LWTL recently sat down with entrepreneur Sara Robertson, who co-owns the wildly popular The Dirty Apron Cooking School and Delicatessen with her husband, Chef David Robertson. Sara dished up lots of great advice for budding entrepreneurs, and shares their story of determination and perseverance in building a successful family-owned business and turning dreams into a reality.
LWTL: The Dirty Apron is a family business that you started with your husband. What inspired you both to start The Dirty Apron?
SR: Yes, David and I started – and are operating – The Dirty Apron together. The idea to start a recreational cooking school came when David was working as chef-de-cuisine at the iconic Chambar Restaurant in Vancouver. The hours were long, and – as anyone who has worked in the culinary industry can confirm – not family friendly. Knowing that we would be looking to start a family soon, and having discovered that David was not just passionate about cooking food, but also about sharing his skill and knowledge with others, he began to consider to shift his culinary career from the restaurant kitchen to a teaching position in one of the culinary programs offered to aspiring chefs in the city. We then began to dream of starting our own, recreational hands-on cooking school, geared towards food enthusiasts and home chefs – a culinary playground for the experienced and novice cooks alike to learn, taste, plate, eat, and unleash their inner chefs.
LWTL: How long did it take you to go from conception to breaking ground, and what did that process involve? Did you have a point of no return or a moment that you can point to as “the start”?
SR: The time between the moment we decided to go ahead and pursue the dream of building our own state-of-the-art cooking school and the opening day of The Dirty Apron was about 15 months. The process of getting there involved finding and meeting people who have worked in cooking schools before, researching and visiting successful cooking schools in other parts of Canada, putting together a business plan, finding investors and sponsors for equipment, convincing the bank to give us a start-up loan, finding a suitable space to operate out of, and dealing with all kinds of different trades people, all while trying to stay sane and positive.
The point of no return came when David and I put everything we owned on the line as security with the banks in order to qualify for a start up loan. The year that we started working on ‘The Dirty Apron’ also happened to be the year of the economic crisis, and many people thought that we were crazy to continue on, including some of the banks. There was no way that we would be able to get a start up loan from a bank without putting everything we had on the line, plus ask family to invest as well.
However, the real starting point for me personally was when David and I looked at each other, and discussed the ‘worst case scenario’ – the consequences of putting all of our eggs into this one basket and it not working – and we both decided that we simply needed to take the risk and find out for ourselves. Once we were unified in our decision that the worst-case scenario was something that we would be willing to live with as a consequence for having acted on a dream that we both believed in, I was at peace and ready to go…
LWTL: If your fellow LWTL readers were to ask for your advice on how to start their own business, what advice would you offer them?
SR: My advice to fellow aspiring entrepreneurs is to not to be too afraid to make mistakes as you pursue your big idea. As someone who starts something new, you must be prepared to learn by trial and error. Understand that making mistakes along the way doesn’t mean that you are failing; it means that you are navigating your way through new territory. No textbook prepares you for what it truly means to pursue a new idea and turn it into a reality. For this reason I believe that anyone starting a business should truly search him- or herself for what it is that propels you forward…. If it is the desire for money, it might not be enough to push you through those times when the going gets tough. If your motivation is passion however, you most likely will have enough heart to pick yourself up again and continue to press forward. I have seen individuals start a business, simply because they thought that it was a ‘good idea’ and ‘a great way to make easy money’, but when things got difficult, they simply did not have enough heart and passion to propel them through – because things will go wrong, and your patience, passion, character, and loyalty will be put to the test.
I also believe that if you are considering taking the risk of starting your own business, you should always be sure that the people closest to you are not only supportive of you, but also willing to carry the burden with you along the way. Your immediate family and close friends will be affected by your choices, in one way or another. Be sure that everyone involved is on the same page as you… and ready for change.
LWTL: What was the most difficult part of opening your own company?
SR: The fear of failure and not knowing how to balance marriage with business. Once in a while David and I would look at each other and ask; “What if we were wrong? What if people won’t come…?” It was hard for me to see my husband being discouraged at times when the funding didn’t look like it would come together, and not knowing what to say to make things better. As I said earlier, when you choose to pursue your business idea, the people closest to you – regardless of whether or not they are in business with you – will be affected. In my case, David and I chose to be partners in life and in business, which can be very challenging at times. We had to find a balance between being each other’s spouse who might need encouragement or sentiment, and being each other’s business partner, who might need to be pushed to try harder. We also had our first daughter the same summer that The Dirty Apron opened, so saying that I was overwhelmed is still an understatement.
LWTL: What are the pros and cons of working with your husband?
The pro is that we are connected in pretty much all major aspects of our lives. The con is that we are connected in pretty much all major aspects of our lives…. Just kidding – sort of.
Balance is very hard to find and maintain. We try our best to keep our home life separated from our professional lives – otherwise we will find ourselves discussing Profit & Loss Reports over dinner instead of connecting as a family. Our young kids couldn’t care less how much profit The Dirty Apron makes, or whether or not a certain stove needs to be replaced. They care that Mom and Dad love them as well as each other, and that they as our kids are more important to us than business.
As for balancing my marriage with our business, David and I recently introduced weekly date nights, where just the two of us go out and do something fun together. Although many couples with successful marriages have told us over the years how important and beneficial regular date nights are, we took a while to catch on because we felt that we spent so much time together already. Only recently did I realize that we needed to create these pockets of time that are reserved for enjoyment of each other, uninterrupted by kids and work. My date night with my husband is now a highlight that I look forward to every week.
LWTL: How do you manage a work-life balance when you have two young children at home?
As I mentioned earlier, David and I try our best to not discuss work at home. I have found that the drive from work to daycare and school pick-up has been a helpful divider between work and home. Once at home, I don’t take my laptop out of the bag, unless it is absolutely necessary. I try to stay away from checking my emails at night and on weekends, and we plan weekly ‘family dates’ where the kids get to have their parents to themselves. I also realized that after moving to North Vancouver, having to cross a bridge on my way to and from work has been a helpful reminder to leave my workday on the other side of the bridge.
I have to be honest though. Balancing family life with a family business is a constant challenge, and though I try my best to give my everything to both my kids and my business at the appropriate time, I have to admit that it can be exhausting and extremely hard to navigate at times. What is helpful I think is to decide for yourself what is most important at the end of the day, and I know that for me, my family comes first. Yes, ‘The Dirty Apron’ is an important and vital part of my life, but when it comes down to it, I can imagine my life without my business; I can’t imagine it without my family.
LWTL: There’s so much talk about food and health today. As someone whose work is so food-centric, can you talk about your relationship with food? Has it changed over time?
I love food, and I love to eat. I also believe in treating you body well, and to be mindful as to how you fuel it.
Though most of our cooking classes at The Dirty Apron focus on demystifying the fine dining industry to the foodies and ‘at home chefs’ out there, I have always had a fascination with the science behind food, especially when it comes to nutrition. Our most recent cooking class we launched is actually called ‘Food Fitness & Flavour’ and is co-taught by a nutritionist. The menu for this class features tasty yet nutritious dishes that work well for active people who want to eat healthy yet do not want to deprive themselves of satisfying and flavourful dishes.
I have come to learn that my busy and demanding lifestyle as business owner and parent demands a lot from me – mentally, psychologically, and physically. The food I choose to eat regularly can either fuel me to perform well, or it can slow me down. Fitness has also been playing an important role in my pursuit of well being, so I am constantly motivated to eat well in order to perform better at the gym.
As it said, I love to eat, and I enjoy eating out – it is one part that I enjoy so much about working in the culinary industry. I don’t believe in cutting out certain foods completely. I eat bread, I drink wine; I love chocolate and meat (not together!), and I absolutely have to have milk in my coffee. But like with everything else, fuelling your body in a way that benefits you most comes down to balance. I am a firm believer in filling up on healthy foods, while reserving everything else for pleasure.
LWTL: What is your guilty pleasure when it comes to indulging?
Warm bread with butter, red wine, dark chocolate, and chips – in that order!
LWTL: How do you come up with ideas for your different cooking classes? Which is your personal favourite?
I have to give credit to my husband David for a lot of the cooking class ideas – he is the culinary genius out of us two. I do love to share my ideas with him though, and many class ideas have come into existence while eating out together.
All of our Italian classes are a lot of fun to take: you get to make pasta from scratch, but don’t have to deal with the mess afterwards; how great is that? One of my favourite cooking classes we offer is our ‘Izakaya Kings’ class, featuring the tastiest of Japanese small plates. Another favourite is ‘One the Bone’, where students learn to braise, roast and grill wonderful cuts of meat. Our ‘Hawaiian Nights’ class features an amazing menu, and it has sentimental value, since David and I came up with it during one of our annual Maui family vacations… (The only work-related thing we did while being there, I promise!)
For your chance to win a $50 Dirty Apron gift certificate, share this blog post on Facebook or Twitter! Winner will be announced December 9th.