Pandemic Pivots: The Story of Cuiline with CEO Tamar Lowell
When word started to spread about a new global pandemic in February 2020 leading to a cascade of cancellations for international travel, Tamar Lowell had a feeling that this health crisis was going to be different. As the owner of Access Culinary Trips, a tour company specializing in culinary tours to destinations such as Vietnam, South Africa, Morocco, Italy, and other global cities, when travel ground to a halt Tamar knew she would need to completely reimagine her business to survive.
With a vast network of culinary stars from around the world, Tamar saw an opportunity to bring her tours to life virtually to inspire home cooks, as COVID restrictions had millions stuck in their homes working, schooling, and most importantly, cooking three or more meals a day. She took a gamble on this new concept, creating Cuiline, and put together a veritable smorgasbord of cooking classes that allowed people to experience different cultures by cooking with chefs around the world. The chefs, some of whom were B&B proprietors and others who operated small cooking schools, jumped at the chance, as they were out of work until travel resumed.
hertelier chats with Tamar about how she created Cuiline, a business that has not only survived but thrived amidst the global pandemic.
Can you share with us how Cuiline got started?
When travel came to a total standstill, like everyone else we were a little stunned. Borders were closing, each country had different policies, and many of us had to hunker down and quarantine at home. I was naturally concerned about the future of our business, our employees, and the talented chefs, restaurants, and cooking schools that we partnered with for our immersive culinary tours. But with everyone cooking more than ever before out of necessity or boredom, we decided to bring live cooking classes with chefs from around the world into people’s home kitchens. The key was that the classes needed to be fun and easy like they were on our tours. Sending our clients a long shopping list of hard-to-find ingredients felt like a lot of work for them, so we came up with the idea to ship pre-measured ingredients directly to their homes.
Wow, you had the idea in March and launched it by July 2020. How did you get it going so fast and what were some of the biggest challenges in starting the business?
We were so fortunate to start with an amazing team of product, design, culinary, and customer service professionals. We had a clear vision of what we were trying to achieve, and our existing team, new hires, and chef network were all excited to bring our new concept to life. Everyone was laser-focused on what they needed to do, from chef onboarding to menu development, website creation to market research, and of course, setting up our kitchen operations. The biggest challenge was finding a reliable method to deliver pre-measured, and often hard-to-find ingredients. We quickly realized that in order to provide the high-quality experience we envisioned we had no choice but to set up and operate our own commercial kitchen. Doing that in the middle of a pandemic added additional layers of complexity, but we have built a fantastic kitchen team and are now operating out of a purpose-built kitchen. We also had to adapt many of the recipes for home cooks in the U.S. We prepare all of the recipes in our U.S.-based test kitchen and then work together with our chefs to write them up clearly and consistently, ensuring that the recipes retain their authenticity.
Was it hard for the chefs to go from teaching in-person to virtual?
Online teaching was new to many of our chefs, so we used customer-centric design to identify what was important in an online cooking event. We then had to train our chefs to offer a consistent, yet authentic, high-quality experience across the various different classes –whether the chef was Zooming in from Japan, Greece, Spain, or Argentina.
We also needed the right technical solutions, including upgrading the technology that many of our chefs had at home. And we worked with our chefs to install multiple cameras in their kitchen to clearly demonstrate their techniques and methods.
Another key innovation was creating the concept of a virtual kitchen assistant – a U.S.-based Cuiline employee – who partners with our chefs to moderate each class. They help our clients set up their kitchens and their technology, jump in if someone gets stuck or falls behind the rest of the class, and ensure that the class moves along smoothly. This allows our chefs to focus on teaching their craft and providing one-on-one attention to our clients. The only thing we haven’t figured out yet is how to clean our clients’ kitchens after the class!
Were there any surprises?
One of the surprises – albeit a welcome one – was the demand for virtual gatherings for businesses. Our corporate business exploded – particularly over the holidays. Comprising more than 70% of our business, we have really been able to meet the demand for virtual events and have hosted client entertainment, team building, recruiting, and holiday party events for over 200 corporate clients such as Google, Amazon, Capital One, Pfizer, and Toyota. Particularly gratifying is that we have a 100% satisfaction rating from corporate clients.
How has the business evolved from when you first started?
We’ve had to be nimble and have adapted and evolved since we first launched. I’m constantly reviewing what clients love, what they want more of, and what is not working. When we first started, all of the classes were three-hour, multi-course meals in order to give our clients an immersive experience, where they can connect with the culture and chat with the chef. Turns out, not everybody has three hours to spare! It quickly became clear that our corporate clients wanted shorter events, so we created 90-minute menus that we have since introduced to the consumer market as well. We’ve also become more flexible in offering customers the option to purchase home delivery of all ingredients, including meat, produce, fish, etc. – or the option to buy just the class with no ingredients at a much lower price. We now have a range of Cuiline experiences, starting at $55 for a 90-minute class to $235 for a three-hour, three-course class that includes home delivery of all ingredients. In keeping with the many dietary restrictions and preferences, any class can be adapted for Dairy Free, Gluten Free, Vegetarian, or Vegan.
What makes Cuiline different from the other virtual cooking classes out there?
What sets Cuiline apart from other online cooking classes is that all of our chefs and instructors are from the regions for which their class is represented – adding a level of authenticity and a cultural component not often found in U.S.-based cooking classes. Our clients feel like they have gone to Tuscany or Tokyo for the evening. Overall we offer a more premium product than most of our competitors, blending the authenticity with high-quality interactive instruction, and then adding in the fully loaded ingredient kits. It’s all taken care of!
Have you employed hotel chefs?
Our chefs come from all different backgrounds. Some teach cooking classes to locals and visitors alike while others work in restaurants or hotels. For example, Chef Antonella ran a small B&B in Tuscany and Chef Karen runs a B&B in New Orleans. We even work with the chefs of the legendary Maison Arabe hotel in Marrakech.
For others thinking of offering online learning, what do you think makes for the best experience?
We operate at the intersection of entertainment, education, and food. So for us, it’s about making it fun and interactive, with a delicious prize at the end.
What’s next for Cuiline?
We are continuing to expand our portfolio of classes and chefs. We also just opened a new commercial kitchen in Seattle that increases our capacity sixfold to meet the growing demand for shipping ingredient kits. And we have recently introduced the option to add-on cocktails for corporate events. This includes home delivery of cocktail kits to those who live in states where that is legal and a bartender-led mixology session.
Do you think the demand for virtual events will continue as life gets back to normal?
Like hybrid working, we believe that there will remain continued demand for virtual events. It will mature into its own category, not replacing in-person events but as another option. Online events allow companies to improve client and employee engagement by enabling them to connect more regularly and cost-effectively in a relaxed environment from their own homes instead of waiting for a single annual retreat. Remote online events will never fully replace in-person events, nor should they, but they are certainly here to stay.