After a career in startups and a not-so-little startup called Dell, Joi Chevalier decided it was time to go to culinary school. She was well-established in the industry but not ready to retire. She grew up in a family where food was a central force and thought that might be a good pivot, but she didn’t want to be a chef.
She did, however, want to learn everything she could about starting a business in the food industry, and culinary school seemed like the only place to do it.
For eight months, Chevalier would get off work from Dell at 4 p.m., drive to the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, change into her chef whites in the car and then take classes until 11 p.m.
It was a grueling schedule, but the longer Chevalier was in school, where all the business classes were focused on running a restaurant, the more clearly she could see what she wanted to do next: build a food incubator to provide entrepreneurial support to people working in all kinds of food businesses, not just restaurants.
“I was the oldest person in the room. I said, ‘I don’t want a restaurant. I don’t want to be on anybody’s line.’ I wanted to create a product that doesn’t exist. What is the need that hasn’t been met?” she says.
“I decided my product would be an incubator space. People don’t know how to get a product to market efficiently or get in the headspace of being an entrepreneur. Someone might be really good at marketing, but they don’t know how to iterate or come up with a minimum viable product with managed costs.”
In December 2014, with the business plan that she developed in culinary school in hand, Chevalier bought a three-bedroom house behind Callahan’s General Store and got to work bringing the Cook’s Nook to light.
It took more than two years to clear all the construction, permits and inspections, but the result is a new East Austin hub that includes a 2,000-foot production kitchen, cold and dry storage and 1,500 feet of a light-filled demonstration area and co-working space.
Next week, Chevalier will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open the doors, but she already has a healthy membership of food business owners who meet regularly as a group and individually with her. With so many food businesses launching every year, shared kitchen space can be hard to come by in Central Texas, but Chevalier is focused on making the community aspect of Cook’s Nook its most valuable asset. “The co-working space builds social capital, which is so important to any food ecosystem,” she says.
When Erin Asaad came to Chevalier with her business plan to make coconut-milk-based salad dressings, Chevalier put together a tasting panel to give her feedback on the products. After they’d tried the dressings, Asaad also threw in a sample of the yogurt she made with the coconut milk.
The mood in the room shifted. “I told her, ‘Why are you trying to talk to me about salad dressings? This is some of the best yogurt I’ve ever had,’” Chevalier says. Asaad took their advice and changed her whole business to focus on the coconut yogurt, which she now sells under her Kokonut brand at Wheatsville, Royal Blue and several other local stores and farmers markets.
“Joi has been a huge help to me as I have launched Kokonut into the Austin market,” Asaad says. “When I first met her, Kokonut was only an idea, and her guidance helped turn Kokonut from an idea into a shelf-ready product. I can’t wait to see how the Cooks Nook grows and continues to help people like myself.”
Even though many of her members are making a food product meant to be consumed, Chevalier also has membership levels for food professionals, including writers, photographers and app developers, and people who are just in the idea-generation stage.
“I help them ask, ‘Who is this product for? Why are you doing it? Why do you care about this market? How are you going to sustain your business?’”
She’s good at asking these questions. They are the same questions she’s been asking herself since long before those late nights in culinary school where the idea for Cook’s Nook began.
You can find out more about the Cook’s Nook, 502 Thompson Lane, at cooksnook.net.