For Leslie and Bruce Schlernitzauer, the move toward going online in their Charlotte, NC, event-catering business, Porcupine Provisions, was spurred, like so many others in the hospitality industry, by the COVID-19 pandemic. While their business has been able to maintain a few party deliveries as well as weekly meals orders, it’s nowhere near their usual workload of roughly 800 events a year.
“We have not done [in-person] service since March,” Leslie said.
They needed a new idea, and with the help of their daughter, came up with a solution: selling curated baskets, or a “gathered bunch” of fresh, local ingredients—a curated meal feeding two, four or six people—and added touches like a companion cooking demo video. Their new business, Gathered, depends on social media and an e-commerce platform to gain traction and persevere.
Surviving meant learning the new rules of e-commerce
E-commerce was not something Leslie and Bruce knew or understood how to use. Though the business had a web presence, it was “old, super Eighties-ish, ” says Leslie. She only posted on Instagram when she remembered to. To bring technology into their business pivot, the Schlernitzauers turned to their daughter Megan, who has worked in marketing and lost her job at the start of the pandemic.
Megan quickly set up an e-commerce platform using Shopify, which was easy to use and required no coding. Through the platform, Megan has been able to update the baskets twice a month, bring back popular products from previous baskets and manage orders. Shopify also offered a simple CRM (customer relations management) platform to organize clients so that they could quickly and easily send emails to customers. After customers submit orders, Megan uses the platform to send a Gathered branded email with a link to a secure online payment system.
They have encountered a few hurdles with the move, particularly since their existing mobile payment system was too expensive, so they use two payment platforms. Their long-term goal is to bring together ordering, CRM, payments and video content on their own website.
Adding in social media to build loyalty
Social media for Gathered has made a measurable difference. Their newly launched Instagram presence has been essential for reaching new customers. “That’s where we get all our referrals,” Megan said. About 75% of sales have come straight from Instagram, while 25% are generated from email updates to existing customers.
To boost their Instagram traffic, Megan and her sister, Grace, have scoured Instagram to find local influencers. They’ll give an influencer a free basket to promote the product on their own feeds at different times during the ordering period. The influencer market can help them tell stories. “People connect with the stories,” Megan explained. Gathered is experimenting with different kinds of influencers—food bloggers, lifestyle bloggers, mommy bloggers—to see which audiences and timing in their order cycle pull best for them.
“With influencer marketing,” said Megan, “there’s basically no rules, no regulation. Everyone makes it up as they go.” Still, she carefully vets potential influencers, calculating their reach based on number of followers and actual engagement, then defines and lays out specific terms with the influencers.
Grace is in charge of creating the cooking demo videos to include with the basket orders as an added touch. She produces videos of her dad Bruce, which are then uploaded to Vimeo. Megan then uses Bitly to create a unique, shortened link for clients and embeds the link or a QR code in the ordering menu.
The right move
These days, moving business online to sell products is becoming more of a necessity for small businesses like the Schlernitzauers. This has also meant expansion into digital payments, social media and a new outlook on how to do business.
“The pandemic has definitely taught me that with full-service catering, my eggs were completely in one basket,” says Leslie. Now, the entire family is excited about the diversification it has created for their business, and they look forward to its future. “We hoped the move to e-commerce would broaden our customer base. This has been a good way to segue into a quasi-retail situation without retail space.”
Still, Megan dreams of someday turning the new venture into a small storefront in Charlotte—bringing the best of their e-commerce venture and traditional retail together.