Today on the Stride 2 Freedom podcast, we chatted with Avital Ungar, the clever CEO of Avital Tours, a restaurant tour company operating in San Francisco, Los Angeles in New York. When COVID hit the US back in March, Avital wrote an article on Medium that was quickly picked up by the New York Times, sharing how she reinvented her company in 5 days flats, quickly pivoting and adapting to the new normal. Today, Avital Tours now offers virtual culinary and mixology events to companies and groups around the United States. Pretty amazing, right?
I wanted to bring Avital onto the show to share her story because it’s incredibly inspiring, plus she’s bringing major value to business owners in helping them build and manage their organizational culture in a remote workforce environment. A San Francisco based company, many of Avital Tour’s clients were looking for in-person experiences when entertaining their sales teams. After a little bit of trial and error, they came up with virtual mixology experiences that quickly became their most popular service offering for teams now working from home. A virtual happy hour at the end of the workday with coworkers sound like a treat, doesn’t it?
Avital’s mission is to deepen human connection through storytelling and food; and when many are limiting face-to-face interactions, this kind of connection is more important than ever. Whether it’s connecting sales teams with clients, helping your team build relationships with one another, or getting entrepreneurs together to network in an intimate, digital setting, ensuring that human connection is still occurring within our businesses is essential to its vitality and the wellbeing of those working with us. Enjoy this inspiring story of surviving and thriving in the midst of 2020 unpredictability!
Who should I interview next? Please let me know by clicking here.
In this Freedom Speaker Series episode with Avital Ungar, you will learn:
- The importance of human connection for the people in your business
- Why company culture and staying true to your core values is essential to survive and thrive as a business
- How being courageous with intention can lead to a breakthrough
- Why now is the perfect time to embrace experimentation instead of waiting
We are fortunate to have Avital available to spend time with us on this edition of Stride 2 Freedom. If there is a speaker you’d like us to interview, click here and let us know. Stay well. Stay safe. Stay healthy.
Show Notes and Links From Episode:
Russell Benaroya: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the Stride 2 Freedom podcast. My name is Russell Benaroya and I’m the co-founder of Stride Services, a virtual back office, bookkeeping, and accounting firm serving hundreds of clients around the United States. This podcast is designed to help small business owners focus on growth and innovation. In other words, focus on those things that inspired you to start your business in the first place. We call it your genius zone.
We do our job on this podcast when business owners feel like they have the trust and confidence to build the right team of partners around them that will help them grow. Thanks for joining. Let’s go.
This week, I am excited to welcome Avital Ungar to Episode 20 of the Stride 2 Freedom speaker series. Where does time fly? Welcome, Avital.
Avital Ungar: Thanks for having me, Russell.
Russell Benaroya: Avital is the founder of Avital Tours, a restaurant tour company in San Francisco, Los Angeles in New York. Does the irony escape you here? Restaurant tours in major cities, in any city, during COVID feels like game over. Here’s the thing. On March 16, Avital published a post that was in Medium and then got picked up by The New York Times, a post of how she reinvented her company in five days. Today, Avital Tours now offers virtual culinary and mixology events to companies and groups around the United States and maybe around the world; a massive pivot during a massively disruptive time. I wanted Avital to join us today because she has such an incredible story to share, and she is providing value to business owners in helping them build and manage their organizational culture in a remote workforce environment. For full disclosure, I should say that Avital Tours is also a Stride client.
Avital Ungar: We love Stride.
Russell Benaroya: Awesome. Good plug. Welcome, Avital, so happy to have you here.
Avital Ungar: Thank you. It’s so great to be here and chat with you. You just mentioned, we met on BART having great conversations and I’m excited to continue that conversation.
Russell Benaroya: Me too. How did you reinvent your self? Take us into that period of time? What did it feel like, smell like, taste like? Help us understand what you are going through.
Avital Ungar: Russell, no business has been unchanged during COVID and ours was no exception. Utter devastation was the first thought that went through my mind. We’re based in San Francisco and many of our clients are corporate clients who were doing team building or sales teams that were entertaining clients with us on their in-person experiences. Late February, we started seeing work-from-home orders hitting all of our big clients, tech companies in San Francisco. We then saw it start to hit LA and New York. We all know where New York went right after that.
Our revenue dropped to zero. Our clients canceled events or postponed for what they thought was maybe one or two months, but here we many months later, and realizing that this is not temporary. This is a much longer shift in company cultures for working at home.
The first thing that went through my mind, utter devastation. When your company drops to zero, you have to reevaluate what your value is as a company. We’ve been great culinary experience designers. I love experience design and how to bring companies and people together. We had to think who were our existing clients? What were their needs going to be with a remote workforce?
In five days, we reinvented our company. We made a list of all possible businesses that we could pivot to. I don’t like that word pivot, to be honest, because, really, we just started a whole new business. We just happened to have expertise in certain areas. In five days, we rapidly experimented, we got client feedback. We realized we need to put out there, just something to get feedback on, even if it wasn’t the right product.
We launched with two products, and believe it or not, we got feedback that people wanted a third product. We built that third product and now it’s our most popular product, which is the virtual mixology. It’s been a complete ride to go from zero back to an even bigger company now than we were before COVID hit.
Russell Benaroya: No surprise that mixology and making great cocktails while you’re working from home would be popular. I get it, and you create the experience around it. You seem to have a why or a purpose for your business and you applied that to doing physical tours, and now you’re applying that to doing virtual experience. That’s so awesome to have a why in your business. I’m curious if you could talk about where that comes from and how intentional you were in creating it so that then what you do, of course, is going to change over time and that’s okay.
Avital Ungar: Our mission statement as a company is to deepen human connection through storytelling and food. You’re correct; that mission statement was incredibly relevant to us as an in-person company, building connections in teams, building it for birthday parties, building it between strangers or travelers on our culinary experiences, our progressive meals.
When you take that mission statement, it’s actually more relevant now than ever before because to deepen that connection and to create new connections in a virtual world is even more difficult. You’re not going out into the world to meet new people at mixers or to network in the way that you might have before.
We’re seeing sales teams come to us saying, “How do we connect with our clients now. We can’t fly around the country and visit them in person. We want to have connections and something that’s meaningful.” You’re right, alcohol always does the trick a little bit more. Food and drink has always been that universal connector. We’ve seen it in person with multi-generations. It’s one thing that millennials on a team can connect with other generations around food, coming together around a table. Now a virtual table or in a virtual bar, we might not be able to go out to that crowded bar anymore, but we can be at a virtual bar and shake our cocktails together.
That mission really guided the types of products that we were going to be able to pivot to as well because we were so passionate about our mission statement, and that bled into everything else that we do. I’ll mention that company culture is incredibly important to us as well. We have our core values. One of my favorite core values for our company is “embrace quirky”. We love to celebrate people’s uniqueness and their difference, and what makes them special.
I spent my life in middle school or in elementary school trying to fit into, to be like the cool kids. Now I want to celebrate those differences and be different and unique. When you go to a cocktail party, you want to talk to that person who might have a quirky hobby or something different about them. We want to celebrate that uniqueness and those qualities in people. Bringing that company culture from our company into other companies has been delightful.=
Russell Benaroya: You wrote about this experience and then you picked up some notoriety as a result. Tell me about that.
Avital Ungar: I think the press is incredibly important, especially right now when it’s really difficult to find out about things. Word of mouth might travel slower because you’re not talking to as many people. Getting noticed for what you’re doing on a national level can be crucial. When I wrote that Medium article, I self-published it. I wrote it and put it out there. At the same time, I thought what we were doing, we could get some press on it because we were moving so quickly and it was so early in the days of the pandemic.
I started pitching the national press. I pitched The New York Times and I pitched many different writers, different stories. One writer somehow came back to us. I don’t even know if she found us through my pitches or somebody sent it to her, but she ended up writing an article about our experiences being great for a date night in quarantine with couples.
It wasn’t what we wrote in the Medium article, but being able to put it out there. You can’t be perfect right now, you have to keep experimenting and trying new things. It’s always been a dream of mine to be in The New York Times, I didn’t think it would take a pandemic. They did write about it and that did generate quite a bit of leads early on for us.
Russell Benaroya: You were intentional about it. You took the initiative to break through some noise and clutter and had some courage to put something out there that was not necessarily prime time; not all the kinks had been worked out. I suppose if you’re not a little embarrassed to put out your first version, you’ve probably waited too long.
Avital Ungar: Absolutely. The first version, I’m almost embarrassed about today. I’ll tell you a story about the evolution of our Chefinar boxes. We decided that we were going to run these virtual cooking classes. We had relationships already with chefs and bartenders at top restaurants, and with great personalities. Obviously, their restaurants were impacted as well. We said to our bartenders and our chefs, “Hey, we’re going to start teaching classes online.”
We started to sell that and we realized that the crucial piece during the pandemic in the early days was the ingredient delivery. People wanted that all-inclusive experience and that packaging. I didn’t know what to do in terms of delivery. For that Chefinar, honestly, we said that we could provide it and we said, “Hey, we’ll figure it out.”
My first deliveries to my first clients were via Instacart. I literally had my whole team on Instacart accounts placing orders and deliveries to people around the whole country. We had to go back to our clients with our tail between our legs because it turns out delivering in New York at that time to clients, we couldn’t get deliveries to five people in their group. We were embarrassed. We said, “We can do this.”
Then we went about the next version of that because Instacart wasn’t going to work. We actually developed our own supply chain and sourcing all the ingredients and now we ship nationwide. When we first started, we had boxes that would get lost. We had boxes that would explode vinegar all over the place. We had to learn every single week how to better pack boxes because we were starting to see traction.
Our boxes, in the beginning, worked beautifully. I had a client who came to us and she was like, “We’re paying for this service. That box didn’t look so beautiful when it showed up.” I had to deeply apologize and say, “The amount of work it took us just to even get that box to your clients was insane at that time with delays in the supply chain.” I went on to her virtual experience for the first five minutes because she was entertaining some pretty high profile clients. I said, “This company is a friend to small business. We are a small business that has pivoted during this time. It’s really important that they are a large business and they really dedicate themselves to really supporting other companies, not just large Fortune500 companies. By doing this experience, you’re supporting the restaurant industry, you’re supporting a small company that is pivoting. Have any of you ever heard of David Chang?”
I asked people to raise their hands on the experience. “Have you ever heard of David Chang?” People were like, “Yes, we know David Chang of the Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York and all of his great restaurants.” I said, “Have you heard of his Netflix show? It’s called Ugly Delicious.” They said, “Oh, yes, we’ve heard of this Netflix show, Ugly Delicious.” I said, “While our box has shown up incredibly ugly to you, we hope that you can take these ingredients, and you can turn them into something delicious over the next hour and a half with Chef Jonah.”
It really hammered home to them that what we were doing was about providing the experience. After that, we went on and we redesigned our whole box experience to be absolutely beautiful and surprising and delightful when they opened up that box. We realized that it wasn’t just about getting the ingredients to them, it was about the full experience before they even got on our virtual experience with our chef. We had to really design everything.
Obviously, I couldn’t have started that way from an Instacart delivery. Over the last few months, you can continue to reiterate and continue to get better. You have to have those forgiving clients in the beginning because you have to fail in order to be able to succeed in the long run.
Russell Benaroya: It’s acceptable to make mistakes, it’s unacceptable not to learn from them. It sounds like you had been learning and iterating. I imagine you have built some amazing relationships or maybe strengthened your bonds with so many restaurants that have seen you as a really valuable channel to keep them afloat. What kind of relationships have you established?
Avital Ungar: First of all, we started with our own network. We started with the restaurants that we knew the chefs. We reached out to our own restaurants, bartenders that we had worked with at our restaurants or bars. We had hosted cocktail tours in the past where we would take guests to three different cocktail bars in two hours. Then we started with our guides as well, our hosts. We were able to then pair our hosts with our chefs and our bartenders. Using your existing resources is really important.
We started with those chefs. A few of them came on board and said, “We’re game to try this. Let’s figure this out together.” Then it’s grown now. We’ve asked chefs for referrals to other chefs. We’re really focused on award-winning chefs and bartenders, people who have been nominated for James Beard Awards or One Michelin stars. That’s something that is keeping our product different from other virtual cooking classes or other virtual mixology out there right now; those referrals to other great people and just saving restaurants. This is definitely going into employee funds right now, it’s going into supporting the restaurants to be able to stay alive.
We feel really good about the other ways that we’re supporting the restaurant industry and keeping people employed right now. In addition, we now have bartenders and chefs from all over the country, even in cities that we had not been working in before. That’s really great because we now have no clients in Canada or people asking us to ship boxes to the UK. It’s incredible to be able to connect people around the world through these culinary experiences.
Russell Benaroya: Your clients that you serve, the companies that you serve, the groups that you serve, what are you hearing back from them as the result of providing that experience? What are they saying about the effects for their team or their company for doing this?
Avital Ungar: We hear really good feedback. All of our experiences are engaging. I don’t want you to think that you’re on a webinar. That’s where that engagement with your other colleagues or the bartender, cracking different jokes, and then also having time to hang out at the end of the experience, drinking or eating the dish that you’ve just made together. We’re hearing really good feedback. Most of that feedback comes in people booking more than one experience with us.
We do also have a net promoter score (NPS) so we do ask for feedback and people to fill out a survey after. We say, “We’re always learning and we want to hear how we can do better.” We’re also seeing people come to us who say, “I was the office manager for my company. I’ve been tasked with finding team building and we thought we could do virtual ourselves.” People will come to us and say, “We were Instacarting ingredients to people,” and I was like, “That’s a mess.” People are like, “Yes, that’s really hard. That doesn’t quite work”
We are hearing now people who thought, “I’ll do virtual myself,” in the beginning, and then they’ll come on one of our experiences and understand that value of even having one of our hosts and our MCs also engaging with people, not just a putting a bartender on an experience or a chef on experience by themselves. That engagement helps bring the teams and the people together through to deepen those connections.
Russell Benaroya: What are you scared about right now?
Avital Ungar: Uncertainty is always difficult in business. I’m a person who likes projections. I like to know what my business is going to look like a month from now. I’d say every week to two weeks, our operations will break and we’ll have to rebuild it because we’re at a whole new scale. Moving so quickly is incredibly challenging, but I’ve never been so alive and challenged in my company.
I think that this is something that many companies are facing, is this change. I think that’s very scary for many people. We’re creatures of habit. We’re not necessarily creatures who change as often or as much as is required of us right now. I think that’s very important and can bring some fear.
Russell Benaroya: What would you say to your fellow entrepreneurs. I know you’re a longtime Entrepreneurs’ Organization member so you interact with a lot of other entrepreneurs. There are a lot of us that are feeling fairly paralyzed right now, unlocked a little bit as the reality of the environment sets in. What kind of guidance or advice would you give to entrepreneurs who do feel a little bit paralyzed?
Avital Ungar: That’s a really good question. I’m a perfectionist and my team is a perfectionist. I would say, don’t be scared of failure right now. Now is the best time to experiment because the world is a little bit more forgiving on products right now. If you wait another year, other companies have spent a year also experimenting and failing. That’s where you learn. You learn when you make those mistakes.
One of the best quotes that I love is, as an entrepreneur, you jump off a cliff and you build a plane on the way down. Right now is just scary to be standing at the edge of that cliff. If you need somebody else to push you off, or if you need help with that, I’m happy to come over and help you. Rip that band-aid off sooner rather than later.
Russell Benaroya: I had a business coach several years ago who reinforced for me that taking a leap with an unknown outcome will result in something really good and interesting happening. Why? Because it always has. As entrepreneurs, we always figure out how to make it work and it’s okay that you can’t see where you’re going to land because you’re going to create a pretty interesting landing. What is something that people don’t usually ask you about that you wish they did?
Avital Ungar: This is going to be cliche, especially now that we’re shipping boxes across the country, but think outside the box. It’s not just about putting inside of a box. I’ll give an example from my personal life about challenging ideas that people think should be one way or not.
About maybe six years ago, I don’t know that exact timeframe. This was pre-Uber, pre-Lyft, pre-transportation. It was buses or taxis or you had your own car. In San Francisco at the time, I just started my business and parking was expensive, owning a car was expensive, the bus was taking me a really long time to get to meetings. There weren’t that many options. I was thinking about ways to improve my transportation, ways to get around the city that would be much more conducive to my lifestyle, and flexible.
I looked at motorcycles, I looked at bikes. I went to a party, I was talking to a friend of mine at the time who was working at Pinterest, he was an engineer. He had bought a car that meter-maids drove around. I don’t know if you’re familiar with those, Russell. They’re three wheels and meter-maids drive them around. They’re a little bit the size of a smart car, but they’re hilarious. Nobody likes meter-maids. They just come around and give you tickets.
He said, “Avital, why don’t you buy a meter-maid car instead of a bike or a motorcycle?” There’s a loophole in San Francisco that says that a meter-maid car legally registered with the DMV as a motorcycle so you can park perpendicular to the curb, like a motorcycle, in between cars, yet it has all the benefits of a car. In fact, it has a Mazda engine. It has really good mileage. They’re pretty inexpensive. They sell between $2,000 to $3,000. He said, “My meter-maid is parked right outside. Do you want to take it for a spin?” I said, “Yes.” I took his meter-maid for a spin and I spent the next six months looking to buy a meter-maid car and I did. I still own that meter-maid car today.
It’s not normal to be driving around a meter-maid car as your main car. Yet, I thought outside of the box. I learned that transportation wasn’t going to put me in a box the same way that Uber and Lyft ended up going on to completely disrupt the market. I’m still waiting for the market on meter-maids to come out. Those companies thought about transportation differently.
I bring up the story because people don’t know to ask me about my meter-maid car unless they see me show up in it or they’re really perplexed or they run out to feed their meter because a meter-maid car comes by. I’ve never had a problem finding parking. I think it’s a good story to share with your listeners a little bit about how you can examine something that you thought had very clear boundaries and push beyond those boundaries and think differently.
Russell Benaroya: I’m totally into tiny houses right now, by the way, and what’s possible with tiny houses and the head-scratch of, why aren’t we all living in tiny houses? This makes complete sense. I love the creativity. You’re a great storyteller, by the way, which I believe maps really well to the experience that you provide. You create stories for the teams that are having an experience together. As humans, we are natural storytellers. Leading with that ethos of, this is about creating experiences, those experiences drive stories, those stories, drive connections, is really powerful. I really appreciate you sharing some of the stories that you did.
I want to help teams and companies experience Avital Tours. How do they do that? How can I help them do that? Where do they go to learn more?
Avital Ungar: Our website is www.avitaltours.com although tours doesn’t quite capture what we’re doing anymore. We’re having an identity crisis a little bit. Our niche has always been culinary experiences and that’s still stayed the same. That’s the best place, but we’re also doing group experiences; team building, people entertaining clients, birthday parties, anything that you would want for a group experience, and groups at www.avitaltours.com.
Russell Benaroya: Terrific. I’ll put that information in the show notes as well as your article from Medium. We’ll also have a transcript of this.
Avital, thank you so much for joining us today on this edition of the Stride 2 Freedom podcast. We wanted to talk about transformations and also helping business owners drive their company culture during COVID and beyond. This is the beginning of something really special and I’m really excited for you. You’ve given us a lot of encouragement. Thank you for giving us hope and spending time with us on this episode of the podcast. Thank you.
Avital Ungar: Thank you for having me.
Russell Benaroya: Such a pleasure. Okay, have a great day, everyone. Take care. Bye.