Passing on the Flame of Culinary Inspiration
By Lorrie Baumann
Jill Foucré founded Marcel’s Culinary Experience in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with the idea that she was starting a recreational cooking school and also paying tribute to the grandfather whose cooking career had long inspired her interest in food and its preparation.
Her grandfather Marcel was a chef in France who emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1920s. He arrived in New York and made his way to Lowell, Massachusetts, where he opened a restaurant. Eventually, he adopted a more itinerant career – working at the Massachusetts beach resorts in summers and following the snowbirds to Florida for the winter season.
Foucré herself inherited some of that love for cooking. “I love to cook from scratch. I mean scratch-scratch,” she says. “I’m more of a cook than a baker. The precision of baking eludes me sometimes.” When she roasts a chicken, she saves the bones for stock, and she’s been known to roast a whole pig in her back yard for parties. “That was before I was a retail store owner,” she says. “I try to cook intuitively when possible. I tend to be a recipe cook, but I’m trying to do better.”
Marcel’s, opened by Foucré and her husband, Bob Bye, in 2011 in a 125-year-old building that has always been a commercial retail space, combines the cooking classes that were the original inspiration for the business with a 3,200 square foot retail area, including the 450 square foot kitchen located in a back corner, from where casual shoppers can hear the laughter and the buzz of conversation of a class enjoying its experience and smell the aromas of the food they’re preparing. Marcel’s offers about 240 to 250 classes a year taught by the eight local chefs who teach at the store on a regular basis. Many of the chefs who offer classes in the store find Foucré, but when she does recruit someone new, she looks particularly for teaching chefs rather than restaurant cooks. Classes include hands-on cooking classes, free demonstrations of single dishes and classes for children, as well as classes offered as private events. For July, the scheduled classes include an imaginary road trip to Nashville, a celebration of Bastille Day, a fantasy visit to dine out in the Mediterranean region and a cocktail party with essential summer appetizers as well as day camp sessions for children with lessons offering them imaginary experiences in foods from the West Coast or, for teenagers, a four-day course on pasta. There’s something going on in the shop’s kitchen almost every day of the month. “The kitchen represents between 25 and 30 percent of the revenue, and the rest is the retail,” Foucré says.
The classroom kitchen is supported by a more industrial kitchen behind the store that provides pantry space, a large refrigerator and offers the chefs a place to prepare for the classes and for an in-home private chef business just launched in June. Bye, a full-time store employee, as is Foucré herself, stocks the kitchen and maintains the entire building, which includes a couple of rental apartments over the store, as well as the building that houses Marché, the cheese shop a couple of doors down that’s also owned and operated by the couple.
On the sales floor around the classroom kitchen, Foucré stocks a broad range of cookware, a very few small electrics and a selection of tabletop items. Bakeware currently occupies the back corner opposite the classroom kitchen because Foucré has discovered that customers who are looking for a particular bakeware item because they need it for a recipe are willing to walk all the way through the store to find it, while those who are browsing for inspiration need to find something that interests them closer to the front door. “We definitely are a destination for gifts,” Foucré says. “We were very busy the day before Mothers Day. We had a table set up with things under $15 for kids to give.”
Although Le Creuset is the number two line in the store, most of the merchandise is chosen because customers can’t easily find the same item anywhere else in the area. Items represent an array of price points, so that Marcel’s has something special to offer the customer who needs a gift for $10 or less for a child’s teacher as well as the bride who’s registering for a mix of practical kitchenware and potential heirlooms. “What we’ve done with cookware is that we want to carry what we think is the top of the line for each type of cookware,” Foucré says. “We’re not trying to be 10 lines deep.”
The uniqueness of those items in the area is critical to bringing in customers who could also shop at Williams Sonoma, Crate and Barrel or any of the other kitchenware stores within a 10 mile radius of Foucré’s store in the western suburbs of Chicago. Like its younger sister store, Marché, Marcel’s Culinary Experience is located in a relatively affluent community of around 27,000 residents that’s about 45 minutes west of downtown Chicago. It’s a community of residents who understands the value of shopping local, which helps Foucré compete with the national chains, she says.
Also key to that competition is an intensive focus on the store’s social media marketing. Foucré has one part-time employee whose whole job is managing a program that includes a monthly newsletter that goes out to almost 6,000 people on the email list, a weekly email that lists the shop’s classes and a weekly email for Marché that goes to a subset of the Marcel’s email list as well as daily Facebook posts to entertain more than 4,000 followers and biweekly blog posts on the store’s website. Foucré also makes sure that her store is listed on the store finder features of her vendors’ websites. All of that is intended to lure customers into the brick and mortar shop rather than to sell merchandise online.
Customers register and pay for cooking classes online, but that’s the only thing that’s sold through the store’s website. “I have walked up to the edge of the cliff with merchandise a couple of times, but I have walked back,” Foucré says. “I don’t know that we can compete.”
Marcel’s is also heavily involved in marketing through community involvement, which has included staging houses for the Glen Ellyn Housewalk, an annual event that benefits Glen Ellyn Infant Welfare, as well as a broad range of donations for other community fundraisers. “We try to say yes to all of that,” Foucré says. “We’re active. We’re involved in the community. I live here. People know us.”