Fine dining doesn’t require fine restaurants. As the recession has hit incomes, so more people have turned to home cooking and the Chef Shop has benefited as a result.
Vincent McKenna, himself an experienced chef, opened his first Chef Shop in Belfast 12 years ago, selling high quality cooking equipment. And his business has steadily expanded ever since, particularly during the recession as people have shown a greater interest in transferring their experience of good foods from their favourite restaurants into their own kitchens.
Initially the Chef Shop focused on supplying cookwear to top hotels and restaurants – the Hastings Hotels group is one of the customers. But over the years the customer base has shifted onto the domestic market, as fine diners have turned themselves into good home cooks.
“There was an opening, a market gap,” recalls Vincent. “I started selling to the trade, sourcing from abroad, in the early days of the internet.”
As a chef, Vincent had found equipment in other countries that he regarded as cheaper and better than that available on the home market. He realised that what had attracted him to this equipment, would also be atttractive to others.
In recent months, the business has received a very helpful boost from its sideline in its Cookstop Cooking Classes – in which local master chefs come in and serve three course meals, with wine or coffee, plus lessons in cooking to a lucky group of 30 customers. Those attending are given the recipe to reproduce the meal at home. At only £15 a head, not surprisingly the classes are booked out weeks in advance.
Those who attend the classes are also given vouchers for money-off purchases in the Chef Shop, which builds the retail operation. The classes act as a very effective tool for building customer loyalty.
The cooking classes are designed to cover their costs rather than generate a profit, but the benefits for the business are substantial. Organising them is a challenge, though, especially given the expansion that the business is undergoing.
As well as the main retail operation in Bruce Street in Belfast, there is a second Chef Shop in Newry and a further shop opened last week [14 Feb], also in Bruce Street. The new store sells embroidered items, exploiting the experience of the Chef Shop in selling embroidered uniforms to hotels and restaurants – but the new shop is mostly stocked with Belfast-branded giftwear and clothing.
Most impressive of all is the fact that the Chef Shop has achieved its continuing growth not only despite the recession, but also without advertising. McKenna says word of mouth has proven sufficient both to build the business and to fill the cook classes. If the product is good enough and the demand is there, sometimes that is all that is needed.