Change does not have to be crippling, says chef who reinvented himself after Covid-19

After the pandemic put the brakes on his catering company, chef Arnold Tanzer shook things up and launched a new chocolate milk business. He tells us more

14 October 2020 - 12:29 By Arnold Tanzer
Chef Arnold Tanzer hopes his new chocolate milk business will bring a taste of sweet success.
Chef Arnold Tanzer hopes his new chocolate milk business will bring a taste of sweet success.
Image: Supplied

There is little question that this pandemic has changed the business landscape forever.

In my case, lockdown changed my life drastically: I was at home after having been on the road for the four previous months with my business, Food on the Move, aka the Department of Happiness, providing catering on TV sets around the country.

The internment did not scare me, and at a time when everyone else was desperately trying to figure out how to adapt to this new reality, I relished that I was surrounded by my loved ones with no distractions. Like many others, I threw myself into household projects, sourdough bread baking and gardening.

I watched on social media as my colleagues pivoted their way through the initial lockdown. Fine dining chefs were now ghost kitchen home delivery services. Others became grocers and even black-market wine suppliers. I took the "hunker down and watch" approach; truth be told, I was exhausted.

Fast forward six months later, and my business, which at the beginning of the year had about 70 people on the payroll, has ground to a halt.

In February, we were feeding TV crews from four countries on four international sets from the Cape to Limpopo. The virus put an abrupt stop to that. Overnight the international crew departed, and we scrambled to get the local crew and equipment home.

Suddenly we had no customers due to the international travel ban and, by mid-June, all the projects we had lined up for early next year had been cancelled.

Being a business owner is a game of reinvention like no other.

The realisation that how Food on the Move operates going forward is likely to change hit home. It forced me to think long and hard about change — and change sows doubt.

Most small businesses operate in constant flux: they fine-tune, modify, evolve and move in an opposite direction than originally planned to survive the demands of their customers and economy. Being a business owner is a game of reinvention like no other - just look at all those construction companies who are now medical PPE suppliers.

The necessity of resuscitation can bring about a steep drop in confidence and hope because we are conditioned to think that change means uncertainty, when in fact it can mean power. The power of insight. The capacity of eagerness. The flow of creativity. The strength of playfulness.

While the virus has kept us indoors and socially distanced, it does not have to keep our ideas confined to our minds.

The Cat's Whiskers Chocolate Milk is available at four outlets in Johannesburg.
The Cat's Whiskers Chocolate Milk is available at four outlets in Johannesburg.
Image: Supplied

In August I was experimenting with chocolate milk at home, trying to recreate a childhood memory of drinking it at my Oma’s house. I tried out various recipes and to my delight the family loved it. Well, you can’t build a business on what your family says: they’re biased, they’re not the target market.

I produced a couple of batches and trialled them at various outlets; the feedback was awesome. This new venture now includes three colleagues in addition to myself. We make chocolate milk in 50 litre batches and are supplying four outlets in Joburg.

The production process is being refined and we are working on upscaling the project. The Department of Happiness may for the foreseeable future not be feeding international TV stars and crew, but we now bottle happiness: The Cat’s Whiskers Chocolate Milk is here.

The moral of this story is that what you do for your life is what business owners do every day: you shake it up!

• The Cat’s Whiskers Chocolate Milk retails at R40 a bottle. Get in touch with them via Instagram for stockists' details.