With COVID-19 impacting the economy and causing two lockdown periods, many enterprising souls have found creative ways to earn a few extra dollars within unique restrictions. Among them, Derek Tsui started Brie Plus, a charcuterie box delivery business in the GTA that found success on Instagram. Exemplifying a certain millennial energy and drive to specialize and market a dream side hustle, Tsui is part of a trend of young entrepreneurs catering to a foodie-focused market. He took time to speak with The Edge about what it was like starting a business during lockdown, how he uses social media to promote his products, and what advice he has for others.
Describe how you first started Brie Plus in December 2020. What prompted you to pursue the niche market of charcuterie delivery boxes?
Watching so many friends, neighbours and strangers run their own businesses for the past few years is something that definitely inspired me. The idea of Brie Plus started off as a way for me to pass the time after the lockdown announcement in December cancelled most of my plans for the break. I took part of the funds I had reserved for a cottage-and-ski trip and put it into this.
What has surprised you in the process of becoming an online entrepreneur? What has the learning curve been like?
I think the ease and speed of it all was very surprising. To turn an idea from a Zoom call into a business launch within three days is insanely quick to me. Creating a brand, setting up an [Instagram] account, buying materials, product design, and product sourcing all were accomplished using my phone. I’m amazed at how many free resources exist to help small start-ups like mine get started. Cost-wise, it only took around $100 to get started.
You primarily used Instagram to launch Brie Plus. Why did you choose social media to create your online presence instead of a traditional website? What are the unique benefits and challenges that Instagram offers?
I found that targeted exposure and any kind of traffic is hard to accomplish on a traditional webpage. Instagram allows for hashtags to help niche audiences find your content and for you to find them. And while I do use Instagram as a main landing point, it’s used to direct people to a more traditional website for orders. I find that the engagement and opportunities to connect via IG has replaced normal foot traffic by a storefront in a pre-pandemic environment, which has proven to be a great way for adapting in these times. One challenge I’ve seen is the enormous amount of content on this platform, so it’s easy for your content to get lost among the millions of posts each day.
How has “foodie” culture affected your business model? With this growing trend of small, local food businesses, where do you see Brie Plus and other Instagram-founded businesses heading?
I rely on foodies and influencers for most of my marketing. They provide phenomenal feedback and help me connect with the niche audience I’m looking for. But as I mentioned before, the market is getting very saturated. I think while it’s easy to start something, it can be difficult to maintain the momentum when there are new products and businesses starting every week. I found that food fads come and go relatively quickly, so learning to adapt and evolve as the times change is essential to survival. Charcuterie boxes have been very popular during [New Year‘s Eve] and Valentine’s, but pushing outside of those dates for special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, and just a dinner appetizer has helped me sustain growth.
The pandemic has affected a lot of food businesses around the world, with most having to change their models to takeout or delivery only. Since you launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, how have you been managing its challenges? Has anything surprised you in your ability to tackle these challenges, positively or negatively?
Because I launched nine months into the pandemic, the practices were easy to adapt to since they have been so well established and practiced city-wide. Renewing my food handling and COVID safety certifications online was very straightforward. One challenge has been dealing with errors that customers make when filling out the order form. It makes contact with the customer particularly difficult when the phone number and email address is typed incorrectly, as that is our only point of contact. Contactless delivery for customers [who] don’t have private entrances has also been a bit tricky.
Social media entrepreneurship has seen a boom in these hard times—hard times call for creative measures. As one of the many pioneers in the nascent social media-based, entrepreneurial movement that came out of this unique economic moment, what do you hope to accomplish as you set the trend?
My only goal has been to be productive with my time and to help make other people’s lives a little bit better. Whether it’s been helping them celebrate a special occasion, helping them through a troubling time or just enjoying a good snack, it’s been a joy to be able to build these connections despite trying times. Not having profit [as] the main driver of my business has allowed me to offer some of the most affordable prices and allowed me to refer customers to other charcuterie businesses in the area.
What advice would you give to someone who is also interested in starting a specialized, local food-delivery business?
My advice is quite simple: take the risk and get started! Make sure it’s something you enjoy & can take on timewise. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’ve learned so much from other small business owners the past few months and owe a lot to them! The high start-up costs and many of the barriers to entry have disappeared with the pandemic, so there’s really no better time to get started.
And I’ll be honest with you. It’s been a rough year for all of us. The feeling of not knowing if you’ll be employed week to week, the fear of leaving your home for anything and the paranoia of catching COVID has affected us all. But in times like these where so many things are out of our control, it’s been refreshing and reaffirming to have something that you can take complete ownership over. You can manage your hours, make meaningful friendships with customers and bring a bit of your passion and joy into the lives of those around you. I can’t wait to support [other local food delivery businesses]! Hope that I can be of some help if not one of your first customers!
Rose Ho | Staff Writer