Erin Cochran has been working with food since she was 14. From start-ups in Istanbul to fine dining in The Mission District, she has done some of everything. She runs C&B Bottling with her wife out of their home in San Francisco, and is in the process of starting her own restaurant / farm.
Ben Hanna: How did you originally get interested in food and cooking? How did that start?
Erin Cochran: I feel like I just sort of fell into it actually. My first job I got as a counter girl, that was my actual title, at a pasta restaurant that was right up the street from where we lived when I was a teenager. I was 14 and I went and told them I was 16 and got a job because I really wanted a job. I got that one specifically because that one was within walking distance of my house and I didn’t have to drive, because clearly I couldn’t. I worked the counter and took money and whatever else.
All the boys would smoke pot during the day. If I worked the shifts when they were smoking, then they were more than happy to let me do the cooking as well so that they could just not do anything. Those were my favorite shifts by far. It was super fun to go back there and try to figure out how to make these different pasta dishes which at the time seemed very complicated with a lot of cooking involved. I realize now that they weren’t really. Apart from a few weird jobs along the way — in New York I ran a magazine for a year because I got too burned out on cooking — I never left because I liked it so much. And that’s how I got started. I just stuck with it.
Ben Hanna: Do you have any formal education in cooking?
Erin Cochran: I’ve had an unbelievable amount of jobs. I can’t remember them all, actually. I worked at a ton of different restaurants. During college I was going to school for hospitality management and was the kitchen manager of this brew pub. Of all my classes in hospitality management, the only ones that I really liked were the cooking classes, the food prep classes. All of the other business classes I did but I didn’t really enjoy. One day I was talking to my dad and said “This is the only thing I really like doing, I wonder if I should just go to culinary school?” He said “Maybe you should,” and then I applied and got in and quit school and moved to Vermont.
Ben Hanna: How long was culinary school? How long did that last for?
Erin Cochran: Two years. The school that I went to was New England Culinary, and they do a six months on campus, six months internship off campus. Six months on, six months off so it is a two full years, but you are only on campus for a year.
Ben Hanna: Did you focus on a specific type of food preparation or specific aspect of cooking?
Erin Cochran: No, I did not. I really didn’t want to. New England is a very French school, so I got a lot of French technique, but I really didn’t want to focus too hard on anything. I’ve always really wanted a very well-rounded education, whether I’m getting that through school or through what job I choose to take. The biggest selling point for taking a job for me is learning, and I’ll take a lot less money if I know that I’m going to be able to learn something.
My CouchSurfing job was great because I got to learn about sort of taking care of specific small dinners. Having to do that all on my own, plus getting to travel, which is something different and learning in and of itself. But yeah, everything I’ve taken has been about “What can I learn here?”
Ben Hanna: You have cooked for a lot of different places, which one have you enjoyed the most or one that was really out there?
Erin Cochran: I was a general manager of this weird little place called Dreamliner’s in Sacramento for a year that was all, like, middle-aged mothers that were putting food in Ziploc bags and taking it home and cooking it. That was maybe the weirdest food job I’ve ever had. As far as what I like best, Heirloom is definitely one of my favorite jobs, if not my favorite. And mostly it was, I really love designing menus.
Ben Hanna: Designing menus?
Erin Cochran: I could just sit home and geek out and design hundreds of menus if I had the place to cook them.
Ben Hanna: When you’re designing a menu, how do you approach that? Do you kind of look at what ingredients you can get right now that are fresh and local and move on with that?
Erin Cochran: Yeah, so I don’t think of ideas very well while I’m standing up in a kitchen. I need to sit down and have a piece of paper to write on.
Ben Hanna: Do you need to be hungry?
Erin Cochran: I actually don’t need to be hungry, no. It’s probably better if I’m not.
Erin Cochran: So I sit down with a piece of paper and I go through the emails we get every day from our produce company, meat company, and fish company talking about what they have that’s coming in that’s really good. I’ll make a list of things that I want to work with, and then I will pick out an ingredient, like Brussels sprouts, and I will make a list of a few things that go really well with Brussels sprouts. Squash, or Parmesan, or bacon.
And then I’ll use that list to start — if I did roasted Brussels sprouts, how could I work in bacon? Does it need to be bacon? Could it be pancetta, could it be prosciutto? And I just start going through options until I have ten different menu items with Brussels sprouts, bacon, and horseradish. Then I sort of tweak it and go from there.
Ben Hanna: A couple of years ago you and Steph started another company making and selling tonic. What were some of the most interesting trials you came up against that you had no idea you were about to hit?
Erin Cochran: Well, just starting a business in general is very tricky. There are lists of things that you “need” from the city to be able to have a business. But there are a lot of chicken and egg situations when starting a business in the city.
You need your health permit, but you can’t get your health permit until you have your business license. And your business license, they don’t know if they can give you until they know you’re going to make safe food.
Maybe I should have anticipated that, but I thought it would be a little bit more straightforward because so many people have started businesses. You just think it must be not that hard. Actually, it’s pretty complicated.
Ben Hanna: Yeah – it is not easy.
Erin Cochran: We didn’t expect to sell as much as we did, which has created its own sort of problems. Good problems.
Ben Hanna: How has it changed your approach, I mean, from cooking in your kitchen and bottling with spray on labels to what you’re doing now?
Erin Cochran: Right now we’re trying to even get out of producing it entirely because we have to make tonic about once a week or so. Originally we made batches of ten cases and we’d bring those ten cases home think “I have no idea how we’re ever going to move through these. I can’t believe we just made ten cases of tonic.”
Now we make batches of 25 cases and half of them are sold by the time we get them home, which is great but also tiring. So we’ve started looking at taking a really big leap and hiring a co-packer to make them for us. Most co-packers have a minimum of 500 cases. So we are thinking of changing our production from 25 cases at a time to 500 cases, which is terrifying because it’s a significant personal investment.
We have to pay for the whole thing up front and we have to find somewhere to store them in the meantime. We need to sell at least a third of them before we start making any money whatsoever off of them depending on how much our storage costs are. It’s really scary. But if we don’t want to do this, if we don’t want to invest this money into it, then maybe we should fold. We might as well quit if we’re not going to move forward.
Ben Hanna: What was it like starting a business with your wife and continuing to run it for several years?
Erin Cochran:We definitely had some conflict at the beginning. We both started out really excited but it took several months to sort of figure out what both of us liked to do, especially when we both had full time jobs. It’s been easier with me not having a full time job. She really likes to go out and talk to people about the tonic and sell it, and I am a much bigger fan of sending off emails and making sure all of our finances are in order. Doing all the business side of it.
In the beginning it was difficult. We had a few fights about who was doing what and if each person was working as hard as the other one and if we really wanted to do this. Now we’ve fallen into a rhythm of “I do those these things and you do these things.” Sometimes we cross over if either of us needs help, but pretty much we have our own functions, and we work really, really well together.
Ben Hanna: I think it just takes time to get to that point. There’s no way to do it except to just start doing it.
Erin Cochran: Sure. It takes time and for sure, you just have to figure out, and you don’t really know when you go into it what you’re going to like to do. There are things that I thought I would like doing, like making the tonic. I thought that that could be fun, and it was fun for two batches and then both of us were pretty over it.
Ben Hanna: You recently left Heirloom and are striking out on your own. What led you to make that decision and what are you looking forward to next?
Erin Cochran: I was at Heirloom for four years, which is the longest job I’ve ever had. I felt like I had kind of maxed what I could do there unless I bought into the restaurant. I had been offered the opportunity to buy part of the restaurant and I was really, really considering it. After a few months of thinking about it I just realized that if I bought part of this restaurant, then I would probably never be free, truly free to go and open my place. I would always be worried about not putting all of my energy into this thing I already owned.
So I decided I couldn’t do that, and at that point, I guess I’m not going to move forward with this. Then I’m only using it to be comfortable. And if I’m only trying to be comfortable, then I’m not going to keep moving forward.
Ben Hanna: Right.
Erin Cochran: I decided that the only way to really push myself to move forward and to try to start a restaurant on my own was to leave Heirloom. I’m in a really fortunate position that I have a wife that can support the both of us. That gave me the freedom to be able to leave and start looking for restaurant spaces and put all of my efforts into that.
Ben Hanna: And right now you’re in this in-between time. You are also doing something pretty unique, which is going back to cooking small meals all by yourself for groups of people with Feastly.
Erin Cochran: Yeah, for sure. Those are super fun.
Ben Hanna: How’s that going?
Erin Cochran: It’s going really well, actually. I had a dinner last night that went super well. The meals are fun but not big moneymakers by any means. I’m buying small quantities of things, not like a restaurant, so my food cost is pretty high. And I spend maybe 18 actual prep hours preparing for each of them.
Ben Hanna: That’s a lot.
Erin Cochran: So, as far as what I get paid by the hour for these, it’s nothing, but they’re super fun. It’s fun to be cooking again. Just looking on the computer for restaurants and working on a business plans, it starts to feel like I have an office job and like I’ve sort of lost touch with what I want to do.
Ben Hanna: You’re also treating these meals strategically in that you’re doing a little bit of restaurant test prep as well, right?
Erin Cochran: Sure, yeah. I have a sort of unique design that I want for the restaurant, which is a set family meal, or a set meal that’s kind of like a family meal that everyone in my restaurant will get. These dinners that I’m doing sort of gives me the opportunity to test that out and see how well it goes over, see how the flow works, and see how I can tweak it a little bit.
Ben Hanna: You say you want to do a family dinner, a set meal. How did you arrive at that being the food experience you want people to have?
Erin Cochran: At Heirloom I was a cook, but I was also a server, so I’ve had the chance to really talk to people about their meals and talk them through menus. I have found that more often than not, people don’t enjoy trying to figure out what they’re going to eat.
When they sit down and they have a menu, it feels a little bit stressful, and they don’t really know what wine to choose and they need help, and they don’t know what’s best coming out of the kitchen, they don’t know if they’re making the wrong choice. You can visibly see people relax once they have a glass of wine, and once they’ve decided what they’re going to have, and they can actually have a conversation.
So, when I have friends come into the restaurant, I often don’t even give them a menu. I’ll just tell them “This is what I think you should drink, these are the best things we have, that’s what I’m going to send you, we’re going to do it all family style.” So, then no one thinks “I want what they’re having.” It’s just a nicer, more communal feeling that way. It’s like you’re sitting down with your friends to have a good experience, not to analyze all the food and figure out where everybody went wrong.
Ben Hanna: What’s your timeline right now for the restaurant?
Erin Cochran: Gosh, that’s an impossible question. We have this spot that we’re both really interested in and that I’ve gone up to see several times. It’s in Sebastopol, but it’s not zoned correctly, so we need to talk to the city about whether they would be willing to rezone it commercial. My number one person that I need to convince is the supervisor of Sebastopol, and I have a meeting with him January 7th. He can’t tell me a definite yes or no because I won’t have any of my environmental studies and traffic studies and whatnot done. But if he says that he thinks that he would be willing to approve it, then we’re looking at about nine months for applications and all that to go through.
At that point we can start construction, so that will take another maybe nine months to a year. That particular spot is a little ways out. If we happened to find another spot that was already zoned or that was already a restaurant even, then the timeline could shorten significantly. It just depends on what we find, and we’re looking for something pretty unique, so it could pop up tomorrow or it could take two years for us to find something.
Ben Hanna: Is your goal to pull locally from where you are, or to be a destination restaurant – where people are driving an hour and a half, two hours to get there for this experience?
Erin Cochran: I honestly think it could be both. The way that I want to approach the service and the community-oriented family-style meal, I think it could become a definite local hangout. I’m not planning on making it astronomically expensive. I want it to be somewhere that normal people can go to, so I think it could be something that locals want to go to. I’m also hoping it will be a unique enough experience that people are going to be willing to drive to get there.
Thanks Erin! If you want to try some of her excellent tonic, you can order it at http://www.candbbottling.com/ .
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