 10:30 p.m. at night (like I am), with comforting, healthy meals. I know I’m hardly alone in how I feel or how hard I work.
What’s helping is also doing what I can to maintain a positive outlook during this time. That means getting regular workouts and eating healthy, not drinking too much and getting enough sleep. For self-care, I try to take a long bath, do an intense yoga once a week, watch stand-up, and lift weights, as big as I can get my hands on. Lifting heavy is my joy; it makes me feel powerful and joyful and optimistic. Exercise is a good antidote to all the stress of launching a business, even one as well-positioned as mine, in the middle of a pandemic.