Editor’s note: The following is part of Startland News’ ongoing coverage of the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Kansas City’s entrepreneur community, as well as how innovation is helping to drive a new normal in the ecosystem. Click here to follow related stories as they develop.
The new decade brought promise for Laura Manivong as an early stage entrepreneur, enjoying the rise of her company, Fattyhead Keto Crust.
2020 was poised to be a baking boon, with some of Kansas City’s most recognizable restaurants lined up, ready to spin pies atop the company’s signature product — a two-net-carb crust made from a blend of almond flour, cheeses, egg and herbs.
Then came the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its crippling effects on the hospitality industry.
“March was madness,” the founder laughed, revealing a troubling data point for her startup: Fattyhead experienced a 90 percent drop in sales during a month where it had been expected to close a deal with food distribution giant Sysco.
“I just had to scramble to try to figure how to make some money,” Manivong said, noting a return to scrappier days where she met customers around town and sold her keto pizza crusts out of the trunk of her car in a QuikTrip parking lot.
“It was scary. I left my career in television [to become an entrepreneur] — I don’t ever want to go back to that,” she said. “I’m almost 53 — I will be in a week. I was waiting tables before that and I don’t have table waiting to go back to because the restaurants are closed.”
Click here to read more about the beginnings of Fattyhead Keto Crust, which recently celebrated its first year of business.
With her back against the wall, Manivong said there was no way she could throw in the towel. So, she topped her original startup idea — literally.
“I ended up deciding to make actual pizzas off of the Fattyhead [crusts], and offered those up to some restaurants and little shops around town. I’ve sold a couple hundred,” she said with an air of accomplishment, confident the pivot will be enough to keep the company on a stable path throughout the health crisis.
“I’ve got a whole new set of eyes on my brand — who never would have before — through these additional shops and restaurants and … I think I’m gonna make it.”
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Other businesses in the food and hospitality space haven’t been so lucky, Manivong said.
“[They are in] complete survival mode. Fight or flight. I mean, lay down and give up or get up and figure out how to survive,” she said of her friends and peers working to navigate the impact of rough economic times — especially Taps on Main, a rising star on the Kansas City bar scene.
“I’m constantly on social media [looking at what companies are doing],” she said. “In particular Taps on Main, which had closed down. They won best new bar last year! They had completely just closed.”
Baffled by the sudden turn, Manivong reached out — inspired by an article she’d read about the bar and grill’s owners, brothers Grant, Marc, and Jason Tower.
“It was really heartfelt and very difficult to read about how this brand was failing after it had such a great start,” she recalled, adding she later read the brothers planned to open their doors on Saturdays, selling only buffalo wings and beer.
“[They were doing this] as a way to barely make an income. … Their wings are on the keto menu and so I’m like, ‘Well, you know what, I’m going to offer them these pizza’s and see if they want to try it,’” she said.
The brothers took Manivong up on her offer and bought 10 pizzas.
“They sold out by about 3 o’clock that afternoon, contacted me and said, ‘Do you have any more?’ I’m like, ‘No,’” she laughed, noting delays in production with her kitchen, housed at the Ennovation Center in Independence, which — in the days of COVID-19 — prevents her from working weekends or after 5:30 p.m. on weekdays.
“These Saturdays were a good success story for them, so they announced that they were going to go ahead and reopen for carry out seven days a week and they’re carrying my pizzas on their menu for the curbside,” Manivong said
Fattyhead is also available at Old Shawnee Pizza locations and dozens of other restaurants and grocery stores. Click here for a full list.
Such a win is a sign of something bigger than sales for Fattyhead or for Taps on Main, she said, noting it symbolizes a community of Kansas City entrepreneurs, willing to help each other stay afloat.
“I am telling you what, William Walker with Old Shawnee Pizza has been just an extraordinary example of the kind of entrepreneur I want to be,” Manivong said of Walker, who supported Fattyhead with orders early in its journey.
“He’s got two restaurants and he is constantly coming up with new incentives for people to come into his restaurant and he’s constantly sharing everybody else’s offers — even his own competitors,” she said. “So that guy is just the beacon of the type of community food service person I want to be.”
Kindness and collaboration aren’t the only takeaways the pandemic has baked in the mind of the budding entrepreneur. It’s given her a fresh perspective on what leadership looks like, Manivong said.
“This has taught me to slow down a little bit because I was pushing so fast and so hard for wider distribution and I was in a constant state of anxiety,” she said.
“I’m realizing now there’s no reason I can’t take a step back and serve my own community with these pizzas,” she said. “We can truck along just fine and I can pace this out better. I don’t have to go a million miles an hour like I was trying to do before.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.