‘You're excited. You want to say yes. You see dollar signs’

Hunter Zuli, founder of BLK Palate, has found a balance between taking on new business while staying true to the company's values. To do this, they say to remind yourself why you started your brand and never stray too far from that purpose.
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Hunter Zuli started BLK Palate, a food collective, with a clear mission: to amplify the African diaspora by engaging in conversations through the lens of food, drink and hospitality. Based in New York, the collective started out producing purpose-driven dining experiences. Since then, it's expanded its services and moved into broader collaborations, content and media, with events ranging from a dining-meets-wellness day festival held alongside activewear brand Lululemon, to helping cater for a five-day silent Buddhist retreat. 

Balancing private with public

In 2017, Hunter got things moving by emailing former clients and contacts from their catering background to test the waters. The response was positive – more than they'd anticipated. The initial public events generated hype, and people started reaching out almost straight away. ‘At first, I thought: I'll take private events and that'll allow me to take some of the profit and put it behind public events – where the concepts and ideas we want to do can really come out,’ says Hunter. 

This was mainly a financial necessity – because of the high costs of space hire in New York, public events are generally a lot less profitable, and private events would, therefore, pay the bills. ‘At first, a lot of the money was coming from private events with people willing to pay a higher ticket price,’ says Hunter. ‘People would email to say, “Hey, I'm doing this event, will you cater?” You're excited. You want to say “yes”. You see dollar signs.’ 

Event post-mortems 

Despite making it clear that BLK Palate wasn't simply a catering business or, as Hunter puts it, ‘the help’, clients either didn't properly engage with Hunter and the team, or saw BLK Palate's educational, purpose-driven side as just a nice bonus to the catering – rather than as an essential element of the collective's offering. 

But post-mortems with the team provided clarity. ‘We would leave experiences feeling like crap because someone had snapped at you, or looked through you or hadn't engaged with you. We chose to do this in this model because it allows us to control how people are engaging with us,’ says Hunter. ‘We had to constantly remind ourselves for six months whether or not we should have said “yes” to something. That was a lot of learning.’

Bringing in a stricter criteria 

Today, Hunter's more critical during the decision-making process and carries out more due diligence. ‘I had to start making decisions based on whether or not people were willing to accept our version of what it is that they were asking for,’ they say. ‘It was trying to figure out if you're doing something they're familiar with and, if not, explaining how you do it differently.’ 

Having seen many situations with clients shift at the last moment, more structure was needed. ‘Individual organization was really important, in terms of sifting through what was received and figuring out whether a person or brand was going to waste your time.’ Hunter also introduced clearer company standards: laying out how far in advance certain communications needed to happen, what their expectations were and how they'd expect payment.  

The change in approach has meant saying ‘no’ to various projects. Hunter, though, has no regrets. ‘We were more compelled at the beginning to say “yes” to the money and try to make it work,’ they say. ‘I learned that trying to make it work isn't satisfactory in the end.’

For our ‘25 big lessons from small business’ series, we scoured the world to find inspiring people to share the lessons they've learned from running their own companies. Click here to read the other stories.

This special feature was first published in Courier issue 45, February/March 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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