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The Desert Sun
June 19, 2006 by Ferdie De Vega

Growing your business,
Chef takes cooking to a higher level Hands-on approach drives Thomas

Nearly three years after starting Thomas Culinary Services, owner Tony Thomas has expanded his Palm Springs-based business. Thomas, a personal chef, began with personal cooking services, but soon added in-home cooking classes and dinner-party preparation. Last summer, he started offering four-hour, hands-on cooking classes on most Saturdays in Palm Springs at the Mizell Senior Center, where he rents the kitchen facility. Each class, which costs $75 per person, is limited to six to eight people.

"My training is in fine dining," said Thomas, a certified culinarian with American Culinary Federation. He's also a member of the United States Personal Chef Association, which showed him how to put a business model together, he said. "I've been in food service for 22 years. Fifteen years of that, I was in sales for a number of food service companies," Thomas said. The companies would design food products and place them into the distribution networks of restaurants like TGIFriday's and Red Lobster.

But he said he fantasized about having his own bistro. So he enrolled in the Art Institute of Atlanta's culinary program. Thomas said he later realized that he didn't want to own an eatery. "I just enjoyed the theater of the restaurant." He had a similar business in Atlanta, but decided to relocate to Palm Springs in the summer of 2003 for health reasons. He has suffered from arthritis since age 19, he said. "My doctors all recommended I move somewhere that was dry."

Thomas said in Atlanta, he primarily cooked for two-income families, while in the desert, he has cooked for many single people and several people with food issues. He said with his business, he is constantly asking himself and his clients how he can do a better job. The Small Business Administration's Web site offers the following advice about customer service for small-business owners: "To succeed, you must give your customers what they want, not what you think they want. And as you never know who might eventually become a customer, that means providing courteous, friendly service to your suppliers and others with whom you come in contact, as well as current customers."

Thomas recently discussed the growth of his business.

The Growth

Question: How much have your sales/revenues grown in the past year?>
Answer: I actually had a 60 percent increase over what I was doing over the first few years. Last year was my best year to date. I had over $50,000 in sales. This year, I'm projecting $65,000.
Q: To what do you attribute the growth?
A: I attribute it to expanding my cooking classes. Also, I find I have to devote a lot of time to the networking and marketing functions.
Q: What practical lessons can another business learn from your experience?
A: Make sure that you continue the marketing efforts. It's that constant feeding of that. Networking with people, going to business functions. The people at Kitchen Kitchen have also sent me a lot of referrals because they have people who come in asking about cooking classes. ... The Kitchen Kitchen connection was good. Try to find things that are complementary businesses that you can associate with. Find something that you love to do and focus on doing the best you can do. I always ask for referrals from my clients, and I ask what could I do better.
Q: What have your biggest mistakes been?
A: My biggest mistakes have been when I've been very busy. ... And you stop doing those marketing functions.

The market

Q: How big is the market?
A: I really believe the market out here is unlimited. A lot of people come out here on vacation and rent these vacation (properties and request his cooking classes). ... I really think the potential is unlimited because we are a resort area. I think the market for the chef services, where I come into your home and cook your food, is limited. It's limited to year-round residents. I believe the dinner party market is limited, too.
Q: Who are your competitors?
A: Caterers in the valley would be competition for my dinner party clients. With the chef services, there really isn't a lot of competition. ... Quite frankly, I don't know anyone who's doing cooking classes. You probably have to consider upscale restaurants as competition for the dinner party kind of thing.
Q: How will your business be different a year from now?
A: I'm hoping within a year from now to have a physical facility to do my cooking classes in - a commercial kitchen. And I hope to update my Web site.

Finances

Q: Who handles the accounting?
A: I do. I take care of all the day-to-day business transactions. I have an accountant who handles my taxes.
Q: How do you track expenses?
A: I track expenses on a weekly basis.

Customer service

Q: How do you focus on customer service?
A: I constantly am asking, "How can I do a better job?"
Q: How do you measure customer service?
A: I ask for referrals. I focus on getting customer feedback. A lot of my business comes from customer referrals.

Marketing

Q: How do you market your business?
A: I'm currently running an ad in the Desert Post Weekly that talks about all of my services. My Web site has been helpful and one-to-one networking with other businesses. I wear my chef's uniform when I do grocery shopping, and I have a sign on my truck. I send out press releases on a quarterly basis. ... And I follow up with a phone call.
Q: How much do you spend on marketing?
A: The only thing that's consistently concurrent is my ad in the Desert Post Weekly. That's $50 a week. I've had that for six weeks now.

Seasonality

Q: How do you cope with the seasonality of the market?
A: I have found that I have to try to be as busy as I can be when the season is at full tilt. ... I found there are ups and downs, and I try to take as much business when it's up. ... May was a very slow month for me. I can pretty much keep the cooking classes full if I get the message out.
Q: How much of your business comes during the season?
A: At least 75 percent.
Q: Best Advise?
A: Find something that you love to do, and put your heart into it. And do the best you can.

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