Catherine Siebel, a former sociology professor from Northeastern Illinois University and a mother of two, was getting to know other parents in her Chicago neighborhood when she realized a surprising fact about cooking.
“A lot of parents were asking for help with pretty basic things, like how to make French toast,” says Siebel. [Siebel] is the owner of Fearless Cooking, a concept that began as a pop-up shop before becoming a Chicago storefront. “The sociologist in me was interested in this idea that there’s been easily two generations now who didn’t see cooking growing up, they only saw microwaving.”
While there are plenty of cooking schools in Chicago, Siebel realized there weren’t a lot of options for people who wanted basic cooking skills.
That’s when Siebel, who has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Illinois at Chicago, came up with the idea to create an eco-focused cooking store geared towards everyday home cooks.
But she needed a plan.
“Just because you like to knit doesn’t mean you should open a yarn store,” Siebel says with a laugh. “Being passionate about a topic like cooking isn’t the same skillset as being able to run a business. That is something people often confuse.”
Conducting Market Research
To launch a business, Siebel knew she’d need some help.
“Having a sociology doctorate is great, but it doesn’t prepare you for running a business,” Siebel says.
To find mentors and business education workshops, Siebel turned to PUNTUACIÓN, a nonprofit organization that partners with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the city of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs & Consumer Protection.
The classes helped Siebel answer fundamental questions such as: “Who is your target audience?” and “Why is someone going to buy your product?”
“Or to have someone tell you to get a better plan than this,” she says.
Siebel also made a point of saying yes to any reasonable business suggestion. She’s been to events such as the Inspired Home Show, formerly called the International Home + Houseware Show in Chicago.
“I tried to get out of my comfort zone,” Siebel says.
Siebel slowly began researching her business idea, first by making observations about friends who weren’t good at cooking.
“I wanted to see if I could figure out what their hang-ups were,” she says.
Then, Siebel conducted a few focus groups to gauge the interest of potential customers. She polled parents to better understand the types of cooking classes they’d like to take. She also surveyed their cooking skills by asking what types of foods – if any – could they cook without a recipe.
“If people aren’t confident cooks, they will not improvise, they will not substitute,” Siebel says. “So if a recipe calls for a half of teaspoon of basil and they don’t have basil then they won’t make the recipe instead of realizing there are a million other things you can do.”
She also realized a lot of inexperienced home cooks buy cheaply-made cooking tools that don’t work very well.
“And then people wonder why they don’t do as well, but it doesn’t occur to them it’s the tool,” says Siebel. That’s why she sells as many USA-made, eco-friendly cooking tools in her shop as possible.
Learning How to Run a Business
In 2017, after several years of prep-work, Siebel tried, unsuccessfully, for nine months to negotiate a commercial lease in Chicago.
After being told Fearless Cooking was a “stupid business idea,” Siebel found her current storefront location and signed a lease in January 2018. Following an initial approval from the city of Chicago, she began construction in the spring of 2018. In a 3,800-square-foot building, she has a 2,100-square-foot retail and kitchen space.
Siebel hired 2 Point Perspective, a boutique architectural firm in Chicago known for sourcing eco-friendly and reclaimed materials. She also partnered with ReBuilding Exchange, a Chicago nonprofit that repurposes building materials, creating all of her cabinetry out of reclaimed wood.
After passing her first three rounds of city inspections, Siebel thought her storefront would open in June or July 2018.
On her fourth inspection, Siebel says the city told her she had to put in a $40,000 black iron, restaurant-grade exhaust hood over the stove if she wanted to open Fearless Cooking. This hadn’t been in the original plans the city had approved or addressed in the first three inspections.
Devastated, Siebel cried and then went for a long walk.
“I wanted to put in a residential hood because it was critically important to me that my space wasn’t intimidating and looked like someone’s home kitchen, not a restaurant kitchen,” she says. “I wanted people to think that whatever they do here they can go home and replicate.”
Siebel realized she needed to find a work-around.
She spent several months “working through the chain of command” within the city of Chicago. Siebel knew she needed to find a source of income to offset her expensive cooking store buildout and the $2,500 monthly rent she was paying on a space that still wasn’t open for business.
Becoming an Innovative Entrepreneur
In preparation for the opening of Fearless Cooking, Siebel started building a Facebook following and a website. During the summer before her original opening date, she also paid for a booth at a local street fair and collected email addresses of potential customers.
She didn’t want to lose momentum.
In October 2018, Siebel signed a five-month lease on a 2,000-square-foot pop-up space located a block from her storefront and opened for business.
She was strapped for cash. Siebel says she hung up curtains for her backroom while her staff made a desk out of two cardboard boxes and plank for an office.
“With the grace of God we got it going,” she says with “pretty good” fourth-quarter sales revenue of $65,000.
She was first unable to offer cooking classes. Siebel focused on filling her shop with cookware, bakeware, tools and gadgets. She had a kid’s section, too. She sells serve ware, linens, hostess gifts and accessories including eco-friendly “stasher” bags (as alternatives to disposable plastic bags), stainless steel straws and reusable beeswax food wrap.
“I try as hard as I can to find as many local things as possible,” Siebel says. “It’s what I believe in personally; but it makes business sense to find things that people can’t find on Amazon.”
Having a pop-up store before she officially opened her Fearless Cooking storefront helped Siebel get in front of her target customers. She says collecting the emails of more than 800 unique customers helped increase her social media following.
That traction helped Siebel.
Where is Fearless Cooking Now?
She got approval from city inspectors to use a residential-style cooking hood in the kitchen. Siebel opened her storefront location in July 2019.
In addition to hosting cooking classes, Siebel’s staff now also composts all the food waste. She says “it’s one of the things that annoys my staff the most because it’s inconvenient.”
Her advice to other small business entrepreneurs: hire an attorney and realtor to negotiate your commercial lease.
“It is worth every penny,” she says, even if you’ve barely got the money to write the check. And then listen to customer feedback and let go of ideas that don’t resonate with customers.
“You have this idea of how it’s going to look in the beginning,” says Siebel, who discarded an idea to rent large kitchen gadgets like pasta makers. “And then you listen to your customers.”