talking shop


Creating revenue beyond retail

Award-winning retailer The Chopping Block of Chicago is on a mission to ‘get America cooking’, says founder and owner Shelley Young


S retailer The Chopping Block opened in a small cottage in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighbourhood in 1997, when

founder and owner Shelley Young came up with the idea of combining a recreational cooking school with a cookshop. Shelley taught each class herself at first, but

began to grow her staff and the store as she found that many customers needed assistance in selecting kitchen equipment. The concept of a cooking school with a personal

touch worked too, and to meet demand, The Chopping Block relocated to a 4,000sq ft premises in Chicago’s Lincoln Square in 2003. Two years later, Lincoln Square was joined by a second branch in Chicago at the Merchandise Mart, where an 8,000sq ft space allowed it to accommodate the city’s budding interest in private cooking parties. The Chopping Block is now one of the busiest

recreational cooking schools in the country, hosting hundreds of classes and events each month. In March, Shelley’s achievement was recognised

when The Chopping Block was crowned one of the top five housewares retailers in the world in the 2018 gia (Global Innovation Awards) programme. This annual competition is organised by The

International Home + Housewares Show of Chicago and the International Housewares Association of the US to honour housewares retailing excellence. The gia judges said: “The Chopping Block brings the classroom into a retail store, and this is a truly inspiring and innovative approach to cooking, teaching and retail.” Shelley explains: “We use the square footage of

our premises to create revenue beyond just retail. We carry great stuff, and if those pieces make someone happy in the kitchen or improve their results and/or their efficiency, then that’s great. But

we have no interest in selling something to someone, just to sell it.” From a retail perspective, The Chopping Block has

evolved gradually over the years. “We’ve always had a well-edited product mix but our stores today reflect a more curated visual experience,” says Shelley. “In the beginning, we only carried what we felt was the best product in every category. Now we carry different price points in some key items. Part of the reasoning behind that decision is that there are better products out there worth acknowledging.” One aspect that has not changed though is

Shelley’s reliance on a publicist to get word of her business out. “I’ve had a publicist since the day we opened, and that was one of the best moves I’ve made,” she says. “I’m a natural storyteller, and I wove a great story in the early days that really worked in the media channels. “But one day my publicist came to me and said:

“You have to do this yourself Shelley. Old media is dead, and social media is the new wave, and you need to get ahead of it.” At the same time, staff member Andrea Miller told

Shelley that she wanted to take on the challenge. “Andrea has experience in journalism and television production, along with a culinary degree. She knows our business, and she was ready,” says Shelley. “She keeps me and the company up to date with

what’s happening in social media and technology, in relation to marketing. She spearheaded our new website and the platform technology that it’s built upon, and we’re very proud of that.”

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Andrea adds: “We’re incredibly active on social media. A large portion of my job is monitoring the conversation around The Chopping Block on different sites (such as Facebook, Instagram, Yelp and TripAdvisor). We actively respond to each interaction and review - and try hard to engage our audience on the platform of their choice.” From ‘how to cook’ videos to free downloadable

resources such as ‘Knife Skills 101’ and ‘A Home Cook’s Guide to Butchery’, Andrea is constantly creating information to educate people on how to cook, even if they aren’t in close proximity to the company’s schools. So what’s next for Shelley? Far from resting on her

laurels following the gia win, she recently completed the building of a cooking innovation centre in the countryside of Michigan. It’s essentially a ‘barn’ for experimentation. “The barn is where I’m working on filming,

writing, recipes and product R&D,” she says. “I’m on a steep learning curve right now, developing and refining cooking techniques and skills. I’m researching and playing with technology and how that supports education, cooking and communication. “In simple terms, I’m reflecting on everything I’ve

learned in the last 40 years of cooking, and over the last 21 years since The Chopping Block was created. I’m looking for opportunities that support our mission of ‘getting this country cooking’. October/November 2018

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