In 2009 Jeremy Pang, an ex-biochemical engineer, ex-marketing manager, stepped away from his known careers and turned to his long-time passion: food. Following the loss of his father, compounded by redundancy, Pang took the plunge and started his own business and founded School of Wok (pun intended), offering customers the chance to learn how to cook Chinese food, in the comfort of their own home. At the age of 25, Pang embraced the true entrepreneurial spirit of starting a business that encapsulated his fun-loving-never-too-serious side.
Starting up during the recession
2009, was the height of the recession, obvious to see just by looking at the food trends alone; the popularity of street food, communal tables at restaurants, top-to-tail cooking, the rise of TV cooking shows and the emerging recreational ‘cookery school’.
Unlike pre-recession Britain, when entertaining almost always included a reputable restaurant and shelling out a hunk of cash, post-recession Britain saw a return to in home entertaining, and equally the need to improving ones home cooking. Jeremy had always intended School of Wok to be predominantly recreational, where those with a bit of disposable income and a penchant for good food would spend a few hours with a trained instructor, learning to cook Chinese dishes in the comfort of their own homes.
However, the popularity and rise of cookery schools also meant that new businesses were left to fight tooth and nail to offer something ‘different’ to their customers in order to bat off the competition. Unlike restaurants which, once established, rely on returning customers and one solid menu, cookery schools must continue to reach new markets and additionally, create new material to also engage already existing customers, in order to keep the business afloat. It is the ultimate balancing act.
Today, many of the cookery schools that opened just a few years ago have already shut their doors for good. Larger corporations have bought out some of the smaller independent schools, others have downsized significantly. The trend for the recreational cookery school, as it turns out, is a difficult one to sustain; from ever-rising rents, the costs of skilled staff, and the constant investment required to find new customers, whilst maintaining a wide enough profit margin to cover the usual business costs.
The early days
Pangs original solo-venture has evolved into a permanent establishment in Covent Garden since 2012, is now co-owned additionally by Neville Leaning and Max Rees, and employing a team of twelve permanent staff. The company has grown in reach significantly since Jeremy’s man-and-a-pan days, having released its own range of woks, along with recently bringing their own FMCG meal kit range in house and Jeremy’s growing profile within the food and media world. School of Wok’s next steps include a crowd-funding venture; a now common practice amongst small businesses that has allowed for the kind of potential for growth and reach that could have never previously been imagined.
The school and Jeremy Pang’s business plan have changed significantly since day one, but the message and mission to teach others how to cook great Asian food and have fun remains the same.
Below Jeremy offers up a few insights on what it takes to run a small business in Central London, what’s really behind running a niche business, and some helpful tips for those just starting out.
Jeremy Pang on his start-up journey
My first bit of advice when starting out would be to first gather up your friends, family, people you trust and have them point out holes in your plan! When I brought the School of Wok idea to my friends and family the big question that I asked everyone was, “If I were to start this business up, what do you think would be the biggest barriers?” The most popular answer was ‘lack of trust’ – that is, who is this guy holding a wok in one hand and a bag of knives in the other, and why should I let him into my home?
At first, my customers were mostly earned by word of mouth; early adopters of the ‘experience gift generation’ that we now fully embrace. I was given a little advice from a good friend of mine Nick Telson (Co-Founder of Designmynight.com) on how to use Google places, track my business through analytics, and once my website had been established with Nick’s tips I was able to increase my reach by nearly tenfold, with half of my customers being completely new business..
In 2010, my business partner Nev joined me, and with his events expertise, we had the confidence to venture out and test the market further. We ran two different cookery businesses side-by-side, each offering the same kind of service but one featuring Western cuisine and the other continuing in Chinese cuisine. It helped us gather information about what customers wanted so we knew what to grow and where to spend.
We invested in our future through operational costs. If we had a big job and required new equipment, we would only buy the equipment once the job had been confirmed. We trained our friends and family to help as support staff before we knew we could afford to hire a permanent team. We tried to move forward only when we knew we could, rather than going too fast and risk having to downscale We saved as much money as we could for when we felt like we had a good idea of where our place in the cookery school world should be.. “Speculate to accumulate” is a great phrase, but it misses out the first step – you have got to save up enough to be able to speculate in the first place! Even still we both went without a proper paycheck for the first two years after establishing our school in Covent Garden, whilst working upwards of 70-hour weeks, mostly on our feet.
Starting your own business will always involve sacrifice and anxiety; the worry that customers will think you’re an amateur, or what you are doing isn’t worth paying for. Do your research, try to take feedback as constructive rather than personal, and don’t attach yourself to one finite plan; that is how School of Wok has survived. We are constantly retesting the market, responding to trends and letting go of ideas or practices that just aren’t serving us. Egos also have to remain in check, all whilst continuing to fuel not only our passion but also that of our employees.
There is no greater resource for a small business than an enthusiastic, self-starter employee. We have made sure to prioritise finding the right people, allowing them to grow and develop within the business. By understanding early on just how crucial this was we are now able to focus on developing the School of Wok brand with exciting new projects rather than just the day-to-day struggles.
We are living out our dream jobs and helping to create dream jobs for others, not to mention the incomparable satisfaction of teaching a well-received class, interacting with an enthusiastic and curious student. It’s worth every ounce of effort we have put into this business. Persistence is key, and most importantly, what I have learnt about business, is that if all else fails, being able to offer a good meal and a cuppa tea to your clients takes you a long way in any business!
Jeremy Pang is the head chef and founder of School of Wok.