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How Supporting Local Businesses and Philanthropic Causes Helped This Business Owner Find Success

Season 1: Episode 17


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Many people care about small businesses and philanthropic causes, but truly making a difference takes a little something more. In our final episode during Women’s History Month, Emily Washcovick spoke with Angela Shen, owner and founder of Savor Seattle. Angela cares deeply about her local community, advocates for a number of social causes, and actively supports women-owned businesses. Yelp reviewer, Vy M. connected immediately with Savor Seattle because of Angela’s customer service and mission.

On the Yelp Blog: Learn more about how to support your community and how conscious consumerism can help your business thrive.

VY: I heard about Savor Seattle through the Seattle Foodies Facebook page. I saw Angela’s post on there, and I had been wanting to find ways to support local businesses other than ordering takeout food every night. So I wanted to do my part, and also I missed going to Pike Place. So it was a great way to be able to support the local businesses and get the fresh produce and delicious products from Pike Place.

EMILY: That’s Vy. She’s telling me about Savor Seattle, a food tour business that pivoted during the pandemic to creating market food boxes. These boxes started out as a local offering and included a variety of products from local business owners, many of whom makeup Pike Place Market. Today we’ll hear about Vy’s experience in the early days of the box program, as well as how Savor Seattle has evolved and will continue to transform. Let’s start with Vy’s review.

VY: Love, love, love what they’re doing to support the community. I’ve ordered a few iconic market boxes from them during these quarantine times. And each one has been so unique and filled with organic and fresh produce. I love the fresh flowers they add, which brightened up my week. The boxes could feed a family of four and encourage you to eat fresh produce, cook more at home, and support local Pike Place businesses. Angela, who is one of the founders, has been doing a lot of community outreach and has worked with me to find a good time to pick up my boxes since I work in healthcare and have been busier than usual. I definitely recommend one of these boxes. They have curbside pickup. And they’ve started doing FedEx deliveries as well, which is really cool. I can’t wait for everything to come back to normal so I can go do a food tour with them. Go get your iconic market box.

EMILY: As a healthcare worker and one of the first customers to try the iconic marketplace boxes, Vy had a unique experience with Angela, the founder of Savor Seattle, that she’ll always remember.

VY:  I’ve been putting in a lot of overtime, because it’s been crazy busy, and Angela went above and beyond what I expected as far as customer service. This is back when they first started, and I asked if they had delivery, and she said, no. But I didn’t have time to drive to Seattle to pick up my box. And since there was another person up North near me that wanted delivery, Angela personally arranged for us to do a porch pickup at her house so that we wouldn’t have to drive to Seattle, which I thought was amazing.

EMILY: The personalized customer service that was taking place in the early days of Angela getting this box business up and running is what propelled her business to boom. Vy’s experience of feeling special and [the fact] that accommodations were being made to help her is how Angela has always run her business.

ANGELA: I think customer service is the most important part of the buying experience and building trust. And even when I first started Savor 14 years ago, when I was leading all the tours on my own, after every tour, I hand wrote a postcard to every single customer that went on a tour. I think it’s that personal touch that people remember and is missing in most transactions today. And so for me, it mattered a lot that Vy, especially someone who was in the healthcare industry, doing such backbreaking thankless work on the front lines, it’s the least I could do.

EMILY: Customer service and a connection with the customer have been core values for Angela since she grew up watching her parents own their own businesses. And it was that experience of watching her parents be restaurateurs that brought her to the idea for Savor Seattle Food Tours all those years ago. A business sharing and highlighting stories of other small businesses.

ANGELA: So my background has always been in the food business. My parents owned Chinese restaurants throughout my childhood. I had a very stereotypical upbringing, and it was during a time when having good food was enough to bring customers through the doors. And my mother—who works the front of the house—had this incredible knack for connecting with her customers to the point that she knew her customers’ pets’ names, what their kids’ sports interests were. And she just had this way of bringing people to her.

And I thought, gosh, in this modern day, there’s so much competition in the food industry. Having good food is no longer enough to bring people to you. It’s like, what’s that secret sauce? And when I think about my parents and their story, they are the quintessential immigrant story. I felt like there is this need for us as humans to connect on a human level with others. And we want to know what’s going on behind those doors of the kitchen.

And so I figured if I could bring to life these stories, those that are very similar to my own parents, and show those and broadcast those, then a burger from this restaurant is no longer just a burger. Right? You know that it supports this artisan rancher that is funding X, Y, Z children to go to college as a first-generation born here in the U S., the land of opportunity, right? So it’s these stories that I feel like people want to hear. And once you hear them, you can’t help but sing those stories far and wide. So with these boxes, it was the same thing. We’re introducing people, locals to food brands in their own backyard that they hadn’t even heard of before and now had a chance in the spotlight to have their story heard. That was what it was all about. And just gosh, to know that we helped keep businesses afloat and gave them a chance, a fighting chance to come back in 2021—that just that’s it. That’s the whole point.

EMILY: As a business that worked to spotlight and show off other local businesses through tours and experiences pre-pandemic, Angela knew that the contacts and connections she had would all be struggling in the wake of the shutdown.

ANGELA: Basically overnight our entire tourism infrastructure and the food and restaurant business collapsed. So we quickly scrambled to come up with a way to save jobs as well as support our food community that we’ve become ambassadors of for the past 14 years.We figured, if we can’t bring people to these restaurants anymore, why don’t we try to bring the food directly to them? And so that’s how the idea of our curated local food boxes came to be.

Our routes for our tourists have always been grounded in Pike Place Market, which is the heart and soul of Seattle’s food scene. And we thought, wow, who could imagine a place like Seattle without Pike Place Market? So we thought,, this is how it’s going to start. We’re going to bring Pike Place Market to the people.

EMILY: Angela and her team didn’t waste any time. They threw things together and put it out in the world to gauge people’s interest.

ANGELA: We took to social media on an experiment. I literally slapped together a one-page flyer promoting that we were going to do 48 boxes for delivery on March 22 as a test. And I went to our vendors that we work with in Pike Place on our food tours, and I pitched them this crazy idea, and I started a GoFundMe campaign so that we could buy the inventory we needed for those first few orders.

And let me tell you, people just came out in droves to really support, not just us as this underdog story, but truly it was a way I think to show the broader community that, you know, “I care about Seattle.” I care about small business. Buying a box served two purposes. One, it was almost like a badge of honor, right? Like I support local! I’m going to take lots of pictures and show people on social media, while I’m stuck at home, all this great bounty I’m getting from all local businesses.

But then also, it served a functional need. People were scared to go outside and do basic shopping. And so instead, I think we were the first to completely “pivot” into this business model. And from March 22 onwards, it was on. Box life took on a life of its own, and come Mother’s Day weekend, we were doing local delivery as well as expanding into nationwide shipping. We were pumping out 1,200 boxes a week. It was nuts. So from 48 boxes in beta week to over 1,200 boxes by Mother’s Day weekend, that was the growth that we were on.

EMILY: Angela’s box experiment served a functional need that SO many consumers were searching for. A way to support local and stay safe.

VY: We’ve seen a lot of businesses unfortunately close down because they are hurting a lot during the pandemic. So to be able to support local businesses by getting these boxes, even though they’re closed, we can’t shop for them ourselves. We can get them picked up or delivered to us and that way we can safely support them and keep the doors open for when COVID dies down, and we can go back out, and I can bring my friends and family to the businesses, try out other things. And Pike Place is iconic to Seattle. So we want to keep it there for as long as possible, all the businesses that have been there for such a long time. It’s a great thing.

EMILY: Consumers and customers not only loved what they were getting in the boxes, but they also loved being a part of the movement that was supporting independent owners and operators struggling to survive the pandemic. And in response to the wave of protests against injustice and inequality nationwide, Angela felt a call to do even more with her business.

ANGELA: In June with George Floyd’s passing, it really incited another wave of change for us. I felt very compelled to do something, to take action. And what was it that was going to be unique to Savor? So in 36 hours, we launched the solidarity box, which featured 11 Black-owned businesses. We donated 100% of the proceeds of the first 200 boxes that we sold and $5 of every subsequent box we sold to the Black Lives Matter fund. It was by far the most successful product launch in our entire history of my tour business plus box business combined. It was nuts. We raised over $18,000 for the Black Lives Matter fund.

We quickly figured out that over time that we became the social justice box people. And so when Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed, we had a rise for an equality box that featured all women-owned businesses. Every one of our boxes that we sold last year had a philanthropic component. So by the end of the year, nine months worth of sales, we donated over $100,000 to local nonprofits, and in total, we more than doubled our prior tour business in a new business model that we knew nothing about that we had pivoted to. And it was so rewarding to be able to do so much more than we ever could as a food tour operator. Previously we would work with 40 or so restaurants a year. Last year, I had the opportunity to work with over 150 small food makers.

EMILY: Creating a solidarity box to support Black-owned businesses and raise money for Black Lives Matter, as well as a rise for equality box to support businesses that are women owned. Angela identified that their customers were conscious consumers—people who were actively working to support local but also choosing to spend money with and support businesses or brands that are doing the work to make a difference. By creating the systems to support those groups and then communicating the support, Angela grew her customer base.

This trend toward conscious consumerism isn’t going anywhere. Find a way to engage these customers, but it’s important to be sure that it’s true and authentic to yourself and your business. Then share your philanthropic work and story as a way to create more connections with customers. They’ll likely take pride in supporting the greater mission you’ve set out on as well.

VY: I feel really proud to be supporting this business that’s owned by a woman, Angela, she’s amazing. And for her to be reaching out to the community, supporting other women, other local businesses, Black-owned businesses, it’s really inspiring and helps me to support my neighbors.

EMILY: Creating memorable experiences for your customers is often what also motivates them to review.

VY: I used to be in the restaurant industry. I was a sushi chef for a while. I was a server. And so customer service is really important to me. I wanted to write this particular review because I was impressed with the quality of all the boxes that I got, and I wanted to encourage others, who were in the same situation as me. Too busy to shop. Scared to go to the grocery store maybe but still wanting to support local businesses. They miss Pike Place.

I like to share my experience because I look for others’ experiences before I try out a new place. And it’s more of the quality of the review. I don’t particularly look for thousands of reviews at a 5-star restaurant. It’s more about what people write. Why did they like that place? What was good? Or why didn’t they like that place? That’s the reason why I like to write my reviews—to show people my experience.

EMILY: Angela pays close attention to her reviews. They were an important part of the business pre-pandemic, and they continue to be important and informative.

ANGELA: So reviews were the number one most important part of our customer service experience in the tour business. We have over 1,600 reviews on Yelp with a 5-star average. That is something that we took very seriously because it’s a reflection of the true guest experience.

I have to say these reviews are critical. Every single one. And the constructive ones are really beneficial as well because they show other users that number one, you’re real and legitimate. But how you choose as a business owner to respond to that constructive feedback is also really telling. And it’s a great way to improve, if you’re open to that. It is about listening to your customers, not just accepting the accolades, but being able to take action on what your customers are telling you. Reviews are extremely important and always have been.

EMILY: Reviews are not just accepting the accolades but also being able to take action on what your customers are telling you!

So what does the future look like for Angela and Savor Seattle? I’ll let Angela share her reflections on this journey and some exciting news.

ANGELA: This pivot into these curated food boxes, while tremendously successful and a great idea, I knew that it could be bigger and better and have an even bigger footprint and impact to the community if it was being operated by a company that was set up for that operation long term.

We’re a tour company that was thrust into renting a warehouse. We don’t have our own delivery vehicles. None of that infrastructure was our own. And so we made the decision to sell the box operations to a local company, Homegrown. They have a series of brick-and-mortar gourmet sandwich and salad establishments locally, and they also have a catering business. And they also pivoted into a la carte grocery delivery during COVID. So it was a great marriage of resources, and it was just the right timing. At the beginning of this year, we made that transition, and our team is still doing what we’ve always been doing. Box life continues. The brand lives on. I’m still very much involved. And it’s great because now I get to cheer them on from the sidelines and see where they can take this business.

EMILY: Angela made an informed decision to take her box business to a valued partner who could continue to carry it out and make it better operationally. However her entrepreneurial journey isn’t over. At her core, Angela will always be a serial entrepreneur. And as a longtime, successful female entrepreneur, I wanted to allow her to close out our Women’s History Month episodes with what being a female entrepreneur means to her.

ANGELA: I think being a female entrepreneur means that there are a lot of expectations, and I want to be a shining example for my daughter. For future generations of entrepreneurs and those that are in it right now, struggling, I want to be that beacon of light and hope. And to do things in a way that inspires change and brings out the best in all of us. I take it as a personal challenge being not only a female, but a minority, female-owned business, to do everything that I can to challenge the status quo, to do things in a way that aren’t just about meeting our needs. If we can create a win-win in every situation, then that’s when one plus one equals three.

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