“Dancing Outside of Your Comfort Zone”: How Sur La Table is Cooking Up Memorable Experiences
If you’ve baked banana bread or slaved over your sourdough starter in the last six months, you’re not alone. With restaurants and businesses closing their doors when COVID-19 hit the US,at-home cooking and baking experienced a bit of a resurgence in 2020. Americans were forced to eat at home with their families and get crafty in the kitchen to whip up new and exciting meals to fight the monotony of quarantine.
For many, this newfound love of cooking is a behavior that’s sure to stick around, even in a post-COVID world – especially as indoor dining still faces restrictions around the country and the weather gets colder.
One company that has benefited from people’s renewed interest in home-cooked meals is kitchenware retailer Sur La Table. While they were able to reach an entirely new audience during the pandemic, they had to address their own share of challenges as well. One of which was shutting down the signature in-store cooking classes.
We spoke with Natalie Brown, Head of Marketing for Sur La Table, to learn more about the kitchenware retailer’s recent shift to omnichannel expansion, and how the company was able to revive their in-person classes by going virtual.
Here’s why she views the pandemic as an opportunity for her team to bring “the art and soul of cooking” to customers in new ways:
How did the Sur La Table team pivot to bring your unique brand experiences online during the pandemic?
Leading up to the start of COVID-19, we were pivoting as a company to become a more product-led than a catalog-heavy retailer. Our DNA was very much about being a place where cooks could get hard-to-find things and a paper catalog was very important to our business.
We wanted to build something that was far bigger than a catalog and that was more about an omnichannel experience. Our cooking schools have always been at the heart of what sets us apart as a brand and makes us different. We weren’t necessarily just about how you buy all these interesting things, but how you actually use them. Our company mission is more about creating happiness through the cooking and sharing of food.
We weren’t necessarily just about how you buy all these interesting things, but how you actually use them.
When COVID happened, we had to shut all of our stores so we could only sell products online. But more importantly, we had to close down our cooking schools.
We’re very lucky because we have a beautiful office location with a giant kitchen right in our lobby where they do recipe development. As a team, we actually sit, meet, eat, and cook together there ourselves, but we were lucky enough to have this space that we could leverage. The team was really amazing. As we were able to go back into the office, we sent our chefs in and started doing cooking classes over Zoom. We grew this grassroots online cooking class program with our chefs. Since then, we’ve grown and expanded the program.
As things have opened up, we’re opening up our local cooking schools within our stores again, but with smaller class sizes. We’re able to supplement that with online cooking classes, even in locations where we can’t open the classroom up to the public yet. It’s been pretty amazing because we can now scale the program. If you don’t have a Sur La Table or your closest store doesn’t have a cooking school, you now have access to this amazing part of the brand.
As a company, we’ve learned a lot from bringing out cooking classes online. While our chefs are used to teaching, they aren’t necessarily used to teaching on Zoom, on camera, and to a class of 40 people, when previously they were only teaching 16. To make the class more immersive and easy to follow, we use two cameras. A far-away camera to let the chefs introduce themselves and answer questions and a closeup camera so attendees can actually see the chopping and techniques like you would in an in-person class. The chefs had to learn how to adapt to the two camera situation. We’ve all had to get on board, be nimble, and adapt to the needs of the online cooking class world.
Sur La Table’s online cooking classes landing page
What is the key to digital experience success?
For me, it’s putting the customer first and solving around the customer’s problems. That solution is a two-part solution. It’s understanding your brand value and why your customer is coming to you. Once you understand that, to truly put your customer first, you need to literally walk their journeys in their shoes.
To truly put your customer first, you need to literally walk their journeys in their shoes.
Put on your customer hat and pretend you’re seeing your experience for the first time. If you can put the customer first across all of your customer journeys, you’ll not only have an effortless digital experience, but you’ll also have effortless omnichannel brand experiences that are seamless across both your brick-and-mortar and digital executions.
What has been a silver lining of the pandemic for you?
I’ve been saying this to our team for quite a while now, but this is like a reset button. You always say, “Let’s do things differently,” but don’t always follow through. COVID forced us to look critically at everything we’ve done to keep the good, throw away the redundant, and rethink the stuff that wasn’t working. I just keep telling my team this is like a forced reset. It’s a luxury we always wanted to have. Now, let’s capitalize on it.
COVID forced us to look critically at everything we’ve done to keep the good, throw away the redundant, and rethink the stuff that wasn’t working.
I also believe COVID has given us this notion of an “Experimentation Hall Pass.” Customers understood that the world was changing in a lot of ways, they came along with us for the journey and were very tolerant to try new things. I think there’s still some runway there.
If there are ideas that you want to go out and pressure test, you can do it and you can do it scrappily! It doesn’t have to be perfect and beautiful.
If there are ideas that you want to go out and pressure test, you can do it and you can do it scrappily! It doesn’t have to be perfect and beautiful. It doesn’t have to be the most fantastic end-to-end thing. As long as the customer has a good experience and you’re doing your best to bring them a new solution to a problem, they will be tolerant and come along for the ride.
How has Sur La Table taken advantage of new customer behaviors and the spike of at-home cooking?
It’s been very interesting for us. The huge surge in home cooking started over the summer. Raise your hands if you didn’t make sourdough or more recently banana bread! Now as the weather’s getting colder, we’re seeing a huge interest in slow cooking and braising take off. We’ve responded in a few different ways and it’s really been a journey.
During the onset, when people started working from home, businesses were shut down, and restaurants were closed, we realized that people were going to have to cook at home every night for themselves and their families. That was probably really daunting for some people.
We’re lucky because we’ve got chefs and tons of content. We quickly regrouped and put up a page that was about cooking together, but apart. It’s our community. You’re not cooking with us in our cooking schools, but we’re here to help you. The initial question we asked ourselves was “How do we leverage what we know?” Should we share tips on how to plan a whole week of meals? How to cook ahead and store food? Simple, easy dinner recipes? We wanted to be there as a resource for our customers.
As we’ve come out of it, we’re still trying to be a resource for people but our approach has become more inspirational. We’ve been able to use user-generated content (UGC) to keep people enthusiastic and inspired, while still staying in touch with what’s happening in people’s lives and the changing of the seasons.
Now as we’re headed into Thanksgiving, we’re keeping in mind that this Thanksgiving is going to be very different and gatherings will be smaller.
Now as we’re headed into Thanksgiving, we’re keeping in mind that this Thanksgiving is going to be very different and gatherings will be smaller. We have to keep that in mind when we’re planning what to do in our cooking class programs and with our content strategy to help our customers. How do we again set them up to succeed? How do we give them the tips they need for this different Thanksgiving? That customer-centric thinking guides our storytelling framework and how we activate around the product to present a unified package for our fans and our customers alike.
What has been Sur La Table’s biggest success this year?
Definitely our online cooking classes. Not just because it gave our customers a place to learn, but also because it helped us bring people back and keep them employed. Any company that can point to the fact that they’re able to still provide jobs for people is winning this year. Being able to leverage our in-house chefs and provide great content to our customers was a big win.
Also, I think it’s been really great to see everyone come together as a team in this crazy time.
Not only that, but we’ve found we’ve inadvertently created a way to bring our customers together. Friends and families from across the country will sign up for the same online class and when it’s over, they’ll get on their own personal Zoom calls and enjoy the meal together. Those special moments might not be in the Sur la Table classroom, but they’re eating and enjoying the food and experience with their loved ones, which goes back to our mission: the art and soul of cooking.
What is the best thing you’ve learned in quarantine?
Don’t ever underestimate your team. People are amazing. When they have a challenge thrown at them, give them the runway to come to the table with solutions. If you trust your people and acknowledge they are good at what they do, you’re going to be impressed and amazed by the results. As a leader, I learned to trust my team and let them run with their ideas. Let your team surprise and delight you.
What advice would you give other industry professionals?
To piggyback on what we were just saying, remember that you’re not in this alone. We’re all struggling with similar questions, it’s just how it applies to our industry or specific business model where the difference comes in. Those fundamental concerns are the same for all of us. So, first and foremost, know that you’re not in this alone.
Secondly, don’t be scared to ask for advice. Obviously, we can’t share proprietary information, but we can talk about best practices and give help and advice in ways that are meaningful. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your peers and ask.
Next, stay curious. A curious mind is always finding new things. You can find ideas and inspiration to solve problems in unexpected ways.
Magic happens when you’re dancing outside of your comfort zone.
Lastly, I believe that magic happens when you’re dancing outside of your comfort zone. So, get outside of your comfort zone and find a place to make some magic!
This interview is an excerpt from a recent Digital Changemakers event. Digital Changemakers is the CX industry’s only community dedicated to fostering digital innovation through an open exchange of expertise, ideas, and of course, experiences. Click here to join and receive access to our members-only resource library, community, and events.