Anne Smith is CEO of Oregon Bark in Portland, Oregon
What made you decide to open a cooking school? Well, it’s kind of a complicated story which I could spend way too much time on. To try to make it a little simple, it’s like this: All my summer jobs in high school and college were cooking jobs. I had every intention of pursuing a career as a chef, but when I graduated from college, I had one particularly difficult job at a very large catering company in Denver, Colorado. They made food on such a tremendous scale that it was no longer the creative outlet that it had been for me for so long. We’d spend three days in a row doing nothing but assembling egg rolls, for example. I felt like I was working in a factory. I didn’t love living in Colorado so I moved back east to Washington, D.C., my hometown. There I pursued another passion which was art, and a few years later, I was working at a very creative production company called Colossal Pictures in San Francisco, making animated t.v. commercials. I worked in production for eight years and was very good at it, but I always fantasized about how to get back into food without starting at the bottom again. Over the years in San Francisco, I became very close to my friend Karen Hillenburg, who was a professional chef who I had made through a mutual friend in the animation world. Karen moved down to Los Angeles to get married, and worked at a cooking school there. She loved teaching, but didn’t like the management at that school, and, knowing that I wanted to get back into food, she suggested that we start a cooking school together. She had the culinary experience and I had the business experience and passion for food, so we started the school together and it just clicked right away. Karen moved on to other things after about two and a half years, and by then I really had a good understanding of how to put classes together, and the kinds of things that our students were looking for, so from that point on, I was the real leader of the school.
How long did you own it?
I owned the New School of Cooking for eleven and a half years. Are there things about running a cooking school that you would like to pass on to someone contemplating such a career? Well it’s kind of a niche career, don’t you think? And to that point, because it’s such a unique occupation, so many people I’ve met along the way were so interested in the whole process. I almost came to dread being asked what I did for a living! I think the reason I was so successful with the New School was that I had an amazing team of very qualified instructors–there’s no way it would have worked otherwise. Beyond that, my own passion for food and appreciation for quality ingredients really helped me a lot. My school was unique in that I would shop at a minimum of two farmers markets a week to make sure that we had seasonal, local ingredients of the highest quality. The same was true for all of our other food supplies–I really hunted down the most authentic ingredients that I could find. And another profoundly fundamental part of the job was interacting with people. I really love people and love creating community, and I think that really helped us stand out. I think if I had any advice to give someone considering opening a cooking school, it would be to make sure that you are passionate enough about teaching people how to make good food that you are willing to be on call all the time, and that you try to keep the recipes and classes as fresh and as current as you can.
How did you decide to pursue a new venture in producing and selling artisanal chocolates?
The fact that I am now making artisanal chocolates is pretty crazy with a touch of absurd mixed in! I moved to Portland, Oregon last year because I fell in love with a man who lives here. (And for the sake of storytelling, I’ll mention that we had met twenty one years ago at that production company in San Francisco and reconnected on Facebook.) I loved running the school, but it was an enormous amount of work, and I wanted to do something with food on a smaller scale that I could do on my own, for at least a little while. I had tasted a chocolate bark with sea salt which was delicious when I lived in southern California, but I thought it could be improved upon and that I could use my marketing chops to get it to market. One day last summer it occurred to me that if I made a great chocolate bark, it would be cool if it were named Oregon Bark, and lo and behold! The name was available. So, with a very basic understanding of chocolate making, I set out to make a unique chocolate product. I have always been crazy about English toffee, and so I worked that into the bark, and from there, have developed three flavors of bark plus what are really some of the most delicious chocolate covered toffee pieces I’ve tasted. I am such a perfectionist that I wouldn’t brag about my toffee if it weren’t brag-worthy, and I’m telling you, it’s crisp and crumbly and buttery and rich with vanilla and brown sugar. But it was a lot of trial and error with an emphasis on error.
What have you learned about the food business? What have been your biggest challenges?
Well, I’ve learned a lot about the food business, and am learning more every day. I’m making Oregon Bark and toffee chips out of a great commercial kitchen here in Portland, Oregon called Kitchen Cru. It’s an incubator for other food producers and manufacturers and it has a wonderful feeling of support and community. I’ve been able to do a lot of networking and learning through my connections at the kitchen. I’m so new that it’s hard to address the question of challenges. Probably the area that I agonized over the most was packaging. I wanted to use a box that had a deluxe feel to it, that would display well on a shelf, and that would ship in a standard USPS small shipping box. I wanted something that would show my beautiful product and also protect it. The first boxes I used were almost 80 cents each and seemed so perfect when I decided on them. They had a cute little velcro closure. Well, that velcro closure was held onto the box by glue that was less strong than the velcro itself, so my boxes started popping open on store shelves. Not exactly what you want to buy as a shopper. So I pulled the trigger on custom printed boxes which fit all my criteria, but I had to buy 2500 of them in order to be able to make the price per unit reasonable. It was a big commitment pretty early in my process. Other challenges have been with making an artisanal candy with a wide fluctuation in climate conditions. Chocolate and toffee are very temperamental, and neither one likes too much moisture in the air or too much heat. Long term, I’d love to have my own climate controlled kitchen. As I grow, I’m sure I’ll continue to learn a lot about how to scale up.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people trying to reinvent themselves?
Yes. Be fearless. My ambition has been largely motivated by a powerful aversion to authority. I’ve been willing to work really hard to be able to be my own boss, and that has helped me a lot. When I started the cooking school, so many people would ask, “so what will you do if the cooking school fails?” And it struck me that I had no plan for what to do if the school failed because I believed it would succeed. I’ve had that same attitude about Oregon Bark–At first, I just acted as though I knew how to make candy, but now I know how to make some really delicious candy. It’s very important to thoroughly research your competition and to understand the industry you are getting into. But you MUST be a person who DOES if you want to succeed. You cannot succeed by fretting and holding back; put another way, you can’t get where you want to go by just putting your toe in the water. You have to dive in!