Vancouver’s Joe Girard and Dawn Thomas have the ultimate ambition for the online cooking school they founded in 2005: they want to use food to heal the world.
Judging by their progress, they may just reach that goal.
“In 10 years, our core business will be nutrition and cooking training for people who need to get healthy by taking a ‘food first’ approach to wellness,” Girard says with an air of certainty. “Our Culinary Rx course will be prescribed by tens of thousands of health care professionals who will diagnose a patient and not only prescribe pharmaceuticals but also food and nutrition education.”
It’s already happening.
Over the past decade Rouxbe Cooking School has grown to become one of the world’s largest online cooking schools. Its courses are offered in 180 countries in four major languages, with current enrollment nearing 34,000 students—the equivalent of a large Canadian university. Rouxbe’s top global markets are Latin America, the Middle East, and China.
Girard started as a chef in 1983, working in several tony Vancouver establishments, including the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. There, he met Thomas, an aspiring chef who was apprenticing through her studies at the Pacific Culinary Institute in Vancouver. After graduating with honours, Thomas joined her alma mater as a culinary instructor.
Girard and Thomas’s relationship proved lasting, and a short while later the two left their jobs to start up and run what quickly became a successful catering business serving Vancouver’s film industry. Six years later, the pair sold the business to focus on Rouxbe and their passion for culinary education.
Not surprisingly, Rouxbe Cooking School’s growth paralleled the emergence of a world gone mad with all things food – from celebrity chefs appearing on two dedicated food TV networks, to blockbuster motion pictures including Disney’s Ratatouille, and sports-style competitions like Top Chef and Chopped.
While global interest in the culinary arts was soaring, Girard and Thomas noted that the media wasn’t necessarily serving people interested in learning to cook what they truly needed.
“They (TV shows) were all about recipes; we just knew that’s not how you learn to cook,” says Girard. “Our focus is on teaching the fundamentals of cooking: how to use a knife, a pot, a pan; how to develop flavour through basic cooking techniques like sweating (gently heating ingredients in fat to extract and concentrate flavour.) It’s not complicated. We saw an opportunity to help, and decided to build a business around it.”
As Rouxbe’s star rose internationally, traditional brick-and-mortar cooking schools, like the famed Le Cordon Bleu, which recently announced the closure of its U.S. cooking schools, have steadily fallen out of favour. They were victims of a high-priced business model where culinary students pay tens of thousands of dollars for tuition, often racking up huge student loans only to land minimum wage, entry-level jobs.
With the hospitality industry facing a growing shortage of cooks, Rouxbe’s cost-effective, Internet-enabled platform offered an ideal training environment. The company responded by producing more than 500 step-by-step cooking videos and other instructional materials, which it offers as “exclusive trainer materials” to organizations such as Marriott International, which alone has 5,500 properties around the world.
Rouxbe’s instructional style—which focuses video and still photography content squarely on food preparation and technique, as opposed to people—allows Marriott and other Rouxbe partners to imprint their own brand on the education process, says Girard.
Such partnership arrangements also address other major shortcomings of the traditional correspondence courses, including low completion rates and a need for live graded activities.
While Rouxbe looks after 95 per cent of an employee’s training, the school’s live graded activities see Rouxbe students complete in-house activities for their employer’s assessment. “Employees have to do things like cook a piece of fish or chicken, or demonstrate knife skills and present them to their chef at work who grades them, based on preset criteria, such as presentation, doneness, and seasoning,” says Girard.
Executive- and sous-chefs at Rouxbe partners, like the Waldorf Astoria New York and Marriott, also oversee training and instill corporate values and loyalty among the staff. This winning combination has helped achieve completion rates now among the highest level in the industry, says Girard.
For Rouxbe, the effort has yielded “a multi-million dollar a year business that is doubling year over year,” he adds.
With the company’s core business model now well proven, Girard and Thomas are looking to the next frontier—inexpensive and digitally accessible nutrition and cooking education for anyone on the planet who wants to take control of his or her health and wellbeing.
“We need to help people build confidence in the kitchen, help them enjoy cooking and get them to realize that healthy food can taste really good if you know how to prepare it.”
Five Questions for Rouxbe Cooking School CEO and co-founder Joe Girard
1) What was your first export sale?
Rouxbe made its first export sale about 10 years ago in 2006. Our company provides online culinary training to home and professional cooks in 180 countries in four languages. We leverage the Internet to reach these audiences with a professional video-based cooking school.
2) How did that first export opportunity arise?
We followed the field of dreams model—if we build it, they will come. And they did. We shared instructional content online with a small group within our employees’ circle of influencers. With the Internet, sharing tools, social media and word of mouth marketing, Rouxbe spread across the globe. We reached users in the Portuguese port town of Funchal on our first day. That is the power of the Internet.
3) When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
(We now know) every culture that we engage has various challenges with customer service. It is difficult to understand some of these challenges when you are thousands of miles away or do not have any first-hand experience.
4) How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
The technology world continues to evolve with rapid growth and change over the past decade. Flexibility and adaptability are key elements to success. Staying agile, listening to the feedback and demands of our customers and most importantly, leveraging the power of community online, has been an essential piece of our success. Technology has allowed us to reach markets that could not have been considered when we first started our business.
5) What is the #1 thing new small and medium size exporters need to know about export and trade?
Our business has grown dramatically outside North America during this past decade. The Internet and cloud services have leveled the playing field. Harness this power. Leverage online services that excel in their fields (e.g. customer service applications) and don’t build everything. Today a global presence online is only a few clicks away.