38: Leading An Industry Through Community Building

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You’ve probably used #communityovercompetition in one of your social posts. But what does that really mean? Chris Spear shares his motivation behind unifying an industry and sending business to his competition.

I met Chris when he created a custom dinner for my Back to Business retreat attendees earlier this fall. After sharing the story behind each course, Chris opened up a bit about his business journey. It was then I knew I had to have him on the show to share his unique approach to bringing an industry together.

On this episode, Chris and I talk about:

  • Building a business that didn’t exist elsewhere,

  • Marketing an unfamiliar concept to a niche audience,

  • Refusing to compromise your vision for a quick paycheck,

  • Selling convenience, and

  • Why he built a community full of his competition.

MEET CHRIS SPEAR

Chris is a chef and owner of Perfect Little Bites, a personal chef business based in the metro Washington DC area, bringing the restaurant experience to your home.

Two years ago he founded a networking group called Chefs Without Restaurants. His vision for the group was to have a community of food entrepreneurs focused on helping and supporting each other rather than seeing other businesses as competition.

Chris developed him love of food when he started cooking at home with his mom at five years old. At 16 he wanted to start working in kitchens. Knowing how hard the industry can be, his father tried to dissuade him, but decided it was better at that point to find out whether he’d love it or not.

Since that first job, Chris has never worked outside of food.

Admittedly, it’s a hard industry to survive. There are long days spent on your feet. Chris described the physical nature of the job--heavy lifting, bending over a table, and the emotional stress caused by the constant churn. But it’s work that Chris loves.

FINDING A HOLE IN THE MARKET

15 years ago, Chris and his wife--a recovering chef-- were working for a company whose owners only took on big parties. Every once in a while a couple would call asking for a professionally cooked meal in their home. Their bosses could not be less interested in that opportunity--it wasn’t worth the time or the money--but they realized it could be good PR for the business. So they asked Chris and his wife if they’d be interested in taking on the job on behalf of their brand.

After a couple of gigs, Chris asked his wife, “Do you think this is a thing? Could we have a catering company doing parties of 2-20?”

Without needing a commercial kitchen, he imagined keeping the production small and mobile, with almost no overhead costs.

They had also just moved to Frederick, Maryland. This location was perfectly triangulated between major cities: DC, Baltimore, Gettysburg, and dozens of suburbs. So in 2009 he set off to see how he could make this idea work.

After looking online, he found something called the Personal Chef Association. They allowed you to take a two-day course to become a member. Chris was in.

But inside the class were mostly beginners. They were being taught to cook a week’s worth of meals to leave at someone’s home. How to get business? They were encouraged to wear their chef’s jacket to the grocery store and wait until someone asked what they did, to which they would respond, “I’m a personal chef.”

With 20 years of experience cooking, Chris was beyond the fake-it-til-you-make-it approach. He looked around some more and still found no one doing what he envisioned.

He decided then and there that he would become the go-to chef that brings the restaurant experience to your home.

DEVELOPING A NICHE

In the beginning, the feedback Chris got was that he needed to clarify more upfront what he was doing. People didn’t--and sometimes still don’t--understand that he’s bringing everything: the food, the silverware, and the china. He would show up to a customer’s house and they would have set the table for him.

Aside from education, Chris has had to become good at reading a room. Bringing an experience into someone’s home means being prepared for anything.

Some guests will ask him to sit down at the table and eat with him. Others want to know the story behind the dish. And still others desire a cooking lesson along the way.

One thing he hasn’t done is sacrificed his approach for income. 

Since his inception, he’s only done plated in-home meals for small groups. He could have easily accepted orders for boxed lunches, a company luncheon, or wedding to make some quick cash. But it was more important to stick to the high-end experience as he was building a brand.

One thing Chris underestimated is how much he was selling convenience in addition to great food. When you’re charging $100/head you’re competing with some of the higher end restaurants in big markets. Sure he cooks cool food, but so do many other chefs. Bringing that experience to his clients was what would end up making him stand out.

CREATING A NETWORK OF COMPETITORS

Most of Chris’s mentors aren’t recognizable to the general public. They’re not Food Network stars. One such couple--a company named Ideas In Food--provided a much-needed community for Chris.

They blogged every day for fifteen years and would answer all questions that chefs sent their way. They led the way by believing that you’ll always have more ideas than you can execute, so sharing with others won’t hurt your business.

Inspired by them, Chris decided to start a small networking group for chefs who didn’t have a restaurant home. He called it Chefs Without Restaurants.

Whether you were a personal chef, caterer, or food truck operator, you could join and share resources and gigs. It would be a place these chefs with solo careers could hang out and help each other. Within one weekend of opening, the community idea was picked up by the DC City Paper and his Facebook group grew immediately to 200 members.

Today Chefs Without Restaurants is pushing 1,000 members across all platforms.

Chris doesn’t charge to join and he doesn’t make a commission off of referrals. While he’d love to monetize it one day, he doesn’t think the burden should be on the chef. Existing referral platforms like Thumbtack already take such a huge cut to connect you with an opportunity, which doesn’t make it financially viable for many independent business owners.

But Chris does benefit from his network. As the organizer, he tends to get top preference when jobs come in and he’s often put on jobs that are available because of another business owner’s reputation.

He’s glad this group wasn’t financially motivated. He knows well it’s easy to chase the money. But once you start doing that, you’ve lost sight of what’s most valuable. His relationship with his colleagues and customers is of utmost importance to him. Once that’s gone, he believes all that’s left is a simple transaction.

CLONING YOUR EXPERIENCE

Chris sees this Chefs Without Restaurants growing into a global community. But that doesn’t come without risk.

As the guy who does customized plated dinners, he has to deal with the reality that not all of his peers hold themselves to such high standards. He’s sure that 95% of the people he refers to will not provide the same experience he does.

At a point, he’s putting his brand on the line by passing off business to someone else.

This is what Chris is focused on now as he continues to build the Perfect Little Bites brand. While he’d love to hire five more chefs, he’s got to be certain that the customer experience is maintained.

His advice: keep checking in with yourself and re-evaluating what your metrics for success are. Is it money? Is it happiness? And sometimes being honest that there’s going to be a margin of error as you scale and that’s okay too.

What’s next for Chris? Zeroing in even more on his ideal customer, getting in front of them, and cutting through the noise.