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COPING WITH COVID: Hamby Catering and Events, High Spirits Hospitality

Molly Hulsey //March 19, 2020//

COPING WITH COVID: Hamby Catering and Events, High Spirits Hospitality

Molly Hulsey //March 19, 2020//

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Coping with COVID

SC Biz News is speaking with small businesses and community leaders about the impact of the new coronavirus on business and industry, and how this is changing how they operate.
Contact Andy Owens, [email protected], with any questions or ideas.

Hamby Catering and Events has moved to "contact-free" and mobile delivery services through the new coronavirus outbreak in South Carolina. (Photo/Provided)

Before staff members enter the kitchen, management checks temperatures for fever. Gloves are changed much more frequently, and deep cleans are performed round-the-clock at Hamby Catering and Events

“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions around here,” said Candice Wigfield, owner and president of the Charleston company. “There have been very low lows and very high highs, but the sense of camaraderie and the willingness for everyone to get creative and to pitch in and really work harder than we have ever worked before — it brings tears to my eyes every time I just step back and just kind of take in what we are trying to do.

Wigfield said Hamby has lost over $400,000 in canceled event revenue from South Carolina’s outbreak of the new coronavirus. Still, through “contact-free” delivery and a mobile market opening in Mount Pleasant on Tuesday, Wigfield has built new avenues to rebound from the pandemic’s blow to the hospitality industry.

“Very quickly, we realized we would have to pivot the direction of our business and get really creative about our strategies if we had any hope of surviving,” Wigfield said.

As events began to dry up following the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in South Carolina, Wigfield was forced to lay off or furlough over 50% of her workforce, primarily events preparation staff. Hamby retained a core food preparation and management team of 15 to 20 people.

“We want Hamby as a company to survive so that on the other end of all this, everyone has a job to come back to,” she said.

During peak season, Hamby employs 150 people.

“We just don’t have work for them, and it’s just devastating,” she said. “For me as a small-business owner to hear the stories of ‘How am I going to make my rent, how am I going to feed my children?’ it is just heartbreaking, and it all just happened so quickly. That’s the brutal part of it. There was just no real time to prepare properly.”

Still, Wigfield leapt to new opportunities that would evolve her business to meet community demands while keeping customers and employees safe from exposure to the virus. Prior to Gov. Henry McMaster’s mandate to curb public gatherings of more than 50 people, Hamby planned to offer family-sized casseroles, salads, chili bowls and other meals to stock customers’ freezers or tables with delivery and pickup options involving several tiers of social distancing.

Transactions are conducted “contact-free,” with a customer’s debit or credit card number and no signature pad. Customers can choose to have meals delivered to their doorstep without coming in contact with the deliverer or can drive to a location for curbside service.  

On Wednesday, Hamby opened a mobile market food truck location in Mount Pleasant in conjunction with Bottles Beverage Superstore. Wigfield said that Mount Pleasant customers had requested a Hamby’s location for their neighborhood before the outbreak, but calls from families stocking up for a potential quarantine spurred her to open the food truck in Bottles’ parking lot.

Wigfield also hopes to incentivize “contact-free” purchases through waiving delivery fees, including wine from Bottles, and offering an additional $20 to every $100 gift card.  

Greenville’s High Spirits Hospitality offers beverage catering, event security and production services. The company, which has two event venues, also faces the dilemma of event planning when few want to gather.

“Everything in this month has been canceled,” said Tammy Johnson, High Spirits’ CEO and founder.

High Spirits hosted some events in early March, but since McMaster’s crowd prohibition, all remaining events have been put on hold. In the meantime, most of High Spirits’ event planning staff has been able to work from home, aside from their facilities team.

The company’s event planners have prompted couples to host an elopement ceremony on their original date while postponing receptions or larger ceremonies for the summer or fall.

“The hard thing is that this is kind of indefinite. We don’t have enough information to know how far in advance we need to cancel, and that is frustrating. That is frustrating for the couple that is planning a $30,000 wedding, and they have no idea if they should postpone or go ahead as normal.”

To fill the vacuum left by postponed events, High Spirits hosted a Blood Connection blood drive Tuesday with a food truck and dropoff point for the Harvest Hope Food Bank.

Johnson has not yet had to furlough or lay off any staff and remains grateful that the summer and fall tend to be their busiest seasons.

“So far, the workload is still there because people are still booking events for the future, and we will assess the next few weeks as we have to,” she said.