Your business may be in full sail; you’re clipping along when suddenly the breeze drops, and there’s nothing left to do but row hard and long. Or maybe a storm swoops in, howling in full fury, and all you can do is fight hard or sink.
Economic downturns, key employee losses, lawsuits, a fire–if you’ve been in business for any length of time, you’ve probably faced calamity. How do you pull through?
An Unwelcome Guest.
Pebbles Family Buffet, located in Durham, ON, is well-known for its mouth-watering comfort food. But in 2020, disaster pulled up a chair at Pebbles and emptied the restaurant of everyone else. Covid-19 shutdowns had struck.
The owners of Pebbles didn’t sit on their hands. They rowed–and they rowed hard. “We shut down for the initial two weeks like they said but quickly figured out that it will be longer than two weeks,” Cameron Gerber said. Over the course of the next two years, Pebbles opened and closed their restaurant four times.
“There were times their employees left to do other things, and they had to train others to take their places. That took a tremendous amount of effort,” said Marvin Martin, Pebbles’ Marketing Guide at Rosewood.
It was Cameron Gerber’s visionary father who concocted the idea that took Pebbles into uncharted territories. Why not make frozen dinners and sell them in grocery stores? Before Covid, they had sold a few frozen dinners out of their gift shop–tantalizing Pebbles’ flavors to enjoy at home. A customer had also distributed a few dinners to several locations on a small scale.
Because everybody was stocking up on food at the time, grocery stores’ freezers were empty. “They couldn’t keep up with the demand,” Cameron noted. “Dad had a good relationship with two of the local grocery stores. They said, ‘Absolutely, bring them in.’”
With nutrition facts and packaging, Pebbles’ frozen dinners began selling in the stores, then flying off the shelves. Cameron said, “We went into three or four stores, and they started posting it on Facebook. At that point, it went totally viral! As many dinners as we could possibly make, they took. It was just the right time to start something like this.”
From his post at Rosewood, Marvin was impressed with the Pebbles’ team’s willingness to step outside of their comfort zone. “Their willingness to go and present themselves to supermarkets in the area was impressive. That was not something Pebbles was used to,” he said.
Pebbles found that getting the end consumers talking made a big difference in grocery stores’ openness to stocking the dinners. “We were in a couple of small stores, and people were loving them. That helped us get listed with Sobeys” (the second-largest supermarket chain in Ontario), Andrew explained.
As sales took off, Pebbles realized that they had stumbled upon a niche. “There are very few quality pre-packaged dinners out there,” Cameron said. However, Pebbles’ restaurant facilities were maxed out. They could not re-open the restaurant and produce frozen dinners at the same time. It was either fold the project or strike out for new shores.
They chose adventure. Andrew, Cameron’s brother, joined the team. “That was kind of the decision point to pull into this more instead of it just being a stopgap for when we were closed,” Cameron remarked. They renovated a building into a commercial kitchen and continued churning out the dinners.
Word on the Street.
Because the public associated Pebbles with delicious food, people didn’t need convincing to buy the frozen dinners. The Gerbers were amazed at the amount of brand recognition they had. “People from up to two hours away recognized our logo instantly and knew the dinners would be good before they tried them,” Cameron said. “We were shocked. We can thank Rosewood for designing our brand in a way that is easy to remember and conveys our values.”
The combination of word of mouth, brand recognition, and timing fueled the sales. Digital marketing played a key role too. “Rosewood developed a website, redid our website multiple times, and created lots of graphics,” Cameron explained. Rosewood also ran Facebook posts and ads. “But more important than that was the coaching. We got a lot of great ideas from Rosewood and direction on marketing our ideas.”
“People from up to two hours away recognized our logo instantly and knew the dinners would be good before they tried them.”
Hardship and Resiliency.
To be sure, the voyage wasn’t bliss. Even though the frozen dinners succeeded to a degree, “they were not a complete ‘savior.’ They helped with cash flow, helped keep some core kitchen staff, and opened up a new business opportunity that brought Andrew on board. However, they still only amounted to roughly 15% of what our restaurant sales would have been throughout Covid,” Cameron said.
Now, over two years later with most restrictions lifted, restaurants have opened their doors again, including Pebbles’ Family Buffet. With an uncertain economy and return to a post-pandemic normal, keeping the momentum of the frozen dinner sales proves challenging.
The importance of marketing increases. Cameron says, “The food has to be good. . . if the experience isn’t good, fantastic marketing is pointless. You need repeat sales. The other side is that you can have a fantastic product, but people still need to pick it up for the first time. That is the marketing side, and that’s really what we’re focusing on now.”
Even with the sales slowdown, the Gerbers stay positive. “The frozen dinners have a ways to go yet. It’s not all roses, but it is a venture that has even more potential than the restaurant does. And it’ll come.”
Dwain Martin, digital marketer at Rosewood agrees. “If past history is any indication of the Gerber brothers, they’ll figure it out.”
Almost every business faces calamity at some point; Pebbles provides an inspiring example of how to keep going. They reinvented themselves. They were willing to jump out there and try something new.
When asked if they had any advice for businesses facing a tough time, Cameron replied, “Have a visionary dad. No seriously, talk to a visionary. Because there are always opportunities. Don’t just sit still. You’ll get driven over. Look for the opportunities.”
He continues, “Relationships are so important—they become especially important when things go wrong. You need to have a good relationship with employees and vendors, solid brand recognition, customer loyalty, and trust in God.”