How it all started. . .
It sounds crazy to think that we are now selling a frozen skillet ready product that is sold in 13 states and 120 stores, after surviving what we thought was the worst time in our lives. I know it did not just happen to us. The whole world went through it. But, when you are sitting in your own house with 2 small kids (kinder and a 2 yr. old) and your business just tanked because of a pandemic that no one was expecting, you feel as if this were only happening to you!
Ben and I had survived many roadblocks and we always found ways to manage and rise above. Like when I told him in the first few months of our first pregnancy that I was no longer going to work in pharma because I did not want to put my child in day care. He seemed ok but I knew that not having my six-figure income was going to put a financial toll on us. I 100% believed we could do it. We would just need to downsize and find a way to make it work. There was no other option. I was not willing to put my ("our" wink) child into the hands of a stranger. I wanted to be the mom. This was my chance to give to my child what I did not have.
So in the middle of a contract, I was offered a new one. I told my immediate supervisor that because I was 5 months pregnant, it would not seem right to take on the new contract when I knew that I would be going into maternity leave and then quit to raise our child. He was stunned. First, because I could have easily taken the job and continued my pay for another 6 months or so but instead, I honestly turned it out so that someone else could have the opportunity of that job. There were only a few positions and not all of us on my team would quickly find another contract.
Off I went to staying home. This was the most difficult decision of my life. I did not know how we (I) was going to do this, but I had to believe that I could.
We moved a few times to downsize from a luxury condo to a small 1800’s cottage like home that seemed to fit our one income budget. I think we did this for a year until the day when Ben showed up at 10 am because he had automated his team down to where he no longer was needed. I cried so much because I thought I would have to step up and go back to sales. My tears were because I knew what this meant for our first daughter.
It’s a little blurry now but I am sure we took the weekend and on Monday morning, Ben said he would make this catering side business he had started as additional income his main priority. He was convinced that this was a sign that he no longer had to be the hamster spinning the wheel as a global financial analyst. A job he was ok at and only had because his parents forced him to get a degree in finance.
I thought, well we better give it our all. I explained to him who was not very social media savvy that we needed to start a yelp account, an Instagram account, and a FB account. Reluctantly he did all while cleaning up the website he had created for catering. Making paella was a passion of his that he always thought would be great to do as a business. Against my frugal advice he proceeded with it. The only problem is that he was absolutely terrible at sales.
When potential customers would call in, he sounded so desperate for the sales that he sounded like Oprah giving away everything under the kitchen sink. I cringed while I was near by changing a diaper and listening in. I asked him if, he was ok being partners and I would help in the sales part. I said, I will handle the clients and you handle all that you love, the food and preparation of your delicious paella! Viola! Best decision ever.
Second year, 2016, we launched our catering in Santa Barbara, and off we were to become the top Paella Catering company in SoCal. It sounds arrogant but it is true. With my vast experience in customer services, sales and running businesses for others and his amazing recipe, upbringing, and full dedication to this business, we simply delivered exceptional food and service. This began to set us apart. I treated each client with the same professionalism I did all my previous business clients which they said they appreciated, and Ben treated each client on site as if they were one of our celebrity clients, including President Bidens first campaign dinner in Los Angeles. The combination of us both made it for an incredible experience for our clients. You do not have to take my word for it. The reviews say it. WE have never paid for marketing in catering which has all been word of mouth.
We grew the business, moved again to a bigger home where our 2nd daughter was born, secured a commercial kitchen which Ben retrofitted beautifully, bought a food truck, and even hired an additional Chef.
We were at the top of our game, then March 2020 stopped us dead in our tracks. We were so busy, both Chefs were booked out for months. I believe we were planning our next trip to Europe to visit Ben’s family. On the 16th of March when it was announced that the whole world was shutting down, it was the most devastating feeling I have ever imagined.
2 kids, 2 catering locations, private school tuition, 2 leases for brick and mortar, a food truck and now contract labor we had guaranteed income for and now zero income. The calls were pouring in for refunds and cancellations and the looming cloud above us just kept getting darker. I saw no end in sight. How could we possibly recover from this.
Once again, I think we cried for a day then Ben, said, “Why don’t we email all of our clients, and I will safely deliver paellas via our food truck?!” I thought he was insane. He said, “I could do what restaurants do, and precook a bit and finish the cooking process onsite on my truck and they will taste just as fresh as if I was hired for catering.”
At this point, restaurants had not figured out deliveries and we had no other choice than to run with this crazy idea. He sent a blast email to our client list with a menu and pricing and the calls started pouring in. It was insane. Our daughters’ school had closed early and was already zooming before the public schools which was a complete nightmare. 5-6 zooms a day for all subjects in kinder was incredibly hard. I had a 2 yr old hitting miles tones alone because she was roaming the house unattended while I helped one zoom or answered calls. By the grace of God we manage to do it all with no accidents.
I posted the menu on FB on this local site for local eats and we just kept getting more calls. I routed Ben by day and zip codes just like I did for myself in pharma and then we went for it. We sold 3,500 meals in 45 days. Ben worked from morning until night driving around all of Los Angeles up to our 2nd catering area in Santa Barbara area and I handled all the business part as usual. With no traffic this was manageable to get deliveries out on time. I could not believe we were making this work. Around the 45th day or so, the majority of restaurants had started delivering and we slowed way down. We knew we now had to face some decisions about our future.
Our school did not give any pandemic discounts since they felt they were so prepared for the pandemic and that they would probably acquire new families because of this. Our commercial kitchen lease was also out of this world, and we were guaranteeing income for our 2nd chef by giving him a hours to help out with delivering. An idea that was not sustainable in the long run. WE had the idea to create a small private chef dinner for families. Luckily, some of our high-end private clients in Santa Barbara, Palisades, Montecito kept hiring Ben and were beginning to keep us busy again after the food truck had slowed down. We had now pivoted to yet another source of income.
One Sunday evening in May 2020, Ben asked if I was prepared to move away. I listened to him and did not have an answer. He made sense. He said, “We got married in SB. We love it there. We dream of living there. What if now is the time to move?” Hold up! MOVE? In the middle of the pandemic? It was only MAY! I told him I would sleep on it. He said. “I have great space for our shared kitchen. We do all the catering from our kitchen here so why not reverse the location? Plus, our business is closer to SB than where we live now.” He made sense but the thought was terrifying.
The morning when I woke up, I said, let’s go look today! School was almost out, and I think I took a day off from zooming for our daughter. We went 3 times, and we found the place with an amazing public school in the area. The Superintendent for the school personally called to welcome us to the area. This was unbelievable. Coming from LA where you could not even do a walk through for a public elementary let alone speak to anyone above the school secretary. All went so fast.
Within a month and a half we had relocated and started the conversation about finally making a product to sell. Ben is the ideas guy. Extremely creative and an outside the box thinker. I am more conservative where I want to take all the steps to get there, and he leaps! In 2017 I came up with a name for the food truck which we copyrighted Got Paella. I thought it was clever, just like, Got Milk? He brought up the idea about a product and I said let’s survey the customers who bought our meals via the food truck and go into R&D. Mind you, he had been working on this idea on the side for the future, so he had somewhat already started the process.
During the R&D we discovered that retailers wanted shelf life and that a fresh product did not necessarily meet that mark. Back to the drawing board we went. We then came up with a skillet ready frozen entrée. This was it! Frozen had a negative stigma but after researching food trends it is a very lucrative growing market. With many obstacles but this way, we can ensure that the customer finishes the cooking process in their own non-stick skillet and it tastes like it was made fresh in a paella pan.
Another area of improvement was our first packaging. I began to research sustainable packaging for frozen food which luckily we found a stand up pouch. We also learned from surveys that customers were ruining the rice by putting it in the microwave. We know that a product could not ever be better than a paella made for you from scratch straight from the pan but what we wanted to do is make it more accessible to households. Catering is expensive. If we could get paella into stores, then anyone can have it at any given time, in the convenience of their own and not have to hire a Chef for a party. Not to mention at this point, we were looking into another potential closure ahead and what a great way to share paella with everyone!
And in a nut shell (leaving many crazy moments out) this is how we embarked on this crazy road of producing a retail product.