A newspaper profile of a children's culinary business
|Cooking Up A Clientele
Westerly - Every business owner knows the wisdom of staying nimble, of changing to meet the demands of the consumer. For Johanna "Chef Jo" Lockhart, owner of Kidz 'n the Kitchen, varying her business model has become her mantra.
"As an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to reinvent," she said. "We really custom create our programs to the needs of the community."
Two years ago, Lockhart operated her business out of her car, offering entertaining cooking and nutrition classes for children in rented and community spaces. Last September she opened a brightly-colored 1400 square foot school in a Westerly shopping center. She held her classes there, and began offering cooking-instruction birthday parties too. One year later, Lockhart has maintained her focus on creating a fun environment for learning about food, but she has expanded on the ways she does it.
Some of the additions to her programs were planned, such as the parties.
"We thought birthday parties would be good. And they are, but what we've learned is that we need to have more offerings," she explained.
The cooking-class parties were more money than some parents wanted to spend, so she created a pizza option, where participants roll their own dough and parents pay $5 less per child.
Other additions were a surprise, even to her. On a whim, she took a group of local children on a tour of the Food Network kitchens in New York City. On another trip to the Big Apple, she took a bus full of little girls and their dolls to have tea at American Girl Place. Both trips were a success.
"The culinary tourism was not part of the original plan. It just happened," she said. "We're trying to build things like this for the community that the schools don't do."
Lockhart also began offering classes for adults. Local chefs give demonstrations and lessons on a variety of topics and cuisines, and she has begun offering pre-theater dining before select shows at Westerly's Granite Theatre.
Some of her new offerings were suggested by customers, whom she calls "guests." She said she takes ideas from clients seriously, right down to what they think of the toilet paper. At the behest of a diabetic client, she recently offered a class led by a certified diabetes educator where participants created a gourmet meal and learned other epicurean tips for diabetes-healthy eating.
As part of her marketing efforts, she has been approaching the local schools to see where her programs can fit into their curriculum. After speaking with a high school Spanish teacher and learning that field trips consisted of a trip to Margaritas restaurant in Mystic to read the menu, the multi-lingual Lockhart offered an alternative -- a hands-on lesson about the foods indigenous to the region of Mexico the class was studying, taught entirely in Spanish, for the same $15 the students were spending at the restaurant. The teacher jumped at the chance.
"The deal was they had to speak Spanish," said Lockhart of the students who participated. "It was so much fun."
Her next marketing goal is to find her niche in the home-school community. Home-school groups, she explained, could come for classes during the school day when other students are in school.
"We're really aggressively developing a home-school component to this," she said. "We're getting ready to launch that."
The launch will begin on October 22, when she will host an open house for home-schooled families to find out what types of programs would fit into their curricula.
Lockhart has one employee to help her with her myriad of programs, Stephanie Castaldi, whom Lockhart calls "my right arm, my left arm, my everything." It's a great relief, Lockhart said, to know that Castaldi could uphold the business should Lockhart get hit by a bus, or, say, go to Paris and decide not to return.
"We laugh together; we cry together; we sing while we're doing the dishes," Lockhart said.
Singing is how she and Castaldi met - they were singing in the same cabaret - and it has led to another marketing venture. Lockhart will sometimes sing with her young students, but was getting sick of the repetition.
"I couldn't sing 'Itsy Bitsy Spider' one more time," Lockhart noted.
So Lockhart and Castaldi decided to sing their own songs.
"We have written six songs for a CD," Lockhart said, including "The Scrub Club Song," which explains the importance of washing your hands before eating or cooking, and "Hara Hachi Bu," which Castaldi said is Japanese for "I'm 80 percent full" and is a song about not overeating.
Should the CD come to fruition, Lockhart can sell it in the small retail section of her shop. She is already selling high-quality cooking tools designed to fit small hands, children's cookbooks she has personally approved, and embroidered aprons, among other culinary items.
Lockhart comes by her marketing acumen from years of experience, specifically, 25 years as an international marketing consultant. The idea for her second career came to her in 1999 while 45,000 feet in the air en route from Hong Kong to San Francisco. On an airline cocktail napkin she scribbled her four greatest passions: children, education, food, and performing. Underneath that list, she added Kidz 'n the Kitchen.
She had originally intended for Kidz to be a children's cooking show, produced in San Francisco. But she scrapped that when she received an offer to work for The Paragon, in Westerly.
The concept would have remained just a concept had she not been downsized in 2004. She said she had other job offers, but she liked living in Westerly and didn't want to move. She decided it was time for Kidz 'n the Kitchen to become a reality.
"I feel I am exactly where I'm supposed to be, doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing, creating my legacy," Lockhart said. "This is the recipe for success, still under construction."