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Making Customer Service a Cottage Industry

By Micah Cheek

Linda Kunz-Bayens, Owner of Cooking At The Cottage in Louisville, Kentucky, has made a name for her store by cultivating a kitchen class that is worth traveling for. The shop is best known for its cooking school, which draws students and date-night guests from hours away. “There are some other cooking classes in the area, and just recently we’ve had two new schools open up. Maybe when people are traveling for business, instead of sitting in a restaurant, they’ll seek out the classes that are going on around town,” says Kunz-Bayens. “They’ll learn something and maybe feel less alone or awkward getting dinner alone. It’s something they can feel like they fit right in doing.”

The school offers culinary education on everything from the cuisine of Sardegna to classics from Uzbekistan. Kunz-Bayens brings in local chefs who specialize in these cuisines. “We’re lucky we have a very diverse community. It’s just reaching out to different instructors, chefs, food truck operators, restaurateurs, whether they be big or small, for people to be able to experience the cuisine and decide if it’s something they like and ask some questions,” she says. “This way they can come and try five or six things, hear the backstory of the cuisine, and decide if that’s something they want to pursue making. And you’ve got the instructor there to say, ‘Here’s where you can source Vietnamese fish sauce,’ for instance.”

Fans of Cottage cooking classes come from all different walks of life. Some people save up to make a big trip to the store for classes, and some with more disposable income will make it a weekly event. Some customers will travel up to two hours to spend a weekend in Louisville that includes Cooking at the Cottage. Kunz-Bayens can count on regular customers to take up about half the seats for classes, the rest being strangers who are looking to try something new. “We have quite a number of gift card sales. People will give a cooking class as a gift for a wedding or holiday,” she says. “Maybe people who have come to date night want to come back and bring their friends or their bridge club, so they might come back with four more couples in tow. For some people, it’s part of their regular entertainment.”

By all measures, the classes at Cooking At The Cottage have been a success. Kunz-Bayens builds on that success to lure those students to become shoppers too. Kunz-Bayens runs the retail half of the store with a focus on good old-fashioned customer service. Exceeding the customer’s expectations is the name of the game for Cooking At The Cottage. “We’re willing to box or do whatever a customer needs, and if we have that product in our classroom we’re happy to get it out and let them play with it,” says Kunz-Bayens. “Unless it’s something critical, if they need a certain size baking pan and we don’t have it, we’ll say, ‘Here, take this home and bring it back when yours comes in.’ I haven’t had any problem with that. I guess there has to be trust. They just leave their name and number. I think all of us hear all the negative things about people and it starts to change their view. People are amazed when you do something nice for them.”

To keep prices competitive, Kunz-Bayens leans toward hard-to-find items and buys in bulk. “Our solution to that is to cross-market them in the store and with cooking classes, and then also to offer them at the lowest price the manufacturers will allow, rather than having sales,” says Kunz-Bayens. “Obviously you have to sell quite a few more than you would if you were doing MSRP, but people have learned to trust us. I’m hoping to build their confidence over time, so they don’t have to constantly be price shopping. Just because we’re a small independent doesn’t mean we’ll be priced higher.”

When organizing and reorganizing the Cottage, Kunz-Bayens pays special attention to how repeat customers will feel on their walk around the store. “You go to a store and you know where something is, and then they move it someplace. A lot of times I’ll give up and leave instead of seeking it out,” says Kunz-Bayens. “None of us have the time that we once did, we’re trying to spend it wisely. If you’re in a hurry, that might not be the time you want to look around and see what’s there.”

Cooking At The Cottage also exceeds customer expectations with an in-depth newsletter. “We send a cooking newsletter out twice a month by email. It has recipes and techniques, as well as cooking class times,” says Kunz-Bayens. “Instead of just saying, ‘Here’s the pots we’re selling today,’ that’s just another person pushing stuff. But when you’re giving them something, they look forward to it. We send close to 12,000 out twice a month, and these are not lists that we’ve bought; these are people who have asked to receive it. The average open rate is 25 to 28 percent. It’s giving people something they would enjoy, and want to hold onto instead of just trying to sell them more stuff.”

For the future, Kunz-Bayens wants to make changes on multiple fronts. Bringing attention to the retail side of the business is a priority. “We’re more cooking school with a retail shop. A lot of people have no idea that we have retail products in the store,” she says. “So [we are] educating people that we’re both, and that one doesn’t diminish the other.” Kunz-Bayens also wants to build up the digital storefront, saying that the Cooking At The Cottage website and is due for an overhaul. “I think there might be three or four little videos of products that people have tried and recommend – we need to amp up the social media presence,” she says. “When you’re working with a small staff, it’s a matter of finding someone to do it.”

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