November 21, 2017

Do I Need Professional Culinary Experience Before Beginning My Food Business? (PODCAST)

In this short podcast, we try to get to the bottom of a question that comes up more often than not as people consider starting a food business.


Today I want to address a question I get asked frequently when I’m talking to budding food entrepreneurs and those who are dreaming about one day starting a food business. It seems as though a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds is do I need to have professional experience before starting a food business?

The short answer is no, you don’t. Plenty of people in this industry – from food truck operators to restaurateurs to those who produce packaged products that they sell wholesale – have found success without a culinary background behind them.

That being said, I’m going to add a caveat to that. Before I started culinary school, I had no culinary experience beyond cooking and baking in my own kitchen. Culinary school helped me fine-tune my skills and gave me a level of confidence that I didn’t have prior to that about what I was capable of in the kitchen. Specifically when it comes to pastries, the science behind pastries can be so exacting that I felt it was important I focus and learn it in school.

This isn’t to say that you need to follow the same track. I was 21 when I went to culinary school so it’s not like I had years of even home cooking experience under my belt! If you feel confident in your culinary skills then I would argue that spending the money on culinary school is not necessarily the best bet. Especially now with the number of online and in-person cooking classes – if you feel like there’s one or two things you want to brush up on you can probably do it at a much lower cost than a full-on commitment to culinary school.

The question about whether or not you need to spend some time working in the industry though – regardless of whether or not you go to culinary school – is a different one altogether. Unless you’re planning to start a home-based food business or other small farmers’ market business, I don’t think you necessarily need to spend time working for someone else. But if you’re shooting for something a little bigger – like a food truck, café, or restaurant – I personally think some of the best time you can spend preparing for your new business venture is by working for a similar food business. If you’ve listened to these podcasts before, you may remember our conversation with Natascha of The Ginger Pig food truck in Boulder, Colorado. She talked at length about the benefits she derived in working for a restaurant before she opened up her food truck. It’s worth noting that she worked for that restaurant for free because she felt that experience would be so critical to the success of her business. I tend to agree with her – and by the way, in case you missed that podcast I’ll post a link to it in the transcript for today’s podcast.

Learning how to cook or bake is something that many can fine-tune – but learning how to handle the production and operations side of working in a fast-paced kitchen where you have customers literally waiting outside your door is another thing altogether. What you learn working for another company – both the good and the bad – can go a long way in helping you determine what you want to do in your business.

As way of another example – someone I know opened up a cupcake store several years ago at the height of the cupcake boom. At that time, she didn’t come from a culinary background though she did know how to make darn-good cupcakes! However, the first several months after her store opened was a disaster. Not having worked in a bakery before, she wasn’t familiar with the idea of pars which, if you don’t know, is basically the idea of forecasting how much product you need to make on any given day based on prior sales records. For a product like cupcakes, which needs to be sold that day or it’s going to be thrown away, pars are incredibly important in helping keep your business financially solvent. It wasn’t until this entrepreneur hired a kitchen manager who did have bakery experience that they were able to turn around the company. In hindsight, had she worked for a bakery prior to opening the store, that’s an expensive mistake she could have avoided.

I should note that this store is still up and going and is doing really well. Which once again is testament to the fact that you certainly don’t need to have culinary experience in order to run a successful food business. However, like in any entrepreneurial endeavor, you need to have a clear understanding of your strengths and weaknesses – and be honest with yourself about that. Then you can look to hire employees who fill, in this case, your void in culinary experience or you can opt to surround yourself with mentors who understand the food industry whom you can bounce questions off of.

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