Before the pandemic, City Catering was one of the busiest food businesses in Seattle for 21 years. It was founded by Lendy Hensley and run with business partners Shana Hicks and Katy Carroll. The LGBTQ-owned, Woman-Owned company converted a 6,000 sq. ft. space in South Lake Union into a production kitchen and small event space, hired dozens of employees, and built an impressive business. They were named 'Seattle's Most Creative Caterer' by Seattle Magazine, and received a variety of local and national press. Then, the pandemic shutdown the city.
City Catering lost 98% of their business the year of the shutdown. They shut down four of their cafes, their catering services, and had to lay off over one hundred of their employees. Their last fully attended event was for 600 people on February 29. This wasn’t over for City Catering though, far from it. In fact, it was the start of a new beginning.
CITY CATERING TAKES A BIG BITE
The lockdown had forced the company to come up with a plan to make the best of a tough situation. It had become apparent to that COVID-19 was going to be around for a while, so the solution to their problem was to go digital. But how could they bring food to virtual events?
City Catering wanted to create something that they knew could last beyond the pandemic. After extensive thinking and planning, the company evolved and took on a new direction.
The team had fallen in love with the idea of creating gift baskets for their customers. The next two questions that they were battling were how can they make this idea permanent? and how can the recipes they make turn into packaged foods that can be sustainable beyond COVID-19? Well, in April 2020, Bite Society, a gift basket company now a part of City Catering was born.
They started looking at things they made when they were running their cafes. Common items they created were pickles, potato chips, and snack mixes for parties. They also had a robust pastry department of cookies. Hensley and her coworkers started working on developing recipes from home and their commissary which had also shutdown.
Owner Lendy Hensley learned about Business Impact NW and their offerings around this time. Hensley was paired with a business coach, Jessica Conaway, to help her with the pitch she was working on for Bite Society.
“[My business coach] helped me write my pitch for Bite Society," said Hensley. "She helped put the delivery visuals that I put with it and I won two different pitch competitions with it and a large part of that was from the coaching I got with Jessica.”
Hensley said when there's something new you want the public to know about, business pitches are a key skill you need. After much time and dedication being spent trying to make the best out of a touch situation, Hensley and her crew knew that they had found the light at the end of their dark tunnel. Bite Society was ready to launch into the world.
WEARING YOUR HEART ON YOUR (COOKIE) SLEEVE
“I was walking my dog while I was thinking about what I wanted for my artwork and I was like, oh my God tattoo shops are closed right now. Those guys are sitting at home, why don’t we try and reach out and hire some? And so we did,” Hensley said.
The Bite Society team had placed ads all over the United States. They eventually hired tattoo artists to draw up their artwork. One artist in particular caught the organization's attention and they hired him permanently as their art director. “I think of our cookie sleeves kind of like a tattoo sleeve,” Hensley said.
Once things started opening back up, so did City Caterings cafes where they decided to continue running both businesses. Hensley envisions Bite Society as a refreshing start, creating something new within the old.
“We would have never started Bite Society without the pandemic,” Hensley said.
Transitioning a company in a whole different direction can be challenging. Fortunately for Bite Society, they already had a good base of connections thanks to their devoted community through City Catering. They put together many corporate catering events, made connections through Facebook, and expanded their social media presence. Now, both City Catering and Bite Society have major press through a variety of news outlets.
BUILDING A SOCIETY THAT DOES GOOD
“One of the wonderful things about this direction is it really gets us back to the roots of what we enjoy most about food," Hensley said.
Through meeting people with the same passion for food as herself, Hensley gets to meet growers and ingredient makers with extensive knowledge on food. The company is currently working on new cookie recipes that bring in creative ideas from other bakers. Some of the people she has met now have joined her team to work for Bite Society.
"On the product development side it's just wonderful to be able to work with other food makers in town and beyond on new ideas that we have," Hensley noted. "It’s pretty exciting.”
Hensley and her company are also devoted to building a community through shared projects.
“One of the things we’ve done is we’ve had a tin made for pride,” Hensley said. “Five dollars of each sale of the tin goes to GSBA. Their logo stands on the tin and I think that’s a great way for us to engage our community through some shared projects where they get some money as a nonprofit and they’ve been incredibly supportive of us."
We are thrilled to see City Catering's successful pandemic pivot into building a new branch of their passion for food, Bite Society. We can't wait to see all that they continue to build and develop in their new venture.
National Admin is April 27th. How do you plan to thank your invaluable admin? We have some ideas for you…let’s start with a basket of delicious treats and add a card that expresses your gratitude for having your ass saved on a daily basis. We got you. Give us a call: 206. 487.6249.
For Women’s Month, Jessica asked me to think about women who have influenced me or who I have admired. There are so many women that come to mind, from my own mother to my current colleagues and friends. At that same time, Us women-folk make up half of the population, so finding someone to admire isn’t incredibly difficult. Her question got me thinking back to my childhood and two women who shared infamy for me and many others in the early 1970’s.
In 1972, Billie Jean King was ranked #1 in women’s tennis and Shirley Chisholm ran for president. The next year Billie Jean was challenged to play a tennis match by a loud-mouthed self-described sexist named Bobby Riggs. When I think about 9-year-old me, I instantly imagine both of them as women I aspired to be. Shirley Chisholm’s unwavering belief in empowering people and Billie Jean King’s speed and power on the court. They were blazing different trails while changing the notion of what a woman could do.
I was the only person in my house who took Shirley Chisholm seriously. I knew she was climbing uphill in her run for president. But she was clearly too determined, smart and serious to be a joke. Shirley Chisholm for President of the United States. She was thwarted at every turn, and yet she persisted. Only allowed onstage for one debate, she still kept going. I quietly perked up when I heard her name on the news and Shirley Chisholm for President of the United States was filed away in my brain under possibility.
The next year, Billie Jean played Bobby Riggs in what was promoted as “The Battle of the Sexes”. It was a hot topic in our house. My mother was not a fan of my tennis idol. I think she may have seen some similarities between her daughter and the not-yet-out-of-the-closet tennis star. My father, on the other hand, loved her. He also understood the limitations of Bobby’s 55-year-old body, and declared: “She’s gonna kill him.” Billie Jean didn’t actually kill him… but she did win along with what I later realized was the weight of every nine-year-old little girl in America on her shoulders.
Thinking back to my idols, I could have written about Julia Child or any women of the kitchen who I admire, but these two inspired me before I ever hit the kitchen. Shirley and Billie Jean had a kind of determination I had not seen played out in public. Shirley and Billie Jean pop up in my thoughts quite often. I am awed by their perseverance and resilience. So, from this former nine-year-old to Shirley Chisholm and Billie Jean King, I say thank you for being the bad asses who showed me the way. Happy Women’s History Month.
PS. Women’s Month is every month at Bite Society!