Monique Henderson, SoulFullCaterers
As a mom to two young children, Monique Henderson not only planned birthday parties but also cooked for all the guests. When her cooking garnered positive praise, Monique thought, “I could make this a side hustle.” In 2017, she began her catering business, SoulFull Caterers, which serves customers in the Washington DC area. Monique’s goal? Buying a food truck, so she can bring home cooking on wheels to events, fairs, and college campuses.
Episode 09 – Monique Henderson, SoulFullCaterers
[00:00:55] Sanjay Parekh: Monique Henderson founded Soulful Caterers six years ago. Her catering business, which is based near Annapolis, Maryland, is dedicated to serving delicious food for the body and for the soul. Here today to talk more about her business, how she balances work and family, and maybe even give us some tips on how to dish up food for a hungry crowd, is Monique Henderson. Monique, welcome to the show.
[00:01:17] Monique Henderson: Hello. Thank you for inviting me.
[00:01:19] Sanjay Parekh: I'm excited to talk to you because I'm hoping that we get some food tips near the end and making good food, but, before we get there, give us like 30 seconds about your background. I know I said a little bit about you but tell us how you got to the point that you are now.
[00:01:33] Monique Henderson: Okay. I am born and raised in Washington, DC. I live outside of that area. I have two children, and my children are the reasons why I started SoulFullCaterers. My son is 10 and so during his birthday parties, I would always cook and invite family over. As he got older, I then had my daughter and she's seven, but when she was little, more people started to come and everyone's like, oh, this food was so good. And then people started to pay me to make small dishes and things of that nature. Then came a side hustle and the side hustle actually turned into me actually applying for EIN and things of that nature, and it was a business. So here I am, entrepreneur.
[00:02:21] Sanjay Parekh: So, you're like an accidental entrepreneur, right? You just fell into it.
[00:02:24] Monique Henderson: I just laid right down and started rolling.
[00:02:29] Sanjay Parekh: Let me ask you, is this the first time that you've done something entrepreneurial, or did you do something as a kid? Was there some kind of experience before this that you were doing? Entrepreneurial?
[00:02:40] Monique Henderson: No, I never really thought about going the entrepreneurial road. I was always just maintaining. Life was about maintaining, and someone said, oh, you should just start selling your food. And it's like really? I'm not a chef, and I've learned there's a lot of cooks out here that are not, and you have to have your niche when you're doing it.
[00:03:02] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Did you have any entrepreneurs in the family that you watched over time and saw what they were doing?
[00:03:10] Monique Henderson: My grandfather and my mom did some things, but it wasn't really entrepreneur wise, it was more flea market. Let's go down to the flea market and sell some items. Outside of that, no, I don't.
[00:03:24] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Wow. So, you're the trail blazer in the family. You're the first entrepreneur and maybe the, hopefully not the last. Hopefully there's more to come after you. Okay, so you're cooking these meals for the birthday parties. And I feel like that's a common story, but my mom used to make birthday cakes for us for our birthdays as well. I had some pretty elaborate cakes, but she never went into a cake business or anything like that. So, you took that step. What was it that made you think, yeah, you know what, I can start this as a side hustle and then, then make that second leap of okay, it's not just a side hustle, it's a full-time thing. What were the things that caused you to think that?
[00:04:10] Monique Henderson: The constant asks, the constant push. I have two really close friends, they're my best friends, that just kept pushing me and pushing me like, Mona, you can do it. I also have a nickname, Mona. But they would just push me and say, you can do it. And people just constantly ask. Two years prior to covid, I just did a trial run of just selling dinners and it was out of my mind the amount of requests that came through for orders that I ran out of things. And I didn't have enough people available to deliver food and so forth. So that was a huge learning experience for myself.
[00:04:51] Sanjay Parekh: For that, how did you get the word out and then how did you take the orders?
[00:04:58] Monique Henderson: Social media and, I'm not necessarily the social media type to be honest but I have friends that do. So, once you tell one person, it just, the word of mouth just constantly just flows the information. And then we use some businesses such as local colleges, the local hospital, and they're always looking for lunch and different places to go. So that was one of the suggestions that were provided to me. I can't say I did it myself, but someone suggested that I do that, and it worked really well.
[00:05:30] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. How did you deal with taking the orders and stuff? Was this just like people had to call you up on the phone, email? Like how did you manage that?
[00:05:38] Monique Henderson: So, it was a number of ways they could just stop by and we had a table set up with like a cookout style where you can come and you can request what you like. When I was younger, I always participated in church activities. And that's what I remembered then. So, I set outside of my home up like that initially. And then there was, I'm also a project manager for a living, so planning is what I like to do. So, I created this form where everyone can go out and they can just fill out this form of what you would like, because we pre-planned the items we were going to have. If you wanted pot pies, if it was on the menu, you order it. We also have mobile ordering now, so it was very similar stuff. It wasn't mobile, it was online. Submit an email, send in the cash app, whatever, and your order will be ready when you come. So, I had someone printing items, keeping up with the items and bringing it down and making sure that we had it, that type of thing.
[00:06:33] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, I think we just discovered the superpower that you have, which is being a project manager. So, you're able to think through the project from the beginning and know all the pieces that you needed. Was there anything that surprised you or you didn't think about or realize when you launched this? I assume you're pretty good about figuring it all out because you're a project manager, but sometimes you still get surprised. What was that thing that surprised you?
[00:06:58] Monique Henderson: Absolutely. There's always these risks that you don't think of. Again, it was the capacity, the amount of people that came about and making sure I had the manpower to sustain it. So, it wasn't so much the onsite location, it was more of the call-ins and delivery, because we offered delivery within a certain radius. And so, while we requested to receive the orders in advance, we didn't always have those orders in advance and was still open to receiving them. So, that was probably one of the things I did not think all the way through and then traffic. We're here in Washington, DC area, traffic would always limit the number of drivers that we were having at that time. But it was a great experience.
[00:07:44] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, when you did that the first time and learned these things and you're like, uh oh, this is not all working, how did you mitigate that? How did you deal with it, the next iteration?
[00:07:53] Monique Henderson: I have not done that part again.
[00:07:57] Sanjay Parekh: So that's how you dealt with it. You're like, let's not do that anymore.
[00:08:00] Monique Henderson: I'm actually working to open a food truck. I think I prefer onsite locations. I don't want a store front. I do like going to my customers and I love setting up and catering and watching the faces unfold as they see the food unravel and they eat it. That is one of the most warming gifts to me. Doing home food, I'm okay with it. I love, I still set up birthday parties. We have Easter dinner here, but when I think about business, I like the onsite, not so much storefront, but actually having a food truck is my goal. And yeah, that will bring customers. I can also social media, share it on social media and things of that nature.
[00:08:45] Sanjay Parekh: So that's an interesting kind of perspective that you have there because a lot of people that are doing food businesses, the food truck is their first step to eventually getting a storefront, like a regular retail location where people can come and eat and all that stuff. And you're specifically saying, I don't want that. That's not what I want. My end goal is the food truck. So, is your perspective that you're going to start with one food truck and then you're going to expand that and that it'll be like a fleet of food trucks? Like how do you think about this business and expanding it?
[00:09:17] Monique Henderson: Absolutely. Again, I'm a project manager, so I plan out some of these risks and having it onsite you have to deal with a lot in terms of just having manpower consistently, when you're open, during certain hours I don't see myself being always in the food truck, but I do foresee, I love fairs. I've always gone to them as a child. I take my kids to fairs and carnivals and things of that nature. I do table vendoring at fairs and so forth now, but I do see myself being able to pull up in my food truck, whether it's a trailer or an actual vehicle where we pull up and we already have food prepared and ready and customers are coming, running up. So having that fleet where I can have staff on hand to drive and take care of the items that I need to. And in those instances, you don't need a huge manpower of employees available. In storefronts you do, daily. And that's the overhead cost that I'm not willing to maintain over time. That's my perspective.
[00:10:23] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. And the other problem with having a storefront is that if somebody calls in sick, it falls to you to fill in. And that's like the tough thing in food business. Whereas if you're doing food trucks, you can just not have that food truck out on the street, right?
[00:10:39] Monique Henderson: Yes. And you still have some precautions there because when you sign up, you're paying for it and it's your loss. But it's what's within my control and I think that's a framework that I take from being a PM as well. If I do have people call out, I can replace one or two people.
But if I have a whole staff that calls out for a restaurant. That's not easily replaceable in a couple of hours. And one person can maintain a food truck, in that sense.
[00:11:11] Sanjay Parekh: So, when you made this jump were you working full-time as a project manager and then moved into this.
[00:11:18] Monique Henderson: I still am.
[00:11:18] Sanjay Parekh: Oh, you still are, so you're doing both. So, this is not a full, this is a side hustle that's become a small business side hustle for you now.
[00:11:25] Monique Henderson: Yes, we plan all of our activities. We're really busy in the summertime as well as during the holidays. So, I do a lot of cooking on the weekend. A lot of things on the weekend. I actually have Fridays off typically. I took off this afternoon for this, but yes.
[00:11:45] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. We'll touch back on that in a minute. But let me ask you, so when you started this out, was there anything that concerned you, like worried you about being able to do this. And if so, how did you get over that feeling?
[00:12:04] Monique Henderson: Yes. Trust. That's one of the hardest things to get over. I cannot say that I'm over it. I do have a small network of people that, it's like a motivation group that kind of pushes and share their hurdles as well. Trusting others that they'll be able to carry out my vision is one of the things that have been, it still is, it's really hard to push forth and keep the motivation up. So again, what's within my control framework I. I have partnered with someone where we solicit. I have started hiring on people to be able to be sous chefs. I can't always say that word, sous chefs to help me cook because that one person cooking for hundreds is a lot. But somehow, I maintain and am able to do it. But getting through that trust is hard but training up front, making sure that I'm planning and preparing and writing down information for my employees as well as we're catering events specifically. Not so much festivals and carnivals, things like that.
[00:13:11] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah so, it's you in the business and how many people do you have around you that help total?
[00:13:21] Monique Henderson: On any given event, I have a minimum of four to five. Five is just extra, you always need a dishwasher, so that's one of my hurdles, I love to cook, but the cleanup part. Interesting enough, I don't know if you want me to cover it now, but I am looking to outsource some of the cleaning functions of my company when I have big events. Because we do rent currently the locations for kitchens and a lot of times we come, we're licensed and insured, so we will come to your location to cook as well in that kitchen.
[00:14:03] Sanjay Parekh: Okay. So, you're using like one of these like contract kitchens?
[00:14:07] Monique Henderson: Yes.
[00:14:07] Sanjay Parekh: A lot of times.
[00:14:09] Monique Henderson: Yes, as needed. It's really onsite, so a lot of the events that I do have a location that has a kitchen available, and we will just plan ahead to know what time we can get in and how much time we have. And based on that is the number of people that I need available in advance.
[00:14:30] Sanjay Parekh: Got it. Got it. As you see this business grow over time, do you think, yeah, I understand you don't want a storefront for people to come to, but would you get a location where you have your own kitchen that you can control and have access to 24/7? Or does that not make sense?
[00:14:46] Monique Henderson: It could. I don't know which way it's all going to go eventually, again, it's starting to pick up. But the food truck would be that kitchen. I have already started investing in the equipment for the for the food truck. I have the stove and equipment that I need. It’s just storage may be the concern. If I'm not able to have enough storage inside of the actual food truck, having a location for that could possibly be. But as of right now, I'm not looking to do it a hundred percent full-time. Weekends is what I'm sticking to. If I need to take off my full-time job for an event during the week, I have been able to, but that's not always my goal. Because I do have children as well that I maintain. So, weekends is, that's business and they participate when they're where they can, they love it. My son is actually a salesman for me.
[00:15:42] Sanjay Parekh: I love it. I love it. It's free labor, right? Come on. And who says no to a kid when they're pitching you for business. Okay, so let's talk about that. Like how do you manage, then, the stress and demands of now, a full-time job, a side hustle, small business, and family life, like how are you balancing these things and how do you think about how you spend time on each one?
[00:16:10] Monique Henderson: How much time? I don't have the answer per se to that, but I do compartmentalize everything. Again, I'm a project manager. I plan everything out. My kids are involved in sports. I don't tend to miss many of them. I am usually there and when I'm not, they tell me about it. I do co-parent and their father is really good at supporting where I'm not able to. So, I'm thankful, very thankful for that. And I have a good support system that helps with, when I'm not able to have the kids, they'll come in and watch them for me. They're getting older, so I don't really need as much of a babysitter, but if it's overnight definitely. So yeah, compartmentalize everything. I have days that I do certain things and that day is strictly for that. I have timeframes where work is your typical nine to five. So, after five it's children. I may do some business work then if I have to. But I have to compartmentalize.
[00:17:11] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. The great thing about kids is every year they get a little bit older and then they can help a little bit more. So, at some point maybe you've got some built-in employees that can then start help cooking.
[00:17:22] Monique Henderson: Absolutely.
[00:17:24] Sanjay Parekh: Do they like to cook?
[00:17:26] Monique Henderson: My daughter is trying; my son loves to eat. I can't say he's a cooker just yet, but he might just to eat it. He's my taste tester.
[00:17:35] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah, I think I sympathize with your son quite a bit there. I'm good at the taste testing side. Maybe not at the making side.
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[00:18:08] Sanjay Parekh: So, how do you how do you think about other things in your day? Do you have an exercise routine? Do you like meditate? Like how do you think about managing some of these other things that are kind of necessary to be a whole person and take time for yourself? Like where do you fit that in your day?
[00:18:28] Monique Henderson: Okay. I can't say that I exercise but I do start and end my day with prayer. I'm religious and so in the morning I just take a few moments just to think and reflect and be thankful for where I am. I also, after doing that, I take a look at my notepad because I have to jot down everything just to make sure that I'm staying on point with what I need to do from work to children. And then I also, at the end of the day, that's where I put my notepad down. And my notes are in my phone, so I will jot down what I did not get to do the, that day. And then the next morning I'm following up and doing whatever tasks that I have for that day. And it's not always a lot on my list. It's just making sure that I'm tackling the things that I need to. I've even gone as far now, I share my children's schedule with them the night before so that it's off of mommy and they love it. They're like, Mommy, we're supposed to do this today. And it helps me take it out of my mind so that they're reminding me. So, they're learning. They’re little kids, walking around, they don't know it.
[00:19:38] Sanjay Parekh: That is a great skillset to embed early. And I think your kids are going to be thankful for that at some point in the future. So alongside of that, you're carving out time for yourself in the morning and evening. How do you think about sleep and other things like that? Do you have a set bedtime every day? Are you making sure that you're getting however many hours of sleep every day to make sure that you're fresh because you're juggling a lot of things, right? Kids, full-time, job, side hustle, small business, like, there's a lot of things here.
[00:20:11] Monique Henderson: Yeah. Typically, I do get a good six to eight hours. Again, I had to start writing things out because when I did not, I'll be in the middle of the night just thinking through everything, planning, doing this, doing that. So, I had to start writing it down and so, I don't really miss much sleep, honestly. Except for when it's time to, when I have big events and it's time to cook. So, I spend a lot of nights in the kitchen at night, prepping to make sure that I'm timely the next day. I do everything pretty much fresh, so it's really coming right out of the oven, onto the table once it's completed. So, we'll make sure that we're renting locations or we're going to locations where that kitchen is accessible the night before.
[00:20:56] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, fortunately for you know when that's coming, right? When there's going to be a day, where you're going to have to cut back on sleep because you've got to cook and all of those things that, that doesn't come as a surprise, right?
[00:21:07] Monique Henderson: Not typically. Unless it's a last minute, I'll at least have a few days to prep for it. I don't really gravitate to the last-minute request if it's huge because it can be a mess. And I'm a planner by nature, so if I don't have a chance, everyone knows me, if I don't have a chance to think through it, there is going to be a lot of questions coming your way.
[00:21:29] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Yeah, and that's, I think that's tough for entrepreneurs too, because a lot of times those last-minute deals can be a lot of money. And so how do you say no to that? Is it just no, it's just not worth it? Like how do you figure that out for yourself?
[00:21:46] Monique Henderson: It's the value for me. What value am I adding by crunching something together? Will I be able to deliver the taste that I want the customer to remember? Because if I take it, I might not be able to. Because sometimes products aren't available. I don't have a storefront, so I don't have vendors delivering things to me.
I have to actually go have a team or myself go and get the product. So, if it's last minute, I have to depend on say Restaurant Depot to make sure that they have it in stock that it is actually not something old. I'm not one of those that do like the Instacart and things. I like hands on, looking at what I'm purchasing, making sure it's good, it's not expired, things of that nature. So, last minute doesn't fit into that category all the time.
[00:22:35] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, you're prioritizing quality over revenue essentially, right?
[00:22:41] Monique Henderson: Absolutely.
[00:22:43] Sanjay Parekh: Like you want to make sure that the product you deliver is great, right? Okay. And I think that's super smart too, right? Because if you're not providing a good product, revenue is not going to come. Word of mouth is not going to be there when that happens. So, let's switch gears a little bit and talk about, so, you're a project manager. I'm assuming you've done some of these things, like what are some technologies or apps or systems that you've implemented that you'd recommend to other people? Like hey, you should definitely, if you're thinking about starting something, you should definitely think about using this.
[00:23:11] Monique Henderson: I encourage everyone to get a website. It's interesting, I am a PM, but I have not spent a lot of time on my website. I just stood it up and just put out a menu. I need to do that. It's one of those things. I feel like it's coming. And it, again, business just started picking up on its own. After Covid. I didn't anticipate it. One minute, I'm just resting with my children, and it was coming in when it wanted to, and now it's just constant in a sense. A website is definitely something, whichever engine you would like to use or that's comfortable for you, that's user friendly, use it because it helps with the tie-in to social media as well. Social media is something else also you can get that'll put your marketing out there. If you're a social media person, I am not, but if you're a social media person, you can get Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Or hire someone to do it. Another technology, as I did mention earlier that I do, I did do the forms. So, I created a form myself that was just a simple Word document that I put onto a platform, and people were able to print it out and send it in, email it in. With what they would like for that meal. Forms is a great way to organize things. I love it. And if you have M-365 is one of my favorites. It's actually one of the things I work with at work as well. But it has the functionality for SharePoint and SharePoint list and things, and it can actually pull information into a spreadsheet for you. So, that's one of the things that I would recommend, especially when you're looking at lots of orders. You can prioritize the orders based on that spreadsheet and with the content that's on it.
[00:25:02] Sanjay Parekh: Any secret tips about because you're a project manager, like what's the secret tool that you're using to manage projects like this?
[00:25:11] Monique Henderson: Prioritization. You have to know your priorities, and timing. So, one of the things in my spreadsheet when I was doing the online orders was the time. So, what time did they, I call it unique identifier or the driving source. So, the time was the first and then it became the content of the order. So, the time, if it they needed at noon versus one. I wanted to make sure that theirs was done and out first, but then it was location. Again, having that driver available was one of my hiccups initially. But that was also a driving force because even though the time may have been 1:00, we probably had to have it done sooner because we had a 45-minute commute to get there. And that's in traffic. So, know your priorities is what I would say, know your priorities.
[00:26:08] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Yeah. I love it. So, thinking back so you've been doing this for about six years now. And I think I already know one answer but thinking back, if you could go back in time, is there something that you've learned now that you'd do differently back then. We know one is not taking last minute orders that get delivered. What else is there that you'd do differently?
[00:26:31] Monique Henderson: I think I would've continued to work on Covid. There were a lot of people that continued business through Covid, but I think I had a fear based on what was being shared through media. The sickness, we really did not understand what it was. There were a lot that did lose their life. For different reasons, and we still don't understand some of it other than it was covid related. So, I think I would've continued to some extent, but I was like, insurance might go up, anything could happen. It could be blamed on me. Those are liabilities that we don't think about. And I thought through all of them, and again, I guess that's the project manager in me, the risk. I wasn't willing to take it, but I think I would've done that more than what I did. And another thing I would change and never do again is the onsite ordering, setting up, last minute, having orders come in. I don't think I would do that again other than going to a festival where the food is already there. So, deliveries, onsite orders, all of that in one, it's a lot. That's a huge corporation type of function that I wasn't prepared for.
[00:27:47] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. What would you tell somebody else? Somebody like you, that’s thinking about launching a side hustle or making it a small business or taking this leap, like you have, and is still teetering on deciding whether to do it or not. What would you tell that person?
[00:28:04] Monique Henderson: Just do it. It's a learning experience. At the minimum, partner with someone. One of the things that would share with me is get on social media and see what other groups are out there doing the same thing and learn from them. You don't have to necessarily jump in and start speaking with a lot of them, but you can see the chats that's happening within those Facebook groups and things that may help you center your ideas in your niche to get going. And then, or same question, ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Cause if you don't, you're just circling yourself around your own ideas and, you may not ever get out of that circle or cycle if you want to call it that.
[00:28:47] Sanjay Parekh: Okay. Last question for you, and this is the super secret one the special question I've been waiting for the whole episode. What's the one like cooking tip that people don't know, that's easy or, straightforward that they should always do to make their food taste better?
[00:29:07] Monique Henderson: Okay, it's really slow cooking. Oh, my goodness. That slow cooking has the most mouth-watering experiences ever. Don't rush it. Don't ever rush your food. Just let it slow because it has a mind of its own. It's going to do what it wants to do. If you just slow cook, whether it's in the oven — I know the air fryer now cooks pretty fast — but you just put it in and just let it go. I love slow cookers as well your pot, crock pot, slow cookers, things of that nature. The seasonings that sit in during that time, I don't know. The experience is just really good no matter what you put. It could just be basic seasonings, or I think it's really great slow cooking.
[00:29:52] Sanjay Parekh: So, you're saying I'm messing up by using the microwave all the time?
[00:29:55] Monique Henderson: Oh no. You're dehydrating everything. I have a microwave, but I do, I rarely use it unless I'm melting butter quick.
[00:30:04] Sanjay Parekh: That's a good, that's a great tip. And probably the reason why I am the food eater and not the food maker. But if our listeners want to find and connect with you or order food but not at the last minute, where can they find you?
[00:30:21] Monique Henderson: SoulFullCaterers.com. That is where you can find me. My email, as well as my menu is out there, you can send us an email or you can call our number is out there as the website, SoulFullCaterers.com. It's like you’re full, F-U-L-L.
[00:30:37] Sanjay Parekh: Awesome. That's awesome. Thanks for coming on, Monique.
[00:30:40] Monique Henderson: Thank you, Sanjay.
[00:30:47] Sanjay Parekh: Thank you for listening to this week's episode of the Side Hustle to Small Business Podcast, powered by Hiscox. To learn more about how Hiscox can help protect your small business through intelligent insurance solutions, visit hiscox.com. And if you have a story you want to hear on this podcast, please visit www.hiscox.com/shareyourstory. I'm your host Sanjay Parekh. You can find me on Twitter at @sanjay or on my website at www.sanjayparekh.com.