In October 2020, Laurie Erickson returned to Connecticut, where she had grown up, from Charleston, South Carolina, where she had built her personal chef business, Chef Laurie LLC in 2008. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Laurie about the challenges and rewards she’s found connecting to our region’s business community.
NAN PRICE: Have you always been entrepreneurial?
LAURIE ERICKSON: Yes and no. I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit, but I’ve always been paid to do a job that I absolutely adore and it’s in my heart and soul. So, however way I could make that happen, I did.
NAN: How did your past experience prepare you to become a private chef?
LAURIE: I was a chef at the Canyon Ranch wellness resort in Lenox, MA for six years, which was fantastic. I have a nutrition and fitness background, and it was inspiring to be around all the functional medicine, doctors, and nutritionists there. That experience had a huge impact on my life.
NAN: At what point did you have the idea to go out on your own as a personal chef?
LAURIE: I decided to start my private chef business after I was hired to go into someone’s private home to cook a dinner for 10 people. I loved it! It was laid-back and fun. The family I was cooking for at the time encouraged me because there were many people who were looking for the type of service I could provide.
NAN: Tell us about transitioning your business from South Carolina to Connecticut.
LAURIE: When I moved back to Connecticut, I knew this was a good area for what I do. As a full-time private chef, I go into people’s houses and make fancy food and do the fancy plating for people who want to have dinner parties at home.
When I was in Charleston, I registered with Thumbtack, which is similar to Angie’s List. That’s been great because when people Google “private chef,” one of the first things that pops up on Google a Thumbtack link to the top private chefs in your area.
Luckily, I got in with this company very early on. I’m usually the second or third option that pops up. It’s expensive to have the service, but for me to be able to have my name pop up on the first page on Google would have been even more expensive and really challenging. So, that’s the payoff. But, I have 68 five-star reviews, which is fantastic.
I was registered with Thumbtack when I lived in Charleston, so I wasn’t sure if I easily transition my ratings and reviews to Connecticut. I just changed my profile and my zip code, and all of a sudden I was getting calls from people in Connecticut who wanted to hire me. I honestly didn’t think it was going to work—but it’s actually working!
NAN: How else are you marketing?
LAURIE: The other thing that’s really built my business, which I did in Charleston and I’m starting to do here, is donating dinners to charity events and live and silent auctions. Before everything went virtual, that was one of the best ways for me to meet people. At a 300-person event, I’d donate a multi-course dinner for eight people with wine pairings. Meanwhile, the event would create a poster about me and my business cards were everywhere. You can’t pay for that kind of advertising.
I’ve learned that, as a private chef, you’ve got to be willing to give a lot away to help people get to know you—and they need to taste your food. I’ve donated everything from wedding cakes to a dinner at a Montessori school. Through the Westport Farmers’ Market, I became involved with a program that works with kids in Bridgeport, where I did a live Zoom cooking class.
I also rely a lot on word of mouth. I’ve been working on building those connections here in Connecticut.
NAN: How are you utilizing local resources?
LAURIE: I love teaching cooking, especially to kids. So, I reached out to a local I contacted a local kitchen store, Cook Shop Plus on LaSalle Street in West Hartford, to find out if they offer cooking classes here. I started teaching classes there in August. I’m hoping that will help me get to know more local people and lead to some more private chef gigs.
Also, I use a lot of the local farms here for my cooking and I get all my meats locally at Four Mile River Farm in Old Lyme. When I shop in farmers’ markets, I’m meeting all the vendors and giving them my card. I let them know I’d love to use their products. It’s just doing the legwork to meet and greet people and make connections.
Of course, social media has also been tremendous. With Instagram, you can look around and see who’s following who—which is how I became aware of Innovation Destination Hartford. I’m also getting involved with the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce.
NAN: Any major lessons learned or advice for others?
LAURIE: My advice is don’t be afraid. Fear is the biggest enemy—and the what ifs. What if they don’t like it? What if it’s too much risk? You just have to go for it. Just keep trying it. You take a little step and if it works, you take another step. Sometimes things don’t work, and you step back and reevaluate.
People say, “Do what you love, the money will come.” And that was the biggest thing I wanted. I wanted to do something I absolutely love and am passionate about, something I could do until I was in my 70s.
Sometimes I feel like I’m starting over. And I’m older—I shouldn’t be starting at age 61! But then I feel like why not!? Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and just go for it.