Lockdown Economy France in a Cooking School with Jane Bertch. Follow-up
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Tapasya Das
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview, we meet Jane Bertch, the founder of La Cuisine Paris, a cooking school in Paris. In her follow-up interview with the Lockdown Economy, Jane described how she and her team developed new ideas and products that could be delivered to the customer’s doorstep as their response to the measures. In order to that, they focused on working within their community, including other small businesses and building partnerships to support each other through this time. Considering the ups and downs of the pandemic, such a network can provide some much-needed stability and continuity. Likewise, Jane points to the importance of social media to stay in touch with customers, what they want and need, and get their feedback on the newly developed products and services.
Thank you for being here Jane. This is your second interview with Lockdown Economy. How has the Pandemic affected your business since we last spoke?
Jane: This is a really interesting question because I almost feel like I’m in a time warp when I start thinking about what has changed in the past year. Surprisingly, it is coming up to a year. My business being culinary tourism, not a lot, has changed. We are pretty much in the same situation that we were in, a year ago. We are still learning every day and we are still trying to figure out how to manage through this. The biggest challenge is the fact that we don’t have any visibility on how long this will last.
So there is a lot of uncertainty and that is especially surrounding the industry of tourism, which is probably one of the most severely hit industries. You had mentioned in your last interview that you decided not to change your business model too much. Could you maybe elaborate a bit on that? How have you been managing the prices?
Jane: Sure! Some of the things have changed of course. We have gone much more into the digital world than I had intended to. I did that with trepidation because so much of what we do is about proximity to the guests that you have. It’s mainly because we share culture. Trying to translate that through a zoom call is quite difficult. So I think we have gotten better at managing that. If I look at the core values of our business, I see that it is around closeness to our clients and sharing. So we continue to build on to that and we still operate the same way that we have been. We love building a community and sharing. We are only positioned to do that virtually right now.
So what are these digital/complimentary services that you are offering right now?
Jane: I think at that time when I spoke, we were really just putting our toe in the market of what we are going to do. We launched some cooking videos. I did that as a foray before doing anything live. They were well received but they did not tick the box of closeness that clients wanted. Even though they could certainly see the same team on the videos, it was just a feeling that they were here with us in Paris and they were just talking with us. It didn’t feel real. So we ended up supplementing that with live Zoom classes. We did that very carefully. It took us a while to get there because I wanted to make sure that the tone was right. When you are introducing something that looks like a similar product but it isn’t, it requires a lot more work and attention. You want to create that sense of community with a computer screen. So that has been a challenge. On the side, we continue to build in our community with our people and the other small businesses. We have developed a number of partnerships. We continue to expand those and look for new ones every week.
That is great! I guess that is really important and having that community is a big support. What are some of the partnerships that you are referring to? Do they also help you with your complimentary offer?
Jane: So some of the partnerships that we have done recently were built on an older partnership we had with a cooking equipment store, E.Dehillerin. We sent packages of equipment to people in their homes. We built a partnership with Paris Wine Company. We send wines to our clients sometimes. Outside of that, we have started to look at ways we can expand the offer of things we can send to people in their homes, while they are waiting to travel to France. We try to give them that feeling that they are here. We are also looking for other small businesses to partner with so that we can create our care packages. Clients get those nice things, they open those and they feel like they have got a little bit of France at home with them.
That’s really nice. Especially now that a lot of people or a lot of us are craving to be in Paris rather than being stuck in their homes. So what has been the response of the clients? Are you communicating with your clients, to see if you are catering to their needs?
Jane: Absolutely! We do that very actively. Thank goodness we have got social media for that. Social media is a business communication tool and we try to use that regularly, to talk about what we are doing to solicit ideas. I always say that we get the best ideas from our clients. So I will put something out there and wait to see how they respond to it. Certainly, things are in peaks and troughs, more so than ever. There is excitement and then there is fatigue and we continue to see that over and over again. We are just trying to make sure that we have created a product or a network that really holds steady through those ups and downs we have. It is almost a normal life cycle. We lived without visibility in the middle of a pandemic for one year and there is no rulebook for that. We are all trying to find our way.
So yes, you are trying to respond to all that uncertainty, these ups and downs by being in steady contact. It’s not only the customers of course, that are experiencing this uncertainty. It’s you and your team as well. How is your team responding to or handling the crisis?
Jane: They are handling it much better than in the beginning. I think we all have resolved that we have to just get through it somehow. Even though we are in constant contact, some of the team members are working elsewhere at the moment. They are trying to hopefully pull in a bit more income for themselves. We do have team members that are here regularly, doing Zoom classes, and are supplementing that. In this industry, which can be rather transient, we have had a really stable well-connected team. So we have been in a position where we are not seeing them all regularly or we are not able to provide the right number of classes and customer interactions. That has been tough. But we know that this is just the way it has to be right now and we will hold steady until things come back.
To just pull together as a team for the moment and to make the most of the situation, seems like the right approach for now. You did mention that it was tougher in the beginning. Now there has been a period of getting accustomed to the situation. What would you highlight as some of your biggest learnings that you have acquired while managing this crisis?
Jane: I thank Brené Brown for this. I think accepting that one is vulnerable is my biggest learning. When you are a business manager, you realize that every decision you take is well outside of you and it impacts the team that works for you. So being comfortable early on, when people are looking for answers and to tell them that you are looking for answers too, matters. You must tell them that you don’t have them all. But they should be assured that as soon as you do get answers, you will share them. You will help them find the best way to move forward. So that has been a very big learning curve. Pain is easier tolerated when you know how long it’s going to last. It’s like if you go to the doctor for a shot, you know it’s that split where you are worried and then it’s done. This has been sitting in the doctor’s chair for a year, waiting for that needle to approach. So it’s that anxiety and you are not sure for exactly how long it will go on. So that has been tough.
I can imagine. Yes, that has been a very vivid metaphor. We are sure that a lot of people can relate to that.
Jane: I think I could have chosen something a bit more elegant but I am sure, it gets the message across.
Definitely! So going back a bit to that, uncertainty and the period of not knowing when the shot would come, what is your position and outlook for the next couple of months?
Jane: So there is one thing I have learned. I’ve become very careful about forecasting. This time, last year, my forecast was that we would have a tough summer but things would be back by the fall. Then, as that started to trickle on, I kept on readjusting. So I don’t know if I have got a good answer for the next months, except for the fact that they will continue to be uncertain. We just have to rely on the information we get from the government and so much is outside of our control. I can’t really give a good answer for that. So I do know that I just have to remain focussed and steady on our current plan until I really do see a change. I would also try not to drift out of hope, but to drift in because this is really actionable if we move forward on this.
Yes, that makes sense and I totally understand. So your current plan is to extend these complimentary offers that you have at the moment and to continue to engage your community?
Jane: Absolutely! We are continuously offering Zoom classes which I find wonderful. It is a great tool that we can use now and in the future because there are always people who come to Paris and are unable to travel. So the next year they want to connect. Now we have a fabulous tool that allows us to do so. I hadn’t intended this to be the entire business plan but that’s what we have for the moment. So until I can sense that we can pull back from that and go to on-site classes. Then I am going to go full force into that and make sure that we do it the best way we can.
That sounds good. As you said, there are probably many entrepreneurs out there right now who are trying to move forward with this hybrid model to a certain degree. I do remember from your first interview that you had to put some of your plans related to future products or service lines on hold. What is the status of that at the moment? Are you planning and adapting those to the circumstances as well?
Jane: That is a very good question Karen because in any sort of business you must look at ways to refresh yourself every year. You can find ways to change your offering because we ourselves have repeat clients. So every year I am forced with, what can we do new. A lot of what we are going to do now is going to require the same model that we had before. Having said that, I can really use this time which is really precious, to solicit people, see what they would like to do. I have plenty of time to craft really unique experiences and products. So rather than saying okay “We are on the back burner! I won’t look at them again.”, I can look at them. I have time now to really engage my audience to see if they would like to go to Bordeaux or if they would like to have this type of experience when they would be able to get here. So I think it’s quite important to keep that momentum.
So basically you are trying to make most of the situation right now by taking that step back and reflecting on things that can be done to improve the situation or to continue the situation as it is. To round off the interview, could you perhaps name three things that you could use help within the next couple of months?
Jane: I think these haven’t changed because of the pandemic. They have just got exacerbated. When I think about the feelings and the fears I have now, even though it’s very much related to the pandemic, it’s the same experience I had when I started. And this is the same experience every business has. Can I make it? Will I survive? How can I get clients? So those haven’t changed. Now they are just in a different dimension. So I would say three things which are always important for any business. The first one is visibility. We would like to have visibility on how we can work, but in the absence of that, you want to be visible. It is a particularly important time for small businesses to get visibility. They get that through clients and by sharing their information or people passing on their contacts. So that’s always important and so I will say that is number one. I, myself, and all businesses could use that I’m sure.
Number two is network. Being an entrepreneur can be incredibly lonely. You feel that you have the weight of every decision on your back. Having a community of peers around, to share and discuss that with, is quite important. We are all exhausted and in an absence of time and information. We don’t have all of those things. But we do have a little of each. So if we take the time to share the information we have, we can create a much richer experience for all the entrepreneurs. That’s why I love what you guys are doing because that’s what it is. It doesn’t take much time for me to sit and share my story nor for me to hear somebody else’s. Hopefully, in turn, we all will learn a lot.
The third thing is something I need individually and not just as a business. I continue to remind myself that I must keep my well-fulness. It’s exhausting to get up every day, trying to think about how we are going to do things. This drains you physically and emotionally. I have to stop every week and think. What do I need to feed myself? What do I need to keep me full of energy, to keep me thinking, and to keep me hopeful? So to constantly think about the place from which I seek that energy. I even wonder if I take my very precious time to refuel myself.
Thank you so much for that and I hope that we, as Lockdown Economy can do our small part in helping entrepreneurs increase their visibility and their networks. So thank you very much, Jane, for sharing your insights with us today. Do you have any last words for our viewers?
Jane: My last words would be, “Let’s not have this conversation again in one year from today!”. I will be very happy to see you. But let’s be talking about how we all, in the entrepreneur community, were able to come out of this and could accelerate ourselves because of the learning we did now.
About the Guest
Jane Bertch is the founder of La Cuisine Paris, a native Chicagoan having lived in Europe for more than 20 years. La Cuisine Paris is a French cooking school that offers a variety of cooking classes in English — from croissants and macarons to cheese workshops, market runs, and more. La Cuisine’s small, but dedicated international team all work with a common value: the desire to share their “savoir-faire” and passion with food-loving Francophiles. The small, hands-on classes are given in a deliberately homey atmosphere so that students can replicate the dishes they learn at home. You can join La Cuisine Paris in the center of Paris overlooking the Seine, or now, online.