Opinion: What four decades in food taught me about running a successful business

Credit: Courtesy of Caren McSherry

Gourmet Warehouse founder Caren McSherry shares the insights she gained while building a B.C. institution

During a 40-year career spanning food education and retail, I’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff in the kitchen.

I might have the longest-running avocational cooking school in Canada, but it had humble beginnings: I hosted my first cooking class in my East Vancouver kitchen on a rainy November night in 1978. At the time, I was just nervously hoping my fancy made-from-scratch mayonnaise would turn out!

As I reflect on four decades in the food business, I’m confident that there are four lessons every entrepreneur needs in their recipe book to find the same longevity in business. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Jump before you’re ready
I started my career as a flight attendant, which is how I got hooked on cooking. I’d take lessons during layovers in Europe and Asia and bring exotic recipes back to Vancouver. I was always waiting for the “perfect” time to start my cooking school—and I didn’t take the leap for 15 years.

I didn’t jump into entrepreneurship; I was pushed. I took time away from flying after having my two children, and when I returned to work, I had to re-enroll in training courses with the rookies. Let’s just say it was a humbling experience, and once my instructor started explaining what a galley is, I knew it was time to resign and follow my passion of cooking. Until then, I was too afraid and kept waiting for a safety net to appear. 

If I could go back in time, I’d get started much sooner on realizing my dream. The reality is that there is no perfect time to start a business. Sometimes the best way to overcome fear is to go all in, whether you’re ready or not.

Done is better than perfect
I started my cooking school out of my home kitchen. It wasn’t a sustainable model, but I made it work in the beginning. It allowed me to create my business with little overhead while I built my reputation as a food educator. When my baby had a meltdown mid-class, it became clear that I had to secure a cooking school space outside of my home.

You need to be flexible. Listen to your guests, customers or students and adapt to what they need. Running a business, like parenting, is never finished or perfect. Just when you think you have it all figured out, you get thrown a curveball that forces you to question what you thought you knew and start over again.

Credit: Courtesy of Caren McSherry

McSherrys Gourmet Warehouse in Vancouver

Food is fashion. To stay relevant, you need to predict the trends
This can apply to any industry: know your customer and anticipate their needs. In food education and as a retailer, I’ve had to keep my finger on the pulse of Vancouver’s ever-evolving market. Today, my customers and students at the Gourmet Warehouse want fresh, local, organic and simple.  And if they can’t pronounce it, they don’t want it in their spaghetti.

Adjust your expectations
I’ve had the opportunity to mentor many up-and-coming entrepreneurs in Vancouver over my career, and I always remind them to adjust their expectations. You will lose money for two years, and you likely won’t pay yourself during that startup period. At the three-year mark, you’ll start to see the light; at the four-year mark, you’ll be making money. If you aren’t soaring after five years, get out.

After many years as a food educator, I can’t resist leaving you with this: if you can read, you can cook. Same idea for running a business: if you have passion and purpose, you can succeed. It will be challenging, emotional and, on some days, frustrating. But it should still be fun. After 40 years, I’m still laughing!

Caren McSherry is a chef, author and founder and president of the Gourmet Warehouse. For more information on her cooking classes, visit gourmetwarehouse.ca