Networking and Word-of-Mouth Work for Barbara Converse

Personal Chef Magazine

January 1, 2005
by Carol Anderson

Jack the cat, Jill the puppy and a satisfactory client load makes Personal Chef Barbara Converse a happy lady. It wasn't always that way, though.

Barbara's first spent 15 years as a medical technician. It was a fairly satisfying type of work, but not ideal for her. In the early 1980s, she had a passion and a vision to pursue something else. That something else was to go to culinary school, choosing the New York Restaurant School at the New School for Social Research.

For a while she again worked in the medical field, but layoffs — and learning about the USPCA — drove her back to the field of cooking. The first layoff provided the incentive and dollars to purchase the USPCA training system. By the second layoff, Barbara was already working part-time as a personal chef. At this point, she made the commitment to be a full-time personal chef. She named her business Dining by Design and promotes herself as "an affordable alternative to dining out and fast food for the culinary challenged.

"When I was thinking of going to culinary school, a friend's parents encouraged me," said Barbara. "As I went from part-time to full-time, my cheering team included friends who believed in me and my sister and brother-in-law. Without their support, I don't know if I could have stuck with it."

Once Barbara jumped in with both feet, other personal chefs and clients cheered her on. Figuring out where and how to market was the biggest challenge. Between information in the USPCA training manual and help from other established chefs, she tried several avenues.

Finding Clients
Her first client came in a round-about way. A person who was in Alaska on business saw a CNN spot that featured Personal Chef Cathy Luce. That person called the USPCA 800 number and the referral came to Barbara.

Her second client was a referral from Personal Chef Kathy Gold. Additional clients, primarily seniors and professional couples, have been a result of networking and word-of-mouth. Barbara belongs to several network groups. She says, "Even if the network group doesn't produce business immediately, great personal growth and confidence is gained from connecting with other entrepreneurs. You have to stick with it."

Types of Clients
Early on, Barbara took any and all clients and found herself dealing with many special diets. Now, after several years of collecting recipes for heart healthy, low fat, low sodium, Weight Watchers, South Beach and renal diets, she has no problem pulling out recipes and creating menus for these formerly "special" diets.

Barbara has four clients that get services every two weeks and several that get monthly services. She also does small dinner parties — 2 to 25 people — as a change of pace.

Keeping clients
In all Barbara does in both business and personal life, she gives her best. She has set high standards and strives to meet them. Barbara wrote, "My clients know that I really care and they love my passion for what I do. They can count on me to provide exceptional customer service."

Barbara's typical service day
Generally I cook Monday and Wednesday. Thursday is networking and office time unless there is a food emergency. Friday is for the monthly clients and Tuesday gets scheduled last. If I have a dinner party, I may move something to Tuesday or Thursday to accommodate.

For me, a PC day actually starts the evening before. This is when I prepare heating instructions, labels and my shopping list. If time permits I may run over to the nearby Publix Market and shop for pantry items.

In the morning I review the recipes to double check as I pack pantry items and revise what is left on the shopping list. Menus are reviewed to be sure I have the right equipment and tools. When I'm packed and ready, I head out to buy the remaining grocery items.

I arrive at the client's house between 11 a.m. and noon — yes, I'm a late starter. I get unpacked and right to work. My cook day is 5 to 6 hours. When I leave, I often do the scenic drive along the beach because it is a great way to unwind on the way home.

Her biggest challenge
As a single person, Barbara says it is easy to forget about making time for herself. She explained, "Living alone, I sometimes just keep working. I know I sit at the computer too long, planning menus, looking for new recipes and such. It seems like I'm allowing myself to be a slave to my business. I know that I should eat better and exercise."

Now that business and clients are pretty steady, she is working to do things differently. And the addition of a new puppy in her life is helping her make these changes.

Conferences are essential to Barbara's business. She budgets for these annual events and at the same time ties in some vacation time.

What wise words does she have to pass along?
"First define what success meant to you. What is right for you will help determine the direction of your business and your goals," she said. "It is also important to keep your passion. Have a vision and think big — be committed and take risks. If you don't take chances, you will not find out how far you can go."