How Learning Centers Are Driving Business—and a Social Agenda

Specialty food producers are engaging consumers, trade 
professionals, and their local communities with immersive 
training programs that help build brand loyalty while 
reinforcing a larger movement for good, sustainable food.

Moving far beyond the typical two-hour cooking class or quick facility tour, many producers are creating elaborate education programs and destination food centers. Media attention and additional revenue aside, these producers see education centers as an opportunity to build brand awareness, appreciation, and loyalty. Some have larger goals and see the potential to influence broader views of the specialty food industry, to create a solid business foundation for future generations, and, at their most impactful, drive progress in the food policy landscape.

Education as a Tool for the Trade

For producers of specialty foods, connecting with the trade, whether retail buyers, chefs, or distributors, is essential for business success. “They’re the ones on the front line,” says Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.’s Jill Basch, who oversees The Fork, the Northern California cheese company’s education and culinary center. That connection, however, can serve different purposes.

Established in 2010, The Fork helped Point Reyes formalize its trade education experience. “We knew the importance of bringing our customers to the farm to get close to our farming practices, to see how we made our cheese, how we raised our animals, our commitment to land stewardship, as well as to taste the cheese and get to know us personally,” Basch says. Previously, a farm tour would end in owners’ Bob and Dean Giacomini’s home kitchen for tastings. Today, with its dedicated facility, the company has been able to add tailored classes and meals to deliver a complete narrative about the product. “That’s where we’re hoping to connect the dots for these customers,” Basch notes.

Related: French Cheese Academy Partners with Point Reyes Farmstead on Education Program

In some cases, education is an even more fundamental function of a business. Counter Culture Coffee offers a variety of in-depth classes and certifications through its professional development program, called Counter Intelligence, at regional training centers around the country. The wholesale-only operation sees its success hinging on the knowledge and expertise of the baristas and other staff that brew and serve its product.

“Oftentimes it’s their first time ever talking about [coffee], working with it, serving it,” says Jesse Kahn, who heads the Durham, North Carolina, company’s New York training center and has helped expand the regional center program, which is adding three locations this year for a total of 11. Coffee shops and cafes that serve Counter Culture exclusively gain free access for employees to the nine-course curriculum, from espresso fundamentals and milk mechanics to agronomy and global trade. Creating a professional classroom-style environment gave the company more control over the end product as well as providing added value for the shop owner. “Our coffee that gets served by our wholesale partners is better now than it’s ever been,” Kahn says.

Allison Hooper and Bob Reese, the founders of Vermont Creamery, have more wide-ranging ambitions for their education program. Last summer they established Ayers Brook Dairy, an open-book demonstration farm, as a way to encourage and support young farmers to enter the goat dairy industry. Local milk supply hasn’t kept up with the creamery’s growth in the past decade, and the sector lacks the strong appeal of cow dairy farming, Reese says. Partnering with Vermont Technical College, the creamery began to bring agricultural students to work on the farm and learn about the goat dairy industry as part of their curriculum.

The mission was threefold: to grow and improve Vermont Creamery’s own production, bolster the state’s goat dairy industry as a whole, and prove goat dairy farming to be a viable business for future farming generations. “It’s all about trying to get as much information as we can as a model farm, and using that information to develop best practices,” Reese explains.

The Consumer Connection

While formal programs may entice industry professionals, fun is the key ingredient to engage consumers and strengthen brand loyalty. Some producers cherry-pick from their trade education to create consumer-friendly activities, while others dive deeper with an already-rapt audience.

Lake Champlain Chocolates has offered chocolate tours, tastings, and demos at its Burlington, Vermont, factory for years. When the company opened South End Kitchen last year, across the street from its main factory and retail space, the business was able to accommodate growing demand—and ever-increasing crowds—for more hands-on activities, from chocolate-bar making to sip-and-sculpt nights.

“We’re finally able to get our customers to roll up their sleeves and to learn how to make chocolate,” says Gary Coffey, director of retail at Lake Champlain Chocolates and South End Kitchen. The new facility houses not only an education center but also a cafe and production facility for the company’s bean-to-bar brand, Blue Bandana, all showcasing a commitment to local, fresh, high-quality ingredients. “It’s a deeper customer experience,” Coffey adds.

At Point Reyes’ The Fork, a consumer experience was a natural progression in the Giacomini family’s minds. The public-facing programs, from farm tours to dining events, quickly took off. “Our monthly farm dinners sell out in about 15 minutes,” says Basch. Much like for industry buyers, they found experiential programs for consumers could help foster a deeper connection to the company and its philosophy. Adding these events, Basch explains, “helped to create brand loyalty because it’s delivering an experience, so it’s not just about the product.”

While professional education was a cornerstone for Counter Culture Coffee, a consumer focus began just two years ago as interest bubbled up in the midst of the third-wave coffee movement. The business embraced the idea, seeing it as an extension of its goals to ensure the product is enjoyed at peak quality. “Having a way to help [consumers] get the most out of that coffee is important,” Kahn says.

Supporting the Community

An education center can not only turn a company’s home base into an appealing destination, but it can benefit the surrounding community as well. In specialty foods, it is natural for a company to want to showcase the bounty of the area, which means an opportunity to engage and support other businesses.

Dining events are a natural vehicle for that connection. Lake Champlain Chocolates regularly features local chefs and farmers at South End Kitchen, touting its own use of local ingredients, such as honey, maple syrup, and dairy products (with butter from Vermont Creamery). In May, the facility gained a new tenant, local microbrewery Zero Gravity, whose presence is bringing the education center both a new demographic and an opportunity to add compelling programs, Coffey says.

In the heart of Northern California’s wine country, Point Reyes has benefited from the wine tourism. Partnering with local operations such as Cakebread Cellars, Williamson Wines, Medlock Ames, and others, Point Reyes receives their guests and serves their wine with cheese pairings and meals. “We want The Fork to be known as a venue that highlights the bounty of our local foodshed and everything that’s coming out of this region,” Basch says.

The Bigger Picture

Beyond supporting one’s own business and even the local community, the effects of building awareness and support for quality food are far-reaching.

Basch says Point Reyes aims to build on consumer enthusiasm for the local movement. “People think that their support of local farming [ends] by visiting their weekend farmers market, but we’re trying to get them to really know their farmer,” she explains.

At Vermont Creamery, having a broader impact is a firm goal. “If we do our job on Ayers Brook, there will be the next farm and the next farm because we’ll have demonstrated not just the best practices but we’re actually providing a rebirth of an industry that wasn’t here,” Reese says.

An even larger goal underlies many of these regional efforts: to educate the industry and the general population about sustainable foods. Blue Hill Farm and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester County, New York, are seen as leaders in this movement. David Barber, president and co-owner of Blue Hill Farm (with his chef brother, Dan Barber), aspires for the Stone Barns Center, of which he is a founding partner, to play a significant role in shaping future American food policy. Demonstration farms and sustainably prepared meals are key tenets of Blue Hill’s approach. “Anything that demonstrates those connections—that let people touch and feel and want to protect what they have,” he says, “all of that counts.”

Related: Valrhona's Brooklyn Pastry School Draws International Chefs [Slideshow]

Advice from the Educators

Learning center managers share their tips 
for building out your own educational 
programming, whether for trade, consumer, 
media, or a greater good.

“Do your homework. It’s a lot of work. It can be a distraction. If your business is to make chocolate and then you’re opening up an educational center, it’s a business [unto] itself. So expect to put a lot of time, effort, and in some cases money into it. … We’re basically starting a new business.”
—Gary Coffey, Lake Champlain Chocolates

“There are different ways to build a business in agrotourism. Start out small and be able to have it be a mutually beneficial adjunct to [your] core business. You don’t want to get into agrotourism at the sacrifice of your business. … For us it’s a function of marketing. While we love the fact that we can also produce revenue from it, first and foremost it’s there to help promote the cheese and create more brand loyalty.”
—Jill Basch, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.

“The best approach to creating any educational program is to think about what it is that 
you want to add to the discussion around 
whatever product you’re selling. Is it historical context, parameters for how to use the 
product, market analysis? This helps guide 
the content you want to share.”
—Jesse Kahn, Counter Culture Coffee

Eva Meszaros is managing editor of Specialty Food Magazine