Introduction: How to Hold a Corner Store Cooking Class

by Brendan Crain, Ariel Diamond and Arline Welty
photos by Ariel Diamond and Brendan Crain

You like your neighborhood. You want to see the local independent businesses that make your neighborhood unique stay and thrive. You want to be able to buy a good banana at 6 am and 6 pm any day of the week. You want to be sure that people of all incomes and ages can live and eat well in your neighborhood. Then you probably want a healthy corner store culture in your neighborhood. But how? (Especially if you're busy or perhaps lazy -- we're in that not so secret society.)

Neighbors Project has drawn on the experience of the Food & Liquor project in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, and similar efforts around the country, to provide you with a range of options for tuning your corner stores into a thriving community asset for everyone in your neighborhood as a series of two Instructables. This one is ...

Level 1: How to Hold a Corner Store Cooking Class.
Coordinate a Corner Store Cooking Class to teach your neighbors (and yourself) how to make healthy, home-cooked meals using ingredients that can be purchased from local, independently-owned shops.

To do this Instructable, you will need:
- At least one corner stores (aka liquor store, bodega, convenience store, fruit market or meat market)
- Some expertise on cooking, or access to people who can provide it
- Paper for flyers and hand outs
- A neighborhood

The people behind the Food & Liquor project are just some of the many people and organizations around the country who have worked on increasing food access in their neighborhoods. Check out the list of groups and resources at the bottom of this page for even more resources and advice.

Step 1: Three Months Before the Class

You should give yourself about three months to put together this cooking class. You could do it in less, but you'll have more fun and stay sane if you give yourself a bit of time.

1. Create a one page description of the event. Be realistic about attendance. Aim for about 30 to 50 people maximum; any larger will be difficult to mange without a lot of help.

2. Meet with local organizations to establish partnerships. This can include your neighborhood association, social service nonprofits and others. Building strong community relationships is the key to hosting successful community events. You can't skip this part! Also, if your cooking skills are minimal or you'd just feel more comfortable with a real expert leading the class, this is the time to find that person. It may be a friend, a chef, an organization or something else. Ariel from the Food & Liquor team is a chef, but the group also worked with Share Our Strength, a national non-profit well known for running cooking classes.

3. Secure location, date and time. Once community organizations, local officials, churches and small business owners (or any mix thereof) are interested, you can identify strong partners and begin planning the actual event; you will need to set a date, find a location and plan a menu. You'll need a place with basic kitchen devices like running water, room to chop and a flame or two.

4. Invite store owners to the event, and ask them to provide some groceries for the event. Communicate clearly with the owner or manager of the store from which you order the ingredients. Expect to purchase at least part of the haul. Here are some tips for talking to store owners:'
  • Buy something. Introduce yourself and your project as you're making a purchase.
  • Be conscious of how the store owner will read you. Be casual, friendly and approachable. Avoid academic jargon (i.e. "food deserts") and proselytizing.
  • Appeal to their to business interests. Pitch the project by describing concrete, tangible benefits for the store owner (increased sales, free publicity, etc.).
  • Request a meeting. You'll want to schedule a sit-down to hammer out details of the order.
  • Leave a project overview sheet. Give them a one-pager to look over on their own time.

Step 2: Two Months Before the Class

Unlike the last step, you can do the parts of this step in any order. Just be sure to do all of them!

  • Post basic information about the class to online media calendars.

  • Develop a menu and recipes. If you're not the actual instructor, then you'll need to work with the person leading the class on this. Be sensitive to the diversity of local cultural palettes. Think about how you would like someone from a different culture to teach you about a shared interest. If you're not sure how to deal with this, ask local community leaders representing the various cultural backgrounds of your neighborhood for guidance.

  • Meet with your local elected representatives to inform them of the class and invite them to attend.
  • Meet with store owners to find a vendor to order ingredients if the store doesn't already order produce from a particular vendor. Note: providing a reason for store owners to order produce for the first time (or just in larger quantities of more variety) may help them see the ease of ordering more in the future.

Step 3: Four Weeks Before the Class

It's time to begin the outreach phase, so you won't be a cooking class of one! Keep in mind that even though you start doing outreach at this point, you'll need to continue to do it up until the day of the event (or at least until the event fills up with RSVPs). Oh, and plan for at least a few RSVPers to flake out. It's like a wedding.

  • Develop a list of food needed, including quantities.
  • Design promotional materials.
  • Distribute promotional materials at partner organizations and local businesses. If you've built strong partnerships with local organizations, promoting the event will be much easier. Handing out flyers near the event location, putting up posters around the neighborhood and sending out a press release to local media outlets are good ideas too. But they aren't nearly as effective as getting the word out through organized groups -- from churches to schools to ethnic societies. Seriously, don't learn this the hard way! Go for the groups.

Step 4: Three Weeks Before the Class

This is the time to make sure that you have enough help to actually pull off the cooking class. This means securing both volunteers and ensuring that your partners are still on board.

  • Secure volunteers and assign responsibilities. Ask your partner organizations and friends for help.
  • Write a letter to your local elected representatives to remind them of the event and your standing invitation for them to attend.
  • Meet with partner organizations to discuss details of the class in advance and plan an agenda for the event.
  • Optional: Write a media advisory and send it to the local press -- but only if you want media coverage. Your overall class goal shouldn't be about securing fame and glory, so you'd only want to reach out to the media if you think the cooking class should be replicated or seen as evidence of demand for more city government action (or other entities) on fresh food access.

Step 5: Two Weeks Before the Class

Unless you're still doing a lot of work getting people to sign up for the class or follow up from last week, this week should be relatively easy ...

  • Create an attendance sheet to get participants' names and contact information for follow-up.
  • Call partner organizations to check in.
  • Optional: Secure media attendance with follow-up calls. Again, only if you think media attention is important.

Step 6: One Week Before the Class

OMG. You're actually doing this. This is the "crap, this is real" week. Hopefully you've already gotten all the RSVPs you want and your partners are all coming through. Now it's time to have fun shopping and designing.

  • Purchase any necessary non-food supplies (flatware, napkins, kitchen tools, etc.). Needless to say, we encourage you to purchase these at your local corner stores.
  • Check with stores to ensure products will be ready on time.
  • Create recipe cards and other items you want people to take home from the class.

Step 7: Week of the Class!

If you had any doubts last week, now you can't escape that you're really doing this! And hey, it's gonna be fun.

  • Buy and sort ingredients for the class. Sorting the food ahead of time into boxes or bags will ensure that all class participants will be able to participate in full at the actual event. Ask your friends to help you do this and turn it into a party.
  • Confirm volunteers. This means both e-mailing people at the beginning of the week and calling them the day before the class. If you leave a message, be sure to leave the full info about the class and your contact information. Expect some of them to flake, and the rest to be super excited. Volunteers tend to respond best to individual attention, so try to e-mail everyone individually; that way they'll feel more responsible for actually showing up.

Step 8: Day of the Class!

It's the day you've been waiting for!

  • Cook! Have fun!
  • Distribute take-aways. People love party gifts/free stuff, and it'll probably help everyone continue the great cooking techniques and habits you've taught at the class.
  • Remember to take photos! Just cause.

Step 9: Week After the Class

Wha?! There's more? Yup. Just a few fun follow up items ...

  • Send thank you letters to partner organizations and stores.
  • Optional: Ask class participants to fill out an event survey. If you want to reproduce the class or just be able to advise other people who undertake this project, or even if you're just curious, this is a good idea.
  • Optional: Follow up with media that attended the event.