Capsicum Culinary Studio: Cheryl Nesbitt

Capsicum Culinary Studio: Cheryl Nesbitt

While many entrepreneurs grow their businesses organically, and surprise themselves by where they end up, there’s a lot to be said for good old fashioned planning, research and vision if you want to achieve your goal.

Just ask Cheryl Nesbitt, founder and director of Capsicum Culinary Studio. A combination of goal-setting, careful planning and comprehensive research, together with Nesbitt’s natural entrepreneurial flare and eye for opportunity, have helped her establish a chef school with national presence and a R13 million turnover in just five years.

Laying the groundwork

“I had previously owned my own catering company and many years ago set myself a personal goal that, by the age of 35, I would own my own business again. I had always thought that it would be a hotel management training school,” says Nesbitt.

She’s nothing if not thorough and set about conducting comprehensive market research on hotel management schools,drawing a comparative analysis between them and the chef training schools. “I looked at how many students were enrolling in each type of school, what percentage of them was able to access jobs on completing their training and what kinds of salaries each group was able to command,” she explains.

Identifying the gap

The exercise gave her important insight into the market demands in each sector. “I figured that the two criteria for choosing a school would probably be accreditation and price, so I plotted all of the schools that existed on a graph with these two axes and it soon became glaringly obvious that there was a huge gap in the market for a competitively priced chef school that was properly accredited,” says Nesbitt.

While many of the schools have since gained accreditation, few of them had it at the time that Nesbitt conducted market research. “It was really fortuitous because other schools could ride on the reputation of the top chefs that ran them, but I wasn’t a chef so I quickly realised that accreditation would have to be my USP if I was going to compete with them,” she explains.

Getting Accredited

Today, Capsicum has more local and international accreditations and associations than any other chef training institute in South Africa. They include authority from the Department of Education to operate legally as a provider of Further Education and Training; Institutional Accreditation with the Services Seta; membership with the Association of Private Providers of Education, Training and Development; accreditation with City & Guilds International, United Kingdom; membership with the South African Chefs Association; membership with the French Gastronomical Society, the Chaines des Rotisseurs; and an Association Agreement with DCT, the European Culinary & Pastry, Chocolate Arts Centre in Lucerne, Switzerland. But Nesbitt’s the first to point out that getting them was far from easy.

“On the one hand, I needed to be accredited before I opened in order to attract students and be able to offer them something reputable that had the backing and endorsement of an external body,but on the other hand you can’t get accreditation in many instances until you’re open – so it was a bit of a Catch 22 situation,” she says.

Recruitment drive

There can be no doubt that accreditations played a key role in helping Capsicum to attract its first students, but Nesbitt, a former marketing manager, knew she’d have to hit the pavements when it came to recruiting the first batch.

“I went on a marketing drive, targeting high school leavers, and although I didn’t yet have premises, I had fortunately already employed the head chef, Miranda Haricharan who was executive chef for the Legacy group of hotels in the Cape Town Waterfront, and with whom I had studied. So I could confidently promote who their lecturer would be,” she relates.

Pooling resources

With four students ready to enrol, Nesbitt had just a few short months to find and stock the premises so that Capsicum could open its doors as a fully equipped chef training college in January of 2004.

“I borrowed R60 000 from my parents, R60, 000 from a friend and cashed in my provident fund of R30 000 and my husband’s insurance policy of R20 000. We found premises in Cape Town but because we were so inexperienced, we ended up spending R40 000 doing it up (I now know to get landlords to pay for those types of things!).

We set up two lecture rooms and one training kitchen for 20 students and I got all the equipment we needed from auctions. The only thing I insisted on buying brand new was the stoves because I felt that the students couldn’t cook on old ones,” says Nesbitt of those hectic pre-opening months.

Getting through the first year

The work paid off and lectures started on 26 January 2004. But Nesbitt realised that the first year was never going to be easy. “The full professional chef qualification takes two years so we wouldn’t be able to graduate any students in the first year and I knew I was going to have to look for alternative income streams,” she relates.

Yet again, it was research that delivered a solution to the problem, as Nesbitt relates, “Years ago when I owned my catering company I had trained domestic workers in my off time, and I’d loved it. So I put my feelers out and started doing some research and discovered that there was a government project to train domestic workers for free, whereby the government would cover the cost of the training.”

She lost no time in setting up a meeting with a training school in Stellenbosch that had a government contract to train domestic workers, but that wasn’t managing to meet its student number quotas.“They told me I could train as many students as I could recruit,” says Nesbitt,who worked out that she could make R32 400 in a three-week cycle training 72 students.

“That was serious money so I worked out my plan on the weekend and gave myself a week to recruit 72 people. On the Monday morning I had the media at my house and told them all about the project and that it was free to employers, and also printed thousands of flyers and put them in all the postboxes,” she explains.

By the Sunday night she had 73 students and on the Monday morning, she was teaching. The project only ran for a year but it was enough to tide the business over. “We also ended up doing a learnership for 128 learners at R12 500 per learner and that, together with the domestic workers project allowed us to open in Johannesburg in 2005,” says Nesbitt.

Tough lessons

As is the case with many growing businesses, it was in opening a second branch that Nesbitt learned an important lesson. Flush with the profit from her two training ventures, Nesbitt opened the Johannesburg school in July.

“It was a big mistake,” she says, looking back,“What we didn’t plan for was that most people think about studying something in January, and very few people think of it in the middle of the year.” The company sank its funds into setting up the new branch, but didn’t get the student intake it had anticipated.

“We really battled with cash flow that year– it was a very difficult six months.” To help the business through this difficult period, Nesbitt sold her house and invested R1 million into Capsicum.She also learned from her mistake; since then, all new branches open in January.

Growth trajectory

Fortunately, the Cape Town branch’s second intake at the beginning of that year was an astonishing 43 students (a 39 student increase on the previous year), so all was not lost. A Pretoria branch opened in January 2007 with 31 students, followed by a Durban branch in January 2008 with 19 students.

And although the business model has remained the same over this time, Nesbitt has made certain changes in line with the company’s growth, of which costing is just one. She explains: “It’s probably taken us four years to get our costing right.

In the first year we were way too cheap but it served our purpose because we were new and needed to attract students and buildup credibility. Back then we charged R26 000 for a one-year course whereas now our fees are R40 000. But part of our vision has always been to remain affordable and we’ve managed to do that – we are still the most affordable private chefs school in South Africa by a long shot and our students get more qualifications for their fees.”

Future vision

To date, Capsicum Culinary School has graduated over 230 qualified chefs. It’s a far cry from the early days when Nesbitt had nothing more than a PA, a head chef, a 12-year-old computer and a vision. “Over time the vision has grown and today we have a 20-year plan for Capsicum,” she says.

The one thing that hasn’t changed however is her belief in strategic planning. “Every year I take the management team away for three or four days and we take a hard strategic look at the company. During that time, we look at what we’ve done and what we want to do, and then we set deadlines and outline plans for all of those goals.

This means that by August every year, we have a timeline and deadlines for the year ahead. By September our marketing plan is done and by November cash flow statement and budgets are out,” she explains.The reason for such dedication to planning? “I fervently believe that companies who don’t engage in strategic planning shut their doors,” she answers simply.It’s clear she has no intention of being among them.

Cheryl’s advice to aspirant entrepreneurs

Networking can make all the difference to your business so find the time to go out there and meet other people, even if it’s the last thing you feel you have time for. Being an entrepreneur can be very lonely and my involvement in various organisations and networks such as the South African Council for Businesswomen and Endeavor, has helped me enormously to find solutions to common entrepreneurial problems.

In addition,it gives you a network of professionals you can trust and with whom you have a personal connection who you can call on for advice.

Invest in training – for yourself and your staff. It may seem like money going out of the business, but it will never be better spent. Its so easy to think that you know everything but remember that what got you to where you are now, won’t get you further.

Most entrepreneurs are self-motivated and don’t require motivational courses, but I would recommend management development and leadership training courses. I recently went with my general manager on an excellent course conducted by Real Training and it has elevated the business to a whole new level. Focus on strategic planning. Know whatyou want to achieve, do the research, plan your work and then work your plan.

Current challenges in the education industry

Cheryl Nesbitt reports that accreditation has become more onerous in recent years and providers of further education and training are now required by government to meet a list of criteria. Capsicum had to change from being a CC to being a Pty Ltd company and this meant Nesbitt needed to attend courses in order to know how to meet her legal obligations as a director.

“In addition, the large number of fly-by-night educational institutions has precipitated the need for government to insist that education and training facilities put financial sureties place to protect students in the event that a company should close its doors. While one can understand the need for this type of measure, what it unfortunately does mean is that companies need to put millions of Rands in trust if they want to set up an educational institution – it makes for a pretty high barrier to entry,” says Nesbitt.

Juliet Pitman

Juliet Pitman

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.