I had the privilege of chatting with Annie Cheng, owner of "The Table Less Traveled" to discuss how her company has weathered the COVID-19 storm by keeping connection with one another their top priority.
BL: What is The Table Less Traveled?
AC: The Table Less Traveled is a boutique tour operator that leads small-group trips for the culture and cuisine curious. We introduce travelers to undiscovered, private venues like having dinner in our friends' homes, learning how to cook their grandmothers' recipes, and seeing how different artisan products are grown or made. We currently host travelers in Italy, Peru, Malaysia, and Japan and are expanding destinations every year.
BL: When COVID-19 started to spread and restrictions on travel started to arise, what was your thought process regarding your business and how it may have to change?
AC: In February, when travel restrictions started landing In Asia, we decided to postpone our small group tour to Malaysia which was scheduled for March 2020. It was a difficult decision as I was mentally prepared and excited to visit all our friends, meander through beloved markets, eat tropical fruits and delicious food, and explore wildlife in the rainforest. As were our travelers who were disappointed in the delay. Now, we are all grateful we made the decision to postpone until March 2021.
In talking with other entrepreneurs and friends in the travel industry, my level of concern increased. One morning, as I headed into the office, a friend called me, panicked about her business and potential layoffs for all her employees. At that time, it dawned on me that as tourism became obsolete, income for our business would stop. Cash flow would stop. All expected profits for the year would stop, or be uncertain at best. Expenses would continue.
What did I want? To be able to continue to employ our team. To support our international friends and partners who were also out of work. To continue providing value. To build community. And to continue staying true to our mission and values.
BL: How specifically have you adapted?
AC: We decided to launch live, virtual, interactive cooking classes with our chefs and friends from around the world. At the same time, across borders, boundaries, and travel restrictions, you can learn from a chef how to make pasta, tiramisu, lomo saltado (Peruvian beef stir fry), and a variety of other traditional dishes. The chefs often also share about their lives, what quarantine is like for them, the significance of the recipes, and history of the region that formed the dish they prepare with us. Participants are encouraged to ask questions and engage - whether it be about if their dough is rising properly, if they need to substitute ingredients because they couldn't find yeast, or introducing their dog running through the background of the Zoom session. Our classes are about genuinely being you, and genuinely connecting with our chefs who are genuinely themselves.
BL: What surprising positives have come out of these virtual cooking classes?
AC: It was a complete gamble whether we would have any success launching this new product. The most surprising positive impacts have been on the chefs and participants. The warm reception of these classes have allowed us to support others through a challenging time. It's an escape for folks, for an hour or two, to connect, laugh, take a break, and enjoy sharing an experience with new friends.
We launched and hosted a little over a week of classes in March. And when we sent contributions to our chefs for the classes they taught, the responses were emotionally overwhelming...
For Marika in Positano, Italy - it meant that by teaching 3 classes, her family made the same amount of income as 2 weeks of their convenience shop being open. It meant her brother, Emanuele, who also works in the shop, can rest a little easier knowing that with one child at home, and a baby due in August, he'll have something to support his growing family.
From a participant - " I think the unique part of this is experience is that these chefs are in different countries and that cultural exposure is priceless. "
BL: You are offering a “pay what you can” for classes from chefs from around the world; What made you decide to offer such a generous opportunity?
AC: When we first settled on this idea of virtual cooking classes, I started calling friends from around the world to see if they would be interested in teaching. I explained that a primary goal was to support them during this time but I wasn't sure how to price an offering so outside our normal services, and I wanted to create a place where people could share, and I wasn't sure what we could pay the chefs, but I wanted their input on what would be reasonable and helpful. Overwhelmingly, all chefs gave me a similar answer, "Annie, this is not about money. This is about humanity. Let's do it. And if it works, then we will figure it out."
At the same time, schools in our state were closing down and parents were concerned about how to educate kids from home. There were also people losing their jobs left and right and unemployment skyrocketed. These situations happening in tandem led us to the structure of "pay what you can".
Community is not a limiting concept. We believe everybody should have the opportunity to be included regardless of their financial situation. And we are grateful for every participant, whether you can pay $0 or $150 or more. It brings life to us, our chefs, and the other friends cooking "in the room".
BL: How has shifting to virtual sessions only changed the mission of Table Less Traveled, if at all?
AC: One of the beautiful things about our shift to virtual cooking classes has been the ability to maintain our dedication to our mission of uniting people through shared experiences. Our team is diligent about prompting each other to evaluate new ideas against whether they align with our values. And although we cannot share experiences in other countries right now, I believe our team has maintained the core of our mission. Early in this crisis we came to a collective stance that we would rather lose the business and our jobs while sticking to our values, than to compromise on our beliefs to survive.
We are also confident that at some point, travel will resume, and we will be able to visit our friends around the world. And if we can survive as a company during this time, we will be ready to introduce our cooking class participants to the chefs they've come to love through our virtual time together.
BL: What advice would you give other businesses wondering how to stay relevant and afloat during this time?
AC: I don't know if I'm in any position to "give advice" but I will say what has helped me the most. And that has been three things. (1) Considering what we are uniquely positioned to do to add value to communities during this time. (2) Evaluating decisions about our new product ideas against our mission and values. Do they align or do they not? And staying true to the hard decisions if they are not aligned. (3) Cultivating a team of people that believe in our mission and give life to our values and culture.
BL: Anything else you’d like us to know about The Table Less Traveled?
AC: For me, this started as a passion project. Something I believe in, that gave me my own corner of space to operate in where I found joy and life creating something meaningful for others. Regardless of business circumstances, I think all entrepreneurs have an opportunity to look inward right now about what matters most to them. To re-frame, restructure, re-position, and reconsider how they've run their businesses and whether it further gives life to their vision.
This is not to devalue the concern I have for many companies who are uncertain about their futures. Just as I am still completely uncertain about our future. But what I do know, is that in this time of difficulty and hardship, I have decided where our priorities and values lie. And we will do everything to protect them.