Business Rx: Personal chef seeks recipe for expanding her start-up

By Special to Capital Business
Monday, October 25, 2010; 30


For as long as she can remember, Sharon Douglas has always had an interest in cooking. She lived in Jamaica until she was 11, helping her grandfather harvest the crops on his farm and then bringing them to her grandmother to cook up for dinner. That experience, seeing the role those meals played in bringing the family together night after night, convinced her that she wanted to work with food as she got older.

Douglas moved to the United States in 1968. At age 21, she participated in a program called Wider Opportunities for Women through the Restaurant Association of America. The program brought teachers from the Culinary Institute of America to the D.C. area to teach young women the culinary arts. She went on to spend 25 years in the food industry and five years ago began supplementing her day job at a hotel with work as a personal chef. Now Douglas would like to be able to work full time as a personal chef.



"My personal chef company is called Nourish by SDL. I personalize menus for my clients, cooking up healthy meals that are easy to reheat during their busy workweek. I set up a meeting with potential clients to talk about what they want me to cook. I get to know what their favorite foods are and what foods they really hate. Then I go grocery shopping for the necessary ingredients. I cook the meals using healthy ingredients, such as organic food, canola oil and olive oil. I do everything from preparing the food, to storing the food in containers with easy-to-follow reheating instructions, to cleaning up the kitchen when I'm finished.

"While I don't advertise myself as a catering company, some of my personal chef clients ask me to cater the parties they host, too. I can cater events for up to 250 people.

"I have the technical aspect of my business down -- the prep work, the cooking and the cleaning -- but as far as the business side goes, I could really use some help. I would like insight on how to structure my business. I would also like tips on networking techniques to attract a steady clientele."


Harry Geller, visiting entrepreneur-in-residence, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business; founder and owner of SoDel Concepts with five seafood restaurants on the Delaware shore

"To make this worthwhile, you have to focus on a specific geographic area that you can service. Pick one territory and stick to it.

"As a personal chef, you probably really can only handle between three to five clients, assuming they are consistent. As far as networking goes, ask the people you are already preparing meals for if they can give you referrals. Create an incentive program where if they give you a referral that leads to new business, you will cook them a free meal. Or offer to cook potential new clients a free meal as a trial to get them hooked on your service.

"I wouldn't waste time or money with expensive marketing tactics. Try spreading the word about Nourish using Craigslist, your own personal Web site, a blog, Facebook or Twitter.

"Before you meet with potential clients, it is important to nail down what you charge and what this costs you. Come up with a menu of services that you offer. People may assume having a personal chef is too expensive, but they may not factor in the time they spend grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning -- time they can spend doing something else that they find more valuable.

"From a legal standpoint, I don't think you should have any health department issues because you are cooking in other people's homes. There are safe food handling certifications such as ServeSafe, which you can find online. Having this will add to your credibility. You should form your LLC for corporate protection and tax purposes, which is really easy to do online with sites like Legal River."



"This has really motivated me to get out there and start networking more. I will talk to my current clients about referring me to their friends, family and co-workers. Most of them are concentrated in the Bethesda, Chevy Chase area, so that will be a good region for me to target.

"As far as a Web site goes, I really want to get a Nourish by SDL Web site up and running. Craigslist and other social media sites are great outlets for advertising my business."

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need held fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us as

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