Add cooking classes to your repertoire

15 January, 2019 by
Annabelle Cloros

Restaurants are fast adding cooking classes to their repertoire, opening up a new revenue stream and fostering community spirit in the process.

Venues hold a special place in society, not just as hubs to eat and drink, but places where consumers can further their understanding on a particular technique or cuisine. Venues are starting to see the value in holding dedicated cooking classes that reflect their offering, whether it’s pasta-making, pickling or utilising local and sustainable produce.

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Hospitality speaks to Cornersmith’s Alex Elliott-Howery and Wasabi’s Danielle Gjestland about why they decided to tackle the education route, what it really takes to run successful classes and whether they can be a financially beneficial addition for operators.

Alex Elliott-Howery is behind two of Sydney’s most-loved cafés, Cornersmith in Marrickville and its vegetarian sibling in Annandale. After cheese-maker Kristen Allan taught some night classes at the Marrickville site, they decided to launch their own offering.

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“Education has been a big part of what we do, and I had it in the back of my head that it would be something we would expand on further,” says Elliott-Howery. “We ran a couple of pickling classes in the café, but quickly realised it’s not easy to use your space for something it hasn’t been set up for.”

The team went on to open the picklery, located just around the corner from the Marrickville café, which is where the team host classes and make pickles for their cafés, too.

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Like Elliott-Howery, starting an educational arm of the business was always in the back of restaurateur Danielle Gjestland’s mind. “We hosted a few classes here and there at Wasabi, but it always struck us as odd that Noosa didn’t have a dedicated cooking school of its own,” she says. “With such an abundance of great produce and a reputation for great food in the region, we saw the concept of The Cooking School Noosa as something the town needed.”

Although launching cooking classes may appear to be a natural progression for a business, they’re not something operators should jump into. Running a successful program requires a significant amount of investment — both time- and staff-wise.

Wasabi chefs run most of the classes at The Cooking School Noosa, and are responsible for prepping all the ingredients and hosting. “Most of the chefs at the school work at Wasabi with the exception of guest chefs we host from other restaurants, either out of state or in Queensland,” says Gjestland. “We also have a team member who works as the school coordinator, so she sets up for the classes and is the chef’s assistant and all-rounder throughout the day.”

Cornersmith has built up a solid reputation as a go-to for practical classes, which range from pickling to sourdough-making, but the team has spent an immense amount of time fine-tuning their offering. “The only way you can make it work is to dedicate time to it, just like you would any other part of your business,” says Elliott-Howery. “At the beginning we were like, ‘We’ll just run classes on the side’, but there’s so much work that goes into making it a smooth operation.”

Cornersmith also have a dedicated coordinator and employees who are responsible for bookings, prep work and marketing. “It’s an octopus arm of our business that has its own operation,” says Elliott-Howery. “Our school has grown which has been amazing, but we’ve put in a lot of effort so it’s the same standard as the rest of our business.”

The team has created a template which ensures the smooth-running of classes, with the format suiting multiple topics. “We have a really strong structure in terms of how we run classes and what our students expect,” says Elliott-Howery. “In some ways, it’s easy now, because we know exactly what we’re offering and we slot different topics into the same structure. Our ethos is about cooking from scratch, seasonality, traditional skills and reducing waste, so we spread that message throughout whatever we’re teaching.”

Setting a price for a class can be a sticky point for operators, and it’s difficult to gauge what customers perceive as value for money. For some, it’s one-on-one time with an instructor, and for others, it can be the takeaways they get at the end of the day.

But produce isn’t cheap, and neither is the equipment operators have to splash out on. The Cooking School Noosa uses the same ingredients you can find at Wasabi, which means the quality is top-notch. “We are definitely aimed at providing a luxury experience and the price point reflects that,” says Gjestland. “We want people to walk away thinking, ‘Wow, I just had the most beautiful meal and now I actually know how to cook it at home’.”

When setting class prices, Gjestland says one of the main considerations was that people felt taken care of during their time at the school. Food, drink and refreshments are included in the price of the classes, which combine a dining experience with hands-on cooking. “We wanted people to feel pampered during the whole process, from the bespoke tea on arrival and class size of 10 guests to the restaurant-style service with matching wines for each course. We have built [the inclusions] into the price to make it viable, but it will be a while before the school can stand on its own feet and be financially separate from the restaurant.”

Cornersmith set pricing according to topic, with a tempeh-making class starting at $50, and a pickling intensive class costing $200. “I don’t think customers have any idea about how much work goes into putting on a class,” says Elliott-Howery. “We look for a price range that works for us, but one that isn’t out of reach for customers. We’re lucky our classes fill, so I think we’re speaking to the right audience. It’s taken a while, but the school is starting to have a life of its own as a viable business within Cornersmith.”

Sourcing equipment for classes can also be a major cost for operators, no matter how big or small the class is. “We had to buy so much more of everything,” says Elliott-Howery. “There’s a lot of replacement because things are getting used so much and they need to be in good nick. It’s taken us a good three years to feel like we’re fully stocked with everything we need.”

Running cooking classes can be an incredibly rewarding experience for venues that can champion their cause, boost bottom line and educate consumers. Start small and experiment with different class formats and topics to determine what works best for your business.

This article originally appeared in Hospitality‘s November issue. Subscribe here.