Cooking has always been close to Lina Mills’ heart.
In 2013, after working in the catering industry for over 25 years, Mills started Creative Ideas Catering, a full-service catering company that uses sustainable practices and provides clients with a global fusion of Latin flavors. Creative Ideas Catering’s menu is inspired by the cuisines Mills has experienced while traveling – she moved to San Francisco from Colombia at the age of 16, and she aims to create meals that bring both comfort and authentic taste.
Sustainability is also a key part of Creative Ideas Catering’s ethos. Mills has three sons and understands the importance of being mindful of future generations when using natural resources, so Creative Ideas Catering uses biodegradable packaging and is in the process of becoming a Certified Green Business.
As Creative Ideas flourished, it began to outgrow its space. Mills knew she had to centralize her operations – the catering location, storage site and her office were all in different places – so she decided it was time to consolidate. Mills started by getting her paperwork in order and making sure her personal credit score was in a good place. Her Bank of America Small Business Banker helped her develop a business plan to determine how much she could afford to spend on a new space, and Mills started touring potential new spots to purchase. She purchased her own space in July 2019 and started the process of pulling permits to get everything up and running.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, everything came to a halt. Mills had to close her business for two months, and the new space was put on hold. About 80% of her client base consists of corporations, and Mills had to quickly pivot to stay afloat.
“Not having that steady income was really challenging,” Mills said. “I had to start doing things I never did in the past – like using social media to market my business.”
Mills secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan in May 2020 to help weather the storm. She started adapting and expanding her services by offering home delivery, individual and family meals, gift baskets and even pop-ups in collaboration with other women-owned small business owners in San Francisco – events such as art fairs and jewelry shows where she could serve her food while teaming up with other business owners. She also started taking business classes to stay up to date on best practices in running a business.
“The small business community and nonprofit organizations in San Francisco were key to helping me pull through,” Mills said. “I was able to network with other organizations to generate revenue throughout 2020. While I was marketing my own business, other business owners were able to grow their client base as well.”
Within the first few months of 2021, Mills was able to resume plans to open Creative Ideas Catering’s new space, which will include a café, mini mart, on-site catering, storage, and all of Mills’ office work. She plans to open the new location in September.
As Mills reflects on her experience navigating the pandemic over the past year, she advises other business owners to be flexible, have a back-up plan, and know when to ask for help.
“At the end of the day, hard work really does pay off,” Mills noted. “2020 was a challenging year for all of us, especially in the catering business, but if you show up every day and stay positive, you will come out on the other side – sometimes even better than before.”