INTERVIEW WITH AN EXPERT
Chef Nancy Robinson on starting her own business: MRS. ROBINSON COOKS!
Nancy Robinson, owner and head chef of Mrs. Robinson Cooks!, is an entrepreneur who made a dramatic career change in 2003 when she left her job in industrial and organizational psychology to start her own firm. After all, she was on a solid career track working in the government and private industry.
But five years later, the entrepreneur told me she wouldn’t change a thing. Read on to learn more about how Nancy made the transition from corporate citizen to business owner.
ALICE WAAGEN: Most entrepreneurs start a business based on the work they did in their corporate positions, but you made a dramatic shift from industrial and organizational psychology to catering. Very brave of you! How did it happen?
CHEF NANCY: I spent 10 years in the corporate world, steadily climbing the career ladder. I had spent years getting my masters and working in the field and was content with my career progress.
Then I had my first son, and returned to the working world. But by the time my second son was born, I found the work/life balance issues to be too challenging.
Luckily, my organization was looking to reduce the size of its workforce so I took the opportunity to opt out for a while and raise my family. I won’t lie and say it was easy—especially the part about going from two full-time incomes to one, which put a crunch on our finances.
So I started to do a lot more from-scratch cooking. Soon, I found that I had a natural talent for cooking and entertaining and folks told me that I should start up my own culinary business.
The nice thing about my company is that I was able to ramp it up over the years as my sons grew and their need for me to be fully involved in their lives diminished. I first started marketing my personal chef services in my neighborhood, then expanded and grew the catering business.
Today, I have dozens of clients all across the Washington metro area and have appeared on TV talk shows. It has been an exciting ride.
ALICE WAAGEN: What upfront planning did you do before you launched Mrs. Robinson Cooks!?
CHEF NANCY: Like many of the entrepreneurs I know, I just jumped in and started working. I was fortunate in that my husband’s income and benefits was a strong anchor that got us through the startup phase.
One thing I do wish I had known before I started was how to actually run a business.
My biggest challenge has been managing the back end of the company because I didn’t have any experience or training in that area. And things like marketing, profit and loss sheets, and best accounting practices were foreign to me, so I had to learn as I went along.
Of course, I made a few financial blunders along the way, but I chalk that up to being part of the learning process. After all, no one can truly be a master of all things.
In retrospect, I could have hired someone to help me put together a business and marketing plan, but funds were tight at the beginning. Now that I’m at the five-year mark, I feel good about what I’ve built, but am taking the time now to step back and assess where I want to go next.
ALICE WAAGEN: Do you ever get the urge to go back to corporate life?
CHEF NANCY: Being on my own gives me the flexibility to integrate my business and home life, and quite honestly that is the most important thing to me right now.
My children are still in school, and I love having the flexibility to set limits on the number of jobs I do, and the number of weekends I work so I can play an active role in my sons’ lives. I couldn’t do that if I still had a big corporate job.
Plus, once I was away from the corporate world for a number of years, I found that I no longer needed or wanted the identity that goes with that type of work. I no longer cared to be the working woman, climbing the career ladder, rushing off to meetings and chasing deadlines.
The contentious nature of my corporate job was draining and once I was away from it for a while I decided I did not want to go back to that kind of life.
ALICE WAAGEN: And what keeps you attracted and interested in being a business owner?
CHEF NANCY: The more I learn about running a business, the more I find that I have talent in areas I never knew I’d enjoy, like closing deals. I also find that I am good at proposing new ideas to clients and encouraging them to opt for new levels of service.
I also now use my business planning skills in my personal life, to help my family on issues in the community. It is really exciting for me to see that there are no boundaries between what I do professionally and personally. This was certainly not the case when I worked in the corporate world.
ALICE WAAGEN: What do you see for the future for Mrs. Robinson Cooks!?
CHEF NANCY: Good question! I am thinking long and hard about that right now. Quite honestly, the catering and personal chef business is physically demanding. Just last week, I had 5 jobs in 6 days and was exhausted at the end in it.
So although I love what I do, I am thinking of creating some products that will keep me in the culinary world that I love, but will enable me to create a business that is less physically demanding.
I am looking to experiment with some alternative income streams in the next few years and see where they take me and my evolving company. Stay tuned!
ABOUT CHEF NANCY ROBINSON
What began as a passionate hobby has now grown into a successful business. Since 2003, Chef Nancy Robinson has been delighting clients with her enthusiastic love for cooking, command of fresh ingredients and cooking methods, attention to detail, and friendly personality.
Chef Nancy is a member of the American Personal and Private Chef Association, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and is a Certified Food Protection Manager. She is active in numerous business groups, including the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce, and she participates and volunteers in her local community.
Mrs. Robinson Cooks! has steadily grown over the last five years in the metropolitan Washington area, including Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland.
Her clients include busy families, time-crunched professionals, elderly and retired persons, nonprofit organizations, businesses, political groups, and religious and social clubs.
To hire Chef Nancy Robinson to cater your next event, visit www.mrsrobinsoncooks.com.