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Little Mushroom Catering takes a hard pivot in the face of the pandemic

The Cambridge catering company shifted to grocery and meal deliveries
Little Mushroom Catering Stephanie Soulis
Supplied photo (Tomas Adamski Photography)

One industry heavily impacted over the last nine months has been the catering sector. With weddings, holiday parties and gatherings cancelled, catering companies overhauled their business models to adjust to reach their customers differently.

Little Mushroom Catering in Cambridge is one local catering company bracing the impact from the pandemic.

Heading into 2020, they had a busy year on their slate with 90 weddings planned this past year. They just moved into their new event space at the end of February, but the pandemic forced Little Mushroom to close less than a month later.

As a company that was one year into a ten-year lease and had sunk a half-million dollars into renovating their 7,000 square foot facility, the timing couldn’t have been any worse. In the wake of the pandemic, Little Mushroom took a hard pivot from full-service catering into local grocery and meal deliveries and curbside pickup.

“It’s not what we’re known for or used to doing,” said Stephanie Soulis, President and CEO of Little Mushroom Catering. “We are full-service event caterers, and that’s exactly what we can’t do right now. We have pivoted a lot.”

With Waterloo Region moving into the red (restrict) zone, that forced the cancellation of many upcoming events, including a slate of weddings on the schedule for the Cambridge catering company. In the meantime, while part of their kitchen isn’t in use, Little Mushroom rents out their secondary space to local culinary start-up companies.

Like many businesses which rely on patrons in-person, Little Mushroom is at the mercy of the pandemic and the restrictions enforced by the provincial government. One reason they’re still operating is Canada’s wage subsidy program.

“It’s been fantastic that the federal government has come out with help for us, because that’s how we’re surviving right now, through the wage subsidy,” Soulis said. “We’re excited about applying this week for the rent relief, but it’s the Ontario government who decides whether we can be open or not and how many people we can feed.”

As a certified living wage employer, prior to the pandemic, Soulis sacrificed part of her salary in order to pay her employees a proper living wage, including entry-level positions like dishwashers. But after the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the catering industry, Soulis has essentially worked for free to keep her business afloat.

“We’re not doing anything near what we did in years past financially. I was never eligible for CERB, nor am I eligible for the wage subsidy, nor do we have any money for me to pay myself in dividends this year.”

“So, my paycheque this year is zero,” Soulis said. “The last two years were not much to begin with, and then there’s less than nothing.”

Although the catering aspect of her business has screeched to a halt, Soulis takes solace by connecting with her customers through delivering prepared meals and groceries to their front doors.

During the early days of the pandemic, Little Mushroom was one of the few places that had an ample stock of pantry staples like flour and yeast, so they could provide those items even though they were in short supply at grocery stores.

“It’s been really therapeutic for me personally when I’m the delivery person,” Soulis said. “Other than my family and the people I work with, I don’t see anyone. I don’t go shopping, that’s on my husband’s radar. The only outside people I really get to talk to are the people I’m delivering food to.

“So we’ll often have little porch chats, I’ve got my mask on, we’re more than six feet away, but I still get to have some face time with some of our very longstanding clients.”

Soulis saw the community step up in a big way, as Little Mushroom donated over $15,000 worth of their "Pay it Forward" meals and cookies to local frontline workers at hospitals and long-term care facilities.

With Christmas on the horizon, families often associate holiday traditions with sitting down to a meal together. And with most unable to gather around the table with each other this year, many of Little Mushroom’s customers have found an inventive way to have the next-best thing to a family Christmas.

“A lot of people did this at Thanksgiving, they would order the same meal for themselves, their parents, their in-laws, brother, sister, have them all delivered, so they could all eat the same meal over a Zoom call together.

"They can all get their turkey dinners or roast beef dinners. They all get delivered on the Thursday, and they can all have their Zoom call together and enjoy Christmas dinner together.”

Little Mushroom is offering Christmas dinner pickup or delivery on December 23rd and 24th, so at least families can enjoy a roast beef or turkey meal together, even if it’s a virtual get-together instead of an in-person family gathering.

For smaller groups looking to rent Little Mushroom’s event space, there are openings where groups can have their holiday meal or gathering inside Soulis’ lounge space. Indoor dining restrictions are limited to ten people, and tables are spaced apart.

Or for those who prefer to take their meals to-go, Little Mushroom’s shop is open Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with takeout meals available, cookie decorating kits, and gift baskets filled with items showcasing local Waterloo Region businesses.

Soulis is looking forward to the summer months of 2021 when they’re hoping to ramp up their outdoor events again. 2020 has been a year like no other, but she’s optimistic 2021 will be a year of growth.
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