A unique selling point in the culinary world.
When the catering industry came to a halt during the COVID lockdown in 2020, Matthew Baker was paralyzed with fear. He had spent nearly two decades overcoming doubts that he could succeed as a deaf business owner and build a thriving catering company in San Diego.
Yet within six months, Baker had carved out a new niche for his business, Feast on This: boxed dinners complete with entrees, salads, side dishes, and desserts. Clients began snapping up the Ready to Feast boxes for virtual events, from picnics to end-of-year celebrations. “All you have to do is reheat,” he says. “We are actually still doing it.”
Surviving the pandemic in the culinary world is just one of many challenges Baker has faced as a deaf business owner and gay man who came out after years of working in the catering business.
“I was quiet as a mouse for years about my identity as a gay man,” Baker says. “I struggled because I have such a broad list of clients, some of whom might have discriminated against me if they knew about my secret. But over time, I’ve learned to be more open with who I am.”
Baker’s journey to build a million-dollar catering company and his work with Edward Simon, inclusion and diversity officer for California American Water (CAW), led the utility company to select him as the guest speaker for its June supplier diversity event. Simon says Baker was chosen for the event to showcase his success during Pride Month, which is in June.
“Catering is not an easy business,” Simon says. “Matthew has weathered the storm on all fronts—as a person with a disability and as a gay business owner. People needed to hear his story.”
Building a Catering Business
After training as a sous chef at the Hilton Hotel in San Jose, Baker decided to launch his own business. Though he originally thought of opening a restaurant, he shifted to catering because he felt it offered more variety.
“Catering keeps me on my toes as we are in a different location every day, from beaches to parking lots to backyards to corporate offices,” he says. “And the types of events we do change daily.”
Starting Feast on This on his own, Baker did most of the work, slowly growing his business through word-of-mouth referrals. When he hired a business coach to help him deal with the challenges of being a deaf business owner, his business started to skyrocket.
In 2021, the company reached $1.6 million in sales. Catered events now average 150 people and holiday parties, corporate picnics, and festivals have attracted up to 4,000.
Over the past five years, Feast on This has worked with CAW, catering its meetings and events. “The quality of catering is impeccable, from the planning process to the execution and setup,” Simon says. “Mathew and his team are consummate professionals.”
Challenges of Being a Deaf Business Owner
Operating a business daily presents many barriers if you are deaf. Simply calling your bank can be difficult if the staff requires a lengthy security check before using a video relay service to communicate, Baker says.
Prospective clients may seem uneasy at the thought of working with a deaf-owned business because they feel that communication will be an obstacle. “When working with a new customer, oftentimes they meet me as a deaf person, and I can tell they are uncomfortable or perhaps think I can’t do the job,” Baker says.
Because communication access is a primary concern, Baker decided to house a startup, Seven Interpreting, in his San Diego office, and pay for interpreting services when working with clients. “It is unfortunate that I have to bear the burden, but my job is hospitality, which means ensuring comfort for my customers and employees,” he says.
Despite the challenges, there is also a positive side of being a deaf business owner. Baker is proud to have many deaf staff members, which he says has created a bilingual environment where hearing employees have learned American Sign Language to communicate with coworkers.
Being a deaf business owner also provides a unique selling point, especially in the culinary industry. “Because of the loss of my hearing sense, I have stronger smell and taste senses that bring our food quality to an amazing level,” Baker says. “I work harder to make up for my loss of hearing to elevate Feast on This to the next level to stand out as a unique caterer.”