Strategic Procrastination in the Face of the Lockdown

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Audrey Coggins

The 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 Lockdown Economy interview, Julia Skupchenko from Lockdown Economy speaks with Jane Bertch who runs a cooking school in France, La Cuisine Paris. The interview, in July 2020, seeks to find out more about how Jane has fared during the lockdown, any entrepreneurial lessons we can learn and challenges we can identify with.

Watch the video version of the interview.

Can you tell us more about La CuisineParis?

Jane: La Cuisine Paris is based on Paris, in the 4th Arrondissement. We opened nearly 11 years ago. I spent the first part of my career working in financial services in an American bank. I decided that I would try an entrepreneurial endeavour. If you’d asked me 12 years ago if I would have opened a cooking school in Paris, I would have looked at you as if you were absolutely crazy. But like anything in life when you have a small opportunity, you start to explore it. I decided that it would be wonderful to have an experience here in Paris. So much of what we do in any culture is about food. I started to slowly build a business around that. I’m not the first in the market and I certainly won’t be last — food is such a big part of French culture; those visiting the city want to partake in it.

My speciality is French culinary experiences delivered in English for the visiting market.

That sounds very enticing to me right now! I like cooking and I love French cuisine! How was business going prior to the lockdown?

Jane: We were extraordinarily busy and we have for the past 10 years seen positive growth that was wonderful. But still, we kept it very much as a small business. Prior to the pandemic situation, we were on a very healthy trajectory to growth and looking to refine our current products and add on more.

When you say small business, what are your numbers?

Jane: In terms of the team, I have eight chefs that host our classes. In terms of clients, we probably get 8,000–10,000 people annually.

It sounds like a big number, but we want to manage it in a way that everyone has a unique experience. Our classes typically range between 6–10 individuals.

Very specialised cooking classes for small groups of people. Your business is all about tourism and eating out. You’re at the intersection of the industries that have most been affected. What about when the lockdown was announced in Paris?

Jane: It has been challenging. It’s been extraordinarily difficult to have visibility. The one thing that we did that has truly impacted — since tourism is always the first to be impacted and the longest to recover — is our immediate response, not only to the lockdown announcement but back in January 2020 when the news of the virus started breaking about the pandemic. We’d already seen client attrition: naturally, people don’t want to travel when there’s insecurity.

So well into January 2020 [more than 2 months prior to Paris going into lockdown], we were already adjusting business models because we had fewer clients planning to join us. And that’s continued to evolve until we hit 14 March when the shutters were closed for us and a number of small businesses. Yes, we are certainly at an intersection of the troubled industry that’s trying to recover.

The restaurant scene is slowly recovering here in France, but tourism has still a lot of questions. So we’re trying to work our way through that.

Strategic procrastination:

The first thing we did was

Pause… hold… wait… see… listen.

Jane: This is the tough part for any business and this is what I struggled with. There’s always the fear factor when you have major changes facing you and you don’t know what to do with them. The first thing we did which was hard was to just pause and apply strategic procrastination — which is incredibly difficult because you just want to react. I thought, “Let’s just hold and wait and see how things are developing, what clients want.”

We continued down our normal business model of building a community — that’s always what we’ve been doing for 10 years. So we focused on communicating with our clients through our social media. That’s all we did for a long time until we got a sense of how we can engage with our clients and on a virtual basis.

That led to a lot of product development that we’d already considered as a business plan. However, I didn’t want to create a new business purely to respond to this pandemic that I’m hoping will be gone in a year. I want us to create new products that will be evergreen that can complement the current situation that we’re in now and sustain the future.

Product development that is evergreen… that complements our current situation yet able to sustain the future …

That led to a lot of product development that we’d already considered as a business plan. However, I didn’t want to create a new business purely to respond to this pandemic that I’m hoping will be gone in a year. I want us to create new products that will be evergreen that can complement the current situation that we’re in now and sustain the future.

You mentioned that you had a lot of communication with your clients. What was the interaction like? What was the mood you were sensing from them?

Jane: When you have a sense of community, people look to you for answers and that was the difficulty for clients because people wanted to come, but there was so much uncertainty. They were turning to us for answers about when they’d be able to come and how would the business handle it.

I think the best response to say in a situation where you don’t have an answer is to say “We don’t have an answer and we will continue to monitor [the news and developments].” We continued to communicate with them.

We also got a number of clients that said they still wanted to maintain these positive experiences. We’re very much part of their vacation planning. In essence, [the experience at La Cuisine Paris] is very much the souvenir (which in French, means memory and for North Americans, it’s an object). What we’ve always done is to give people souvenirs but it’s just the type that they keep in their mind.

How do we translate that into something we can do now? That led us into more community efforts, sharing recipes… anything we could do to keep clients engaged and dreaming and thinking positive particularly in a time that’s very challenging for lots of people.

You mentioned strategic procrastination. A big part of that was communication with the clients, but the other part of that was interaction with your team. What was that like? How was the team feeling?

Jane: That’s probably been the hardest part of this. When you have a small, wonderful, dedicated team, some of which have worked here for 10 years, you want to be able to give them security and answers. They rely on us for their own personal and professional fulfilment. That was incredibly challenging because we didn’t have a lot of answers to provide them. Luckily, France, as a country, is very supportive to small businesses and entrepreneurs. We tried to information-share and make sure that the team had as much access to information as we did to get us through this tough period.

You mentioned that French and Parisian governments are very supportive of entrepreneurs and small businesses. What about your competition? Did your competitors react, did they try to adjust their business model?

Jane: I’d rather call them a colleague, rather than competition because it’s Paris. There’s enough to go around and I think very highly of the other schools in the market. My colleagues took a rather different approach than what we did. From what I see, they’re doing online, virtual live classes. That’s not a direction we chose to do — open to the public. I think it works really well for them and that seems to be working quite smoothly.

My colleagues and I do communicate, because, again in these uncertain times, even if you do have somebody working in the same market, they’re an incredible resource of information and support. We’ve always been very collaborative when there’s a difficult moment.

It’s really nice that you call them your colleagues rather than competition. It’s a good entrepreneurial spirit. Earlier you talked about the products that you’re working on right now, sharing recipes and trying to recreate the experience for people in some other way. Can you tell us more about the ‘now’, the summer months?

Jane: We took two main approaches. One of which is to try and offer as close of experience that we provide here, but to clients at home. And the other is to see where we can support other small businesses that we’ve always worked with.

Rather than host live virtual classes, we decided to pre-record in a modular-based formula class, as we do here, but that clients can access at home. Once they buy the video, they keep it at their discretion. They can start, pause and go through basically the same class they would do here on site. They still have the same access to us, of course. We want to know how they’re doing, what questions they have, what success they’re having. So that’s going well.

One of the ways we have sought to pro-act with this climate is to support other small businesses with collaborative projects.

The second vein was how can we reach out to our community, because that’s ever so important, particularly in France, the land of small businesses. We’ve got two organisations that we’ve worked with for a long time, one of which happens to be the oldest cooking equipment school in Paris, E Dehillerin. Mr Dehillerin has been with us from day #1. We always send clients to him every day his equipment and he helps us to source equipment for our kitchens. Now, we can’t do that now, but what we can do is to send equipment to clients’ at home. So we worked with Mr Dehillerin to create some bespoke baking packages of equipment that now we ship to clients.

The other thing we thought was with a wine company that we’ve worked with for a number of years. Again, people still want to enjoy French products and wine is something that this partner can help deliver to people. Unfortunately, we can’t send it everywhere; everything has boundaries, but we now have a program where we can send French wines to our clients. These ways allow us to continue to give them a French experience at home.

I really like how inventive you and your team have been in so many ways. You talked about posting cooking and baking kits to your clients. Where are your clients based? How easy has it been to post those things?

Jane: Around 70% of our clients tend to come from North America. So we started small and continue to do so at the moment sending a lot of these baking kits to clients in North America. What we do is manage client information and orders and help put together the packs but our partners do the shipping. So it’s been a really nice collaboration where everybody’s carrying a bit of the weight without overburdening anyone. In the end, the client is benefitting and enjoying these things.

You’ve talked about the three things you’ve been doing since the lockdown: the wine, the kits and the modular, downloadable classes for clients at home. Is there anything else up the pipeline that you can share with us?

Jane: You know, Julia, that’s where we’re going to sit for the next few months. We want to see how things evolve. We had, going into 2020, a whole range of products that we were going to launch — different baking camps — and then the world changed. So we had to react. I do still have hope for those new products in 2021 and they’re really based here on-site in hopes of the normalcy that we enjoyed prior to the situation. So things that we have now will remain in place.

I reiterate we didn’t want to react and create something new for just this period. We thought to create something that was complementary, that clients can enjoy forever.

That’s very good thinking. A lot of businesses have just switched their business models, but it’s nice to stay true to what you do and hold to the main mission.

We wish Jane and La Cuisine all the very best!

Visit Jane at the La Cuisine Paris blog to keep abreast of her events, her offerings and updates.

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.