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How I lead a hospitality business to survival & growth in a COVID world

It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, it’s how many times you get back up.” —George A. Custer


From March to August 2020, we saw a near complete drying up of orders and cash flow. 

Our catering business model was focused around the supply of food to gatherings of people … and no-one was gathering due to COVID.

After an initial period of disbelief and worry, we spent this time well, working hard on business development and system upgrades. Thank you to the JobSeeker Government program, which paid for staff to work on these items.

This transitioned us into the slow easing of restrictions and we were so blessed in Queensland to have no major COVID outbreaks or lock downs from that point (October to December). 

Amy Thompson doing COVID safe deliveries
Amy making COVID-safe deliveries

So we adapted and worked. 

And pushed and changed.

And ended 2020 in good form but …. we didn’t GROW. 


By February 2021 I was frustrated and a little heart sick by the lack of buoyancy in the economy. We needed diversity and alternative income streams to the catering.

Then a call came from Edwina at iCooked looking for a buyers for the business. She felt we looked like the “right kind of people”. We took up the challenge and in late May took over ownership of iCooked, making frozen, ready to eat meals.

Now imagine … 

Our Head Chef, Mike, had retired in March 2021 due to ill health. 

Monkey Business Catering and iCooked were operating out of two separate kitchens. 

We had 75% of the iCooked staff resign by June 2021, our business model didn’t seem to suit them.

The iCooked system operates with an online store, labelling requirements, recipes, staff management and NOTHING was compatible with the Monkey Business Catering system. 

And I was the only person in charge of our administration and “office tasks”.

Amy & Susan hard at work
Amy and Susan hard at work

My eternal gratitude goes to Susan, who held together Monkey Business Catering by running the catering kitchen side of the business two days a week as I frantically learnt and worked to meld the two businesses together from a systems perspective.

By mid-June, I had gotten used to a constant hum of anxiety.

And then a miracle … Terri, our new Head Chef

I had been trying to hire Terri for YEARS. At that moment her life changed and she was looking for her next adventure. I cannot understate how incredible this was and how much God worked to bring a plan together. It left me free to do less of the food side of the business and more of the administration.

By August, the frustration of learning a new business, running two kitchens with two separate teams (one of them understaffed) and handing the Head Chef role over to Terri (who was also learning iCooked as quickly as possible) had drained what little personal resources I had recovered from the initial COVID emergency management of the previous year. 

And then second miracle … the warehouse kitchen. 

For three years we had been looking for a larger kitchen space. Many options had been explored, but with the COVID impact in retrospect it was wonderful that we hadn’t, as cash flow dried up! We were offered a space that I had looked at and thought perfect (but too large) a year earlier. In August 2021, it was the perfect time to move… but moving is so much work. 

A commercial move is a particular form of HELL. 

There are so many moving pieces, people co-ordination, council compliance and food regulations. 

Then another unlooked for miracle… Kristina (my mum). 

After taking a voluntary redundancy she offered to give time to our business before looking for work. She started to work in the businesses, using her skills, passion and expertise to keep everyone together, well, and operating in the new space. 

It was just in time.

October broke all our previous sales records.

November sales were higher still.

December yet, even higher.

All of our team sweated, worked extraordinary hours and pushed through.

I had to keep ahead of the wave and co-ordinate … and then the borders opened. 

And having fought, hoped, managed, served, co-ordinated when faced with another economic collapse as people retreated into their homes, feeling exhausted and battle worn, we went on holidays! 

Amy & Kristina Thompson
Amy and mum, Kristina Thompson

 What now? How to build resilience, survive and thrive

There have been so many near breaking points over the past two years of exceptional circumstance; my health suffered, my mind was worn down by endless decisions, my passion has been attacked and my hope assaulted by anxiety. Continual conflicting and changing circumstances, concern for staff and finances, and organisational and government requirements wear you down.

Here is my three steps to building and re-building resilience, both personally and as a professional in the hospitality work.

Step 1: Stop. Intentional break for relaxation and creative thinking

There is always going to be another crisis. Always the temptation to make yourself (as the business leader and owner) the focus of the storm and the one able to calm the storm. 

Stop and take a break regularly (during the day and the week).

Book a holiday, even if it is for months away, and then put everything in to handing over responsibilities, training someone else in the most urgent of them and implementing a plan for someone else to fill your role for a period of time. 

This sets a timeframe, a goal and will free you to reconsider how you use your time daily at work.

While on that break—let your mind rest and your heart dream.

Consider what are the things that restore your soul, your passion and your joy?

What part of your leadership role don’t you like, what you can hand to someone else and what you should give more of your time too. 

Step 2: Personal habits—Implement three lifestyle habit goals

From your consideration of what restores you, set three new lifestyle goals. These are the things that if you do, gives you resilience and depth. They have to be daily habits that are done EVEN in those moments of crisis. 

My lifestyle habits that I am fighting to have become my new normal are all things that make a terrible day endurable. They are very simple ones; consistent morning prayer, eight hours of sleep and spending intentional, non-work, quality time with someone I love at least three times a week.

Keep your new habits simple, stick to three or less and then focus on them becoming part of your daily routine.

Step 3: Draw from the team—Articulate new job descriptions and roles

We are leaders of teams. In some areas we limit how well they operate by taking too much on ourself. Trust is the most powerful motivator. So trust your team. Review their roles and duties. Then offload to them anything that is cluttering up your day and time. And then trust them to steward that area. From then on, your only question around that role or task is “How can I help?”. Don’t take it back, don’t try to do it your way. Support them and let it go.

This has been incredibly difficult for me as I have been in charge of “my baby” for six years.

Now, Terri does all the menu development and ordering for both businesses and Kristina is the operational lead for iCooked and is handling the bookkeeping (no she hasn’t had time to look for another job). 

This is giving me the space for the things that will give us (as a business) resilience in the new COVID world; continual business development and marketing. 

Flexibility, diversity and personal care are crucial for a sustainable future.

So in whatever stage you are at as a leader and whatever your experiences are in a COVID world, I wish you the very best! It’s a crazy ride!

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