Where Are They Now? Follow Up with Cookshop Plus

In July 2016, Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Cookshop Plus Co-Owner Samantha Hines. At that time, the Australian family-owned business had recently opened it’s second location in West Hartford, CT. (Read the interview: Cookshop Plus Finds Its Place In West Hartford, CT.)

Nan checked in with Samantha to see what’s new.

NAN PRICE: Give us an update. When we last spoke you mentioned plans to build a demonstration kitchen in the downstairs space.

SAMANTHA HINES: The process took a long time. We wanted to have the space downstairs because it’s larger and more private space. But, there were too many roadblocks. It was a huge learning process.

The biggest problem was we didn’t fit into any specific box. We are a retail store, not a restaurant. We didn’t have people who knew the answers to our questions about how to handle that. No one was doing what we were doing.

We created a kitchen space in October 2017; however, it’s actually upstairs. It was a big compromise in terms of what we can offer, but it was important to us to be able to have the space. It’s different from what we imaged, mainly because it’s smaller, providing classes of 10 to 12, but that means the experience can be more hands on.

NAN: What does the additional kitchen space offer?

SAMANTHA: We’re looking at different ways we can appeal to people. One way is by providing cooking classes with one dedicated Cookshop Plus chef from America Test Kitchen. Recently, we formed a collaboration with local business owner Ayelet Connell of Healthy Eating Made Simple with Ayelet Connell PhD. She’ll be offering paleo and gluten-free cooking classes this September.

We’re also focusing on doing more in-store informational events. We recently hosted Cooking with Cast Iron. Next up is Stainless Steel versus Non-Stick Cookware on September 15.

Another goal is to try and get local vendors in for tastings. It’s great to be able to support other small businesses. We’ve been working with Connecticut-based Mac Brothers Gourmet Foods to feature their BBQ sauces and Uncle Carney’s Bootleg Jams, which is out of Plainville, CT.

NAN: Tell us more about that. How are you building brand awareness?

SAMANTHA: We use social media, of course. And our Farmington Avenue location definitely helps. Our café also draws people in. It’s two-fold: For example, you can come in for a coffee and stay and explore, or you can grab your coffee and the one kitchen item you needed and be on your way. So, our coffee shop clientele is growing. It’s taken time.

With our industry, new things are always in stock—those are the things change the most. So, customers outside looking in are drawn in. Really, the biggest thing is the classes.

We also offer knife sharpening as a service every day, so people can drop off their knives at any time.And we’ve hosted a number of private cooking classes. Many are corporations looking for team building or an alternative to a company dinner out. These are great for us, as we draw in an audience that may not have found our store before or had a reason to come into our store. It’s another factor that helps build our brand awareness!

The retail landscape in West Harford has changed since we’ve opened. There’s less retail and more restaurants. There’s more happening in the evening. So, we’ll often get shoppers who wander in before or after dinner.

The community here likes to support local. We’re lucky we have regular customers who spread the word. And we have many repeat customers. People come back because we give a lot of advice. We don’t just sell a product, we’re happy to help you figure out the right solution. We enjoy providing that as a service.

NAN: Let’s talk a little about the transition of moving from Australia to Connecticut.

SAMANTHA: We’re coming up on three years here in Connecticut. It was always going to be an adventure—and that’s exactly what it’s been. I’ve enjoyed exploring Connecticut with my husband James, who is one of the co-owners. There’s always something new to see. I love that the landscape of Connecticut is growing—there are always new shops and restaurants. I love being involved in that. There’s so much to experience.

NAN: Along with your husband, you co-own both Cookshop Plus locations with your parents. How do you balance all that?

SAMANTHA: Right, the four of us run both businesses—it’s a venture for all of us. And we’re all still involved in the Australia business. We all have our roles.

I coordinate the cooking classes and do accounting and the human resources scheduling for both stores. Here in West Hartford, we have a team of four employees who have been with us since day one.

My dad, Terry Ryan, focuses on website and ordering. My mom, Joanne Ryan is on the floor and focuses on specific lines and merchandizing. James does all ordering for Australia. He does all our email marketing and the bulk of our social media. He’s also involved with merchandizing, figuring out what should be on sale and what should move out. James also attends all the cooking classes.

NAN: What’s next? Any plans for additional shops?

SAMANTHA: We’re still focused on West Hartford. We don’t have any plans for additional stores right now. We’re focused on building our website and adding classes.

And we’re still trying to grow our audience. We always have the goal of getting more people in the store. Our conversion rate is high. It’s that step of getting people in the door. We’re always looking to try something different, whether it’s an event or showcasing a new product.

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