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Indie operators cook up 'classy' new revenue booster


Amid an economic downturn that has consumers cutting back on dining out, many independent restaurants are looking to boost revenue by adding something new to their menus: cooking classes.

Ola, a Nuevo Latino-style restaurant in the South Beach area of Miami, began offering cooking and cocktail-making classes about a year ago when management noticed a drop-off in corporate dining, said Rosemary Staltare, media marketing director for Ola.

"We created the programs to be offered in the afternoon when the restaurant is closed as a need to both [offer] a lucrative option to dedicated clients and to increase daily revenue," she said. "It has been a proven success over the last 12 months. It exposes people to the restaurant and increases the bottom line. Many times, people would come back for dinner [after taking a class]."

Ola's first "Ceviche and Mojito Making 101" class was a huge success, restaurant officials said. The class, which included a light, three-course lunch, was priced at $70 per person, plus an instructor fee, a bartender fee, tax and gratuity. Since the first class, Ola's chef has offered more than 100 classes for such private events as birthday celebrations and girls' nights out, as well as corporate teambuilding exercises. Groups must sign up in advance for the classes, which also have included "Ceviche and Caipirinha" and "Muddle This Ola Bartender Competition," in which clients compete against each other.

The Marine Room in La Jolla, Calif., discontinued lunch service three years ago and, like Ola, lately has noticed a dip in dinner tabs. To help compensate for the drop in sales, the more than 60-year-old fine-dining restaurant launched a series of cooking classes earlier this year. "[We thought], 'What can we do that's new and different because things are getting slower?' " said general manager Dennis Rush. "Our chef has done cooking classes in several other places, and we did one a couple of years ago, so we developed a series. We picked Wednesday afternoon and said, 'Let's commit to this.' "

Aclass with a Mother's Day focus kicked off the series, which has since included classes on barbecuing for Father's Day, two wine pairings and a class focused on preparing for the harvest season. The Marine Room scheduled its first holiday-focused cooking class in early December and is planning a romance package for Valentine's Day next year.

Each two-hour class includes culinary instruction, a three-course lunch that reflects the current topic and a small gift from the chef, such as a box of chocolates or seasoned cooking oil. The restaurant also collects contact information on comment cards after each class and keeps participants informed about upcoming restaurant events.

Classes cost from $65 to $75 and, so far, they're a break-even proposition, according to The Marine Room. However, the restaurant benefits when a patron signs up for a class and brings a friend who may not have dined there. And, as Ola has experienced, class participants at The Marine Room often become dinner guests.

"It's an expensive restaurant giving you value," Rush said. "And you're putting something out there that nobody else is offering."

J.R. Schoenfeld also began offering culinary classes to boost revenue at Chives, the 6-year-old upscale restaurant that he owns with his wife, Cindy, in Suamico, Wis. Classes meet in a renovated antique schoolhouse across the parking lot from the restaurant. The Schoenfelds installed a simple kitchen in the schoolhouse, which they also use for private parties.

Most Saturday afternoon classes are about an hour and a half to two hours long and cost $30 per person, which includes instruction, menus, a light lunch and a glass of wine. Topics have ranged from "Cooking with Squash" to "Soups, Soups, Soups" and "Getting Ready for Winter: Braising." Evening classes occasionally are held, such as Girls Weekend with Martinis, which costs $40 per person. In addition, Schoenfeld offers private culinary classes and classes with wine dinners, when scheduled in advance.

"I think that a lot of restaurants now are seeing dives in their bottom line and profitability," Schoenfeld said. "I constantly try to do new things to make sure we'll survive and keep my customers happy. I wasn't able to raise prices enough [in the restaurant] for my increased food costs, and [teaching classes] helped me through a rough time.

"My customers love them, and the profit is huge," he said. "It's a great venture."

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