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Zuppa is a grab-and-go style Melbourne eatery that overnight went from bustling and thriving, to complete closure due to the pandemic. 

As Melbourne faced its second wave of the pandemic. owner and founder Philip Carlei reflected on how he managed to flip his business the last time and may just have to again.

“90% of our sales were instantly gone when the Government announced state-wide lockdown”, explains Carlei.

“Our fresh homemade soups, salads and sandwiches make the perfect offering for time-poor corporates and inner-city workers constantly on the run. So as soon as working from home measures came into play, and the city streets died down, we began to be vastly impacted.”

“At first I was angry. Seeing my business that I had been busy building from the ground up diminish virtually overnight was extremely difficult. And that anger quickly became fear, as I spent countless hours grappling with loss of income, business debt repayment and staff insecurities.”

And that’s the moment this passionate and determined restaurant owner put emotion aside and creativity into action. The moment he decided to flip the business.

With the restaurant forced into hibernation, Philip and his team started approaching local supermarkets via traditional door-to-door tactics. 

“We knew surrounding supermarkets were experiencing mass product shortages due to consumer panic buying. So we saw the opportunity to offer quality, frozen Zuppa soups”.

“We managed to secure five local IGA supermarkets to stock our products, and then started to shift our focus as we saw additional opportunities for businesses to benefit from our service and catering capabilities.”

Carlei and his Zuppa team secured contracts with surrounding hotels for catering assistance to serve 14-day quarantine guests. 

“We approached multiple hotels, which inevitably resulted in the procurement of a 5-star Melbourne establishment.”

This became the catalyst that allowed Zuppa to stay buoyant as many businesses across Melbourne went under.

While Zuppa enjoyed successes of a somewhat traditional retail model (selling direct to customers) prior to the pandemic, they managed to lean into their catering capabilities, keep costs low and compete at a wholesale level. 

“When we identified wholesale catering was the opportunity for us to stay afloat throughout the pandemic, we flipped our business thinking. Things felt positive, and our team remained busy with day to day operations.”

“While collectively we focused on how we could continue to drive Zuppa forward, I, as the business owner continued to focus on our people and how we could support each other throughout these times of anguish.”

“Team support from the top down and vice versa was felt in every aspect of our business, and ultimately led us to more positive business outcomes.”

“Our team continued to think outside the box and drive sales, and I’m truly grateful for the way everyone managed these hard times.”

COVID-19 restrictions presented many challenges to Zuppa but also resulted in numerous invaluable learnings. 

“We learned businesses are fickle and things can change instantly. You’re not ever immune to external impacts. So, flexibility, passion, ambition and the ‘never give up’ mentality are essential in ensuring you prevail in circumstances such as these.”

“We also learned pain is temporary. Through pain and challenges, new opportunities arise. And there’s always someone and some business being impacted worse than you.”

The Recipe

Phillip Carlei's top 5 tips for SMEs:

  1. Never give up on driving your business and vision forward.
  2. Put your people first.
  3. Think outside the box and continue to diversify your business.
  4. Never limit yourself to one income stream for your business.
  5. Back yourself as a business owner. No one can ‘sell’ your business, your brand or your proposition better than you.