Angela Shen first sensed the impending doom for Savor Seattle in January, shortly after the virus hit Hong Kong. She founded the company giving culinary tours of Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market in 2007, and went on to offer food tours around the region. “Be really grateful this didn’t start in the United States,” her dad told her. “The restaurants are all closed, everybody’s ordering their groceries and food to their doorstep by app.” She realised it would spell disaster for her company, and when cases popped up in Europe, she knew what was to come. “It’s not a matter of if it’s coming to the States, it’s when.”
On Leap Day, February 29, it did just that. As the outbreak grew, Shen forfeited her own salary and let 12 of her 18 staff go. Those that remained took a voluntary pay cut. But in the same breath that she laid people off, she said, “I’d like to bring you back,” and explained her plan. Within a week, Shen went from the complete collapse of her 13-year-old company, to creating a new multi-million dollar business, helping save a local treasure, and rallying support – emotional and financial - for local food businesses and social justice causes.
Savor Seattle’s origins and heart came from the Pike Place Market, where the lack of tourists left unsold the famous fresh salmon, bouquets of flowers from Hmong farmers, and local coffee. “If you can’t bring people to the Pike Place Market,” her nine-year-old daughter asked, “why not bring it to them?” While other tour operators navigated virtual tours, Shen saw the bigger picture: if she could find a way to help them, too, the businesses she partnered with for tours could survive as well.
Selling themed boxes filled with products curated from restaurants, markets, and producers used the same principles as her tours: connecting unique foods and stores to hungry audiences. But instead of bringing people to the restaurant or shop, she packaged it up and used her existing assets – connections to chefs, transportation, and out-of-work tour guides – to bring Seattle’s best food to people staying home.
Shen describes the market’s own response to the pandemic as publishing “a blog that listed the URLs to all 500 different businesses.” Meanwhile, grocery delivery services were booked out for weeks. She saw an opportunity to rally local support for the market, help the vendors (and herself), and get food to people at home.
She called a restaurateur and asked to borrow the walk-in for cold storage in their closed restaurant. She called the vendors to whom she’d brought so many tourists over the years. And then, on 20 March, she posted a flier on social media: “Iconic Pike Place Market Eats – Delivered,” it announced, with a Venmo to send money to reserve one of the 48 boxes. They sold out almost instantly.
She honed the process, added more vendors, and doubled their output, to the same result. By week three, with an actual website, they generated sales that rivalled the best weeks in the history of her business.
But it didn’t just keep her going: Ras Peynado of Herban Farm lost most of his customer base when crowds disappeared from the market, and he struggled to get any help from the government. When Shen’s Iconic Market Box program included his Hot Honey Sauce in their boxes, the quantity she bought for a single week covered his operating costs for a whole month. “It’s keeping the farm alive,” said Peynado in a YouTube video. Frank’s Quality Produce brought back two laid-off employees just to fulfil box orders, and Shen brought back six of her laid-off employees (and made offers to others, though some turned it down since it was in a different capacity).