How Shelley Young Created One of America's Busiest Cooking Schools


Shelley Young, Founder of The Chopping BlockSusan Ryan Photography

While working as a private chef in Chicago, Shelley Young found herself in possession of an empty retail space. She had rented it for her parents, hoping they would be eager to move their struggling antique store from Iowa to the city. When they declined, she chose to see the situation as an opportunity. She would do something with the space on her own. And so, The Chopping Block, one of the nation’s most successful recreational cooking schools, was born.

Young didn’t know much about running a business, but she did know that more than anything, she’d need to rely on her passion for cooking with others to keep her going. “My parents were entrepreneurs,” she says, “so I never had a sense business was easy. Anybody growing up in a household coming from poverty to entrepreneurship and still being in poverty understands you don’t get into a business just because you think you’re going to make money. You better love it.”

Nevertheless, Young’s work ethic and natural business acumen have allowed The Chopping Block to thrive. It was popular from the get-go, she says, and over the past twenty-one years, it has been recognized and awarded again and again. Young has been named one of the top twenty gourmet retailers under 40 (2004), Entrepreneur of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals (2005), Educator of the Year by Women’s Chef & Restaurateurs (2014), and most recently, she was named on the Crain’s Chicago Business list of Chicago’s Notable LGBTQ Executives (2018).

So what made The Chopping Block an instant success, and why has it been able to stay that way? What has Young been able to do that other cooking school owners have not?

Chef Lisa Counts teaches cooking at The Chopping BlockThe Chopping Block

For one, she has the drive. Throughout the entire time she was starting The Chopping Block, she worked another full time job as a private chef, refusing to take any money from her new venture as salary. For years, she worked one hundred-hour weeks, teaching the cooking classes herself and saying yes to every opportunity to gain more customers. “You’ve gotta be willing to do what you’ve gotta do to take the business when they want to give it to you,” she says.

Today, The Chopping Block hosts more classes per month than many cooking schools host in a year. This is in part, Young says, because they are simply willing to do it.

Young is also serious about providing the customers what they want, rather than what she wants for them. Demonstration classes, for example, are more educational, but most people prefer hands-on instruction. As such, Young has reduced the number of demonstration classes. She has seen other schools go out of business because they won’t give them up.

Another reason Young feels The Chopping Block has been successful is her ability to tell good stories. “I think in pictures,” she says. “I think in bringing experiences to life. That interests me. The media likes that.” Immediately after The Chopping Block opened, Young hired a publicist and went on every interview they found for her. “I would make myself available to whatever they needed,” she says. “I took it seriously. So that helped us tremendously.”

Of course, there have been challenges. “There’s no zoning for what we do,” she says. “No building permits for what we do. No liquor license for what we do. No licenses whatsoever for what we do. No one knows how to build out a space, what it should be like, what the kitchen requirements are. No one knows. So every location we’ve had, I’ve had to make that up and then sell somebody on it, and they’re not easy to sell.”

Beyond that, the costs of building out spaces like The Chopping Block are incredibly high. There are two Chicago locations, one of which is an 8000-square foot space that opened in 2005 inside the Merchandise Mart. It is complete with multiple restaurant-sized classrooms as well as a retail store that sells cooking supplies. As far as Young knows, there is no space like this location in the world. Each room, she says, has the overhead costs of an entire restaurant.

The high costs are why Young felt it was so important to build the business slowly. “In a business like this,” she says, “With such big operating costs and such big build up costs, I really built it incrementally. That restraint is challenging when you know there’s a million things you could be doing that would bring you more revenue, more money, help you grow, but for me I need to be able to handle that growth.”

Keeping staff happy is also a large priority. A place with happy employees, Young says, is a place customers want to be. She has spent a long time honing her leadership skills and believes in leading through honesty and mutual respect:

What I say in these welcome meetings we do is, ‘Here’s the thing, I’m just a human being. You know how much I would love for everything that comes out of my mouth to be twinkly, starlight, motivationally insightful, and wise, and for me to say I’ve seen you as a person and I’ve considered what matters to you and how you will receive the information I have presented to you? I work really hard at continuing to grow in that way, but I don’t always get it right, so I hope you forgive me when I don’t, and I hope you know I will forgive you when you don’t as well. Let’s work together because we’re just a couple of human beings trying to figure this out.’

Young believes a large portion of her success has come from trusting her own instincts, and she encourages fellow women entrepreneurs to do the same. “Second guessing yourself is painful,” she says. “I personally see a lot of women do that, perhaps more than men. It doesn’t mean we’re always right, but I think our instincts are what we have to follow.”

Through all this work, it remains Young’s passion that drives her. Her favorite part of the job is seeing the impact on customers, the way The Chopping Block has helped people take control of their health or learn to cook a dish for their friends and family. “People who cook are really the nucleas of community,” she says, “and that’s a beautiful place to be.”

Cooking fun at The Chopping BlockThe Chopping Block

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