Small Businesses With Class: How Teaching can Boost Your Bottom Line

A growing number of small businesses are getting hands on with their customers, teaching classes on what they do best.

“While the dough is rising, we give students a history lesson on pizza dating back to 7000 B.C.,” says Miki Agrawal, owner of Slice, The Perfect Food, an organic pizzeria in New York City that offers three-hour pizza making classes each week.

“After the history lesson, students team up to answer questions and the winner gets a free round of beer the next time they come in,” Agrawal says. “It’s gotten really ugly. Bottles of wine have flown across the room. Imagine a bunch of New Yorkers in a competition over pizza-- it’s pretty hairy.”

If done well, classes can inspire excellent word-of mouth publicity from participants, says Tom Gegax, author of The Big Book of Small Business. During a class, people really get to know a brand, and they'll be more likely to share a positive experience with others.

"You can’t really judge the success by the number of people coming to the classes alone,” says Gegax.  “Many others are going to see it offered, but perhaps their schedules don’t permit or they are waiting for a special occasion to come try the product. A business can really get incredible mileage out of offering something unique like this.”

Slice began offering the $150 per person classes two years ago in order to compensate for lost revenue during the winter months. The pizzeria’s dining room holds just 20 people, but their outdoor seating area doubles that amount. With the patio closed during colder months, Agrawal said business dropped 50%, prompting the addition of the pizza classes.

Agrawal expected the classes to be a hit and bring in additional revenue,  but she wasn’t expecting the positive brand recognition and word-of mouth marketing they also spurred.

“By the time people have gotten a taste of what it’s like to make dough from scratch and their hands are dirty from creating an amazing dinner, they walk out knowing pretty clearly what our brand is about, and they have become great brand ambassadors for us, telling their friends, family and co-workers.”

Included in the class is a tasting of local wine and beer, and a pizza students can take home with them. According to Agrawal, the classes attracted the attention of investors, and a second location will open in downtown Las Vegas later this year.

Graduates of Agrawal’s pizza classes can head uptown to gelato shop Mia Chef Gelateria. The shop offers unique workshops on how to make the Italian ice cream, and students go home with four pints of their creations.

E.Z. Cohen, founder and CEO of Mia Chef Gelateria, said that after opening the shop in April, he expected the summer months to be his busiest. He was shocked to find that many people left town for vacation during the city’s warmest, gelato-friendly months.

“I was in marketing for many years before I opened the store, so I knew I needed to open in a real neighborhood where I’d have repeat customers, not just tourists,” said Cohen. “But when they all left for the beach, I had to have a solution to bring in people, and I never dreamed how popular these classes would be.”

He started offering the classes in August, and within the first month, Cohen said business at his storefront shot up by 30%, and classes were completely sold out for a four-month stretch. Cohen is currently shopping for another location on New York’s Upper East Side. The classes last three hours and cost $120 per person.

“It’s a money maker,” he said. “It was designed to give us exposure and bring business into the store, and people who came to the workshop now order our product to their offices or come here for bachelorette parties or corporate team building.”

The additional cost burden of these classes tends to be minimal, according to Gegax, because most of the required ingredients and supplies are already on hand and available to order. All that a small business needs to invest in offering a class is the employee’s time, the advertising and perhaps a few essentials like aprons or instruction booklets.

“People will pay a lot more for these classes than the product is worth, so most of the class cost is going to benefit the bottom line,” he said.

In Burbank, Calif., Tiffini Soforenko ,owner of Yummy Cupcakes, began offering classes three years ago after opening her first bakeshop in 2005. The company now has three locations in California, and is opening two new locations later this year in Istanbul and Qatar.

“When we first offered classes, we thought we would get a lot of people who loved our product and wanted to learn more about it, but we found that the majority of people who came had never been in our store and had never even heard of us. It opened us up to a whole new set of customers,” Soforenko said.

Yummy  Cupcakes classes cost $75 for adults, and customers leave with at least one dozen cupcakes to take home and a gift card to purchase half a dozen cupcakes on a future visit. The flavor of cake and icing baked changes monthly, and classes are only offered on Sundays, which was a conscious decision by Soforenko—it’s the shop’s slowest business day.

“Having the classes on Sunday gives us a chance to maximize those hours. So, yes, we are making money on this, but I like having people in the class. We also find that it’s great for our staff because they are all culinary graduates and they are so proud of what they do.”

Offering classes also gives off an added sense of expertise and skill, according to Gegax.

“If you’re offering workshops, people are going to say, ‘Oh, they are pretty sharp. They are so good at what they do that they are actually teaching everyone else how to do it.’ The product that you’re giving them has to be outstanding, or the whole experience is going to fall short.”

Before any small business offers classes, Gegax says owners need to assess the required time commitment to do them right. “You’re going to need at least three hours to teach the class, and then probably one for set up and another one for clean-up.” He also advised owners evaluate their staffing levels to avoid getting stuck teaching all the evening classes and burning out.

“It’s easy to sell a product, but it’s another thing entirely to try and teach it.”

Alice Goldsmith, owner and designer at Alice Goldsmith Ceramics in New York said that she has learned as much from her pottery students as they’ve learned from her.

“At a certain point as a business owner, you know the marketing and you know the product development, but it’s time to add something new to the mix. I knew classes would be fun, but it’s shown me a lot about the learning process. Everyone learns in a different way, and with a class of eight people, it can be challenging to phrase directions in a way that eight people can all understand.”

Goldsmith teaches three-hour pottery-making classes at her Brooklyn workshop for $45 per person, which includes clay, a lesson on the pottery wheel, and the firing and glazing of one item.

Since first offering the classes in August, Goldsmith said she has experienced an increase in sales, and she started a new line of pottery for sale in her shop called “Brooklyn People’s Pottery.”

“When people see the time and effort that goes into making something, they want to get involved, and they are more likely to purchase that item later, whether it’s a cupcake or a handmade bowl,” said Goldsmith.