Teaching a cooking class can be an undertaking, at least in the beginning. But as many satisfied restaurant owners will agree that it comes with its own unique rewards.
“Don’t be too intimidated when you offer a cooking class,” advises Peter Ackerman, senior v.p. of Salvatore’s, with five locations around Boston offering monthly cooking classes for the past two years. “We weren’t experts when we started, and we’re always learning. Just do it and learn from the feedback; you have to practice to get good at it.”
Thomas Marlow, executive chef at Mimosa Grill in Charlotte, NC, adds that you have to have fun with it. “It’s more entertainment than anything else,” he says. “People love the cooking classes and getting to learn more about the chef and the restaurant.” The two-and-a-half-hour demo-style classes, which Mimosa Grill has offered every first Saturday of the month for close to 10 years, cost $40 and normally fill to capacity.
Here are some of the benefits of offering your own cooking classes.
1. Have more contact with customers
One of the best ways to retain your customers is through consistent and positive interaction. A cooking class allows guests to develop a relationship with the restaurant through your chef, and you’re able to keep in touch with them more often.
“Our cooking class menu for the next year is released each December,” says Marlow. “We also have pamphlets in the restaurant and blurbs on the menus. We send out email blasts with menus and wine pairings and regularly update everyone via Twitter, Facebook and our website.”
2. Stand out from the herd
How many restaurants in your area are currently offering cooking classes? Probably few to none. So imagine the creative classes you could put together. At Mimosa Grill, they’ve filled the dining room with classes about live wood cooking; breakfast in the South; and how to cook with pumpkins and gourds.
At Salvatore’s, classes range from how to make mozzarella, pasta or risotto to how to mix your favorite cocktail. “Whether for restaurant guests or companies, we personalize classes to be longer or shorter, more structured or more relaxed,” says Ackerman.
3. Your chef gets more involved
Chefs are in the kitchen all day long. Holding cooking classes allows them to meet and mingle with the people they cook for on a daily basis.
“Our chefs love to play with their craft and share what they do,” says Ackerman. “In the beginning it was hard to get people out of the kitchen, but over the years we were able to invest in more chefs and marketing. A lot of people are intimidated by doing things differently, but if we don’t continue to evolve and innovate, we will be passed by.”
4. Test your recipes
Cooking classes are the ideal setting for testing out new menu items before they’re considered for the menu. Where else can you gather honest feedback from actual customers?
“The people who come to our cooking classes are interested in trends, so we test out new ingredients and recipes during the class,” says Marlow. “We can show different cuts and preparations that guests haven’t seen in the restaurant before and see the reaction; we even served head cheese once!”
5. Grow your fan base
In addition to making them adore you and want to return, handing out prizes at the end of a cooking class also inspires guests to spread the word about future classes and your restaurant.
“We distribute gift bags containing items directly related to the class along with an offer to come back and have an appetizer on us,” says Ackerman.
“At the end of class I take a wood crate and box up all of the fresh vegetables, olive oil, vinegar and other ingredients that weren’t used in class and give them away,” says Marlow. “We also have gift certificate and wine giveaways.”
6. Reach local businesses
Outside of your normal clientele, think about how you can target local businesses that are searching for something different for their teams. “We offer private cooking classes for business clientele,” says Marlow. “It’s great for team building.”
Salvatore’s regularly hosts cooking classes for companies both on site and off, and makes it a point to promote this offering in its marketing. “While we will take the class to the company’s office, we encourage people to come to us because it gets them out of their environment,” says Ackerman.
7. Share your recipes
While some chefs shy away from sharing recipes with guests, others encourage it. “If anyone asks me for a recipe, I give it to them,” says Marlow. “I love for them to try my recipe and tell their friends where they got it. In class, I teach that my recipes are just a reference point and they can add their own spin to it.”
“I don’t think there are any secret recipes,” says Ackerman. “There are so many new and innovative things going on. Our culinary world only expands because we share.”