The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted business in different ways, with founders pivoting to adapt and survive in an ever-changing environment. In our Business as Unusual series, we've been speaking to companies supported by Virgin StartUp to explore the impact of coronavirus on small businesses and entrepreneurs. Here, Holly Branson shares one of the Virgin StartUp entrepreneurs she admires the most.
At the start of lockdown, Ayesha quickly pivoted her gourmet catering business into a free meal delivery service for people who were isolating and vulnerable. Over the next six months, Ayesha delivered over 15,000 free and nutritious meals to people in need - including the elderly, the high risk, the homeless, NHS workers, and single parents. She has also started running free cooking classes for children in need to help the kids gain confidence in the kitchen and learn how to cook nutritious but cost-effective meals.
I first heard about the Vital Meals campaign in March when it first began and Ayesha was delivering about 10 meals a day. I was already impressed but couldn't have imagined how the project would grow and evolve. It turns out I wasn't the only one admiring Ayesha from the side-lines and Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently presented her a Points of Light award to recognise the incredible work she is doing for the community. In a personal letter to Ayesha, he wrote:
"I am lost in admiration for the way you have collected thousands of food parcels from front doors and turned them into wonderful home-cooked meals for those who have had to isolate at home across the capital. Vital Meals embodies the community spirit which has united and uplifted our nation throughout the battle with coronavirus."
I couldn't agree more.
Beyond cooking and delivering thousands of meals, Ayesha has also created a 'Parcel to Plate' service for anyone who receives government food parcels but struggles to prepare and cook meals. As part of the initiative, Ayesha and her team collect ingredients from the people in need, turn them into nutritious meals and then deliver them back to their homes!
Through COVID-19 and the Vital Meals project, Ayesha and her growing team of chefs and volunteers became increasingly aware of food poverty and childhood obesity in the UK. Ayesha told me: "We have fed a young man who had not eaten a hot meal in two weeks, a woman just out of hospital from a major surgery, a man who had not eaten in 4 days and people who have to face impossible choices between things like food and electricity."
Ayesha is determined to tackle these issues head-on and make healthy food accessible to as many people as she can. She now shares bi-weekly recipes for healthy meals that cost under £2 to make - and they look delicious! The Vital Meals team is also running a Parcel 2 Plate Challenge as well as the free cooking classes I mentioned earlier. Ayesha ensures the weekly ingredient list for the classes costs less than £15 so it works within the free School Meal Voucher limits too!
When I heard about all of these incredible projects and the impact Ayesha was making, I was deeply impressed but also curious about how she planned to fund the efforts in the long-term. Like all good entrepreneurs, Ayesha was two steps ahead and was running multiple fundraising activities as well as launching a Dine In by The Plattery paid meal delivery service with profits returning to her not-for-profit ventures.
Ayesha's kindness paired with her passion to nourish her community reminds me of another brilliant foodpreneur and friend of mine - Jamie Oliver. I couldn't be more impressed by the way Ayesha is helping people in need - despite the challenges and shift that COVID-19 had upon her original business plan.