It’s a common adage among entrepreneurs: be a trendsetter and do something new. Few in the culinary industry are currently taking that to heart as Chef Jacoby Ponder has.

A Navy veteran with more than a decade of experience in the kitchen, Ponder has gone from serving admirals to appearing on both Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen (winning the latter) to leveraging his brand with experimental projects that have been incredibly successful.

Currently managing a personal private chef business called Chef Ponder & Co. in the Hampton Roads, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia areas, Ponder doesn’t limit himself to just being a personal chef. A creative, forward thinker and never afraid to experiment, Ponder has also branched out to being a guest chef at several breweries in Virginia Beach under a project called Bar Bites and now holds Couples Cooking Classes.

In our interview for the February Issue of Entrepreneurial Chef Magazine, Ponder shared with us his experiences and takeaways from competing on TV, the importance of consistency in marketing, his Couples Cooking Classes, and how there’s no such thing as failure.

Read below for a snapshot of how Ponder leveraged his social media presence to create support for experimental events, such as Bar Bites and his Couples Cooking Classes.

Event Creation From Thin Air

With a growing audience on social media, a visit to a San Diego brewery gave him the idea for his next venture: Bar Bites. While breweries commonly have food trucks provide food to their customers, this particular brewery had invited a guest chef to cook for the day. A completely unexplored concept back on the East Coast, Ponder took the idea and brought it to Virginia Beach.

“I got my chef’s jacket all pressed up, I made myself presentable, and put together a small [press] package outlining the idea and I visited five or six breweries, and out of those six breweries, four thought it was a great idea.” Though he makes it sound easy, Ponder had done his research. “The first thing I did,” Ponder said, “was my market research; I had to find my target market. I did research on the area, and there about four breweries there in Virginia Beach, and [around] those four breweries, there was nowhere to eat within two square miles.” As the breweries didn’t serve any food, customers had to either eat before visiting the brewery, or leave the brewery buzzed but hungry. Ponder used this situation to his advantage, consciously choosing those breweries that weren’t located around any eateries.

An important item Ponder included in his press kit was information regarding his brand, particularly his social media presence. “I have about ten thousand followers collectively, across all my [social media] pages,” Ponder said, “and I showed [these breweries] that out of those ten thousand, seven thousand live locally. A good portion of that I can bring out, just based on my name alone. And with me bringing a couple hundred people with me [based on] my brand, [I told the breweries] that gives you the opportunity to sell your beer to a different crowd of people. It was a lot of numbers and a lot of research and telling them who I am and what I’m worth.”

It was a success. Ponder’s events quickly sold out, thanks to his using social media outlets to hype the event. With dishes such as truffle fries with duck bacon, sliders, and beer-based barbecue sauces, and thanks to Ponder’s social media blitz, the concept of guest chefs at breweries took off in Virginia. Ponder even extended his Bar Bites events to several Norfolk breweries this past summer.

The “Couples Cooking Class” Hit

Ponder’s next idea was born of a combination of a need for funds – “one evening, at the table, I realized, oh, I’m out of money” – and his popularity as a cooking teacher during the time he worked for Williams-Sonoma. People kept asking Ponder how they could hire him directly, and though his contract prohibited him from giving out his contact information, it propelled him to start offering his own cooking classes.

The first, called Working Women’s Tuesday was based on the concept of helping working women and busy mothers make meals under 30 minutes. Partnering up with the Norfolk farmer’s market, Ponder invited around 15 influential women in the community to the free event, and had his videographer film it. When the footage was complete, Ponder blasted it on social media, calling it “Cooking with Chef Ponder.”

Unfortunately, the cooking sessions didn’t take off right away. Ponder then held another free class, this time centered on couples. Ponder invited several bloggers and their partners, and had a life coach also attend the event as a keynote speaker. Called “Couples Cooking Class,” Ponder emphasized that this wasn’t a class designed to develop professional skills, but rather an experience to share with a loved one. At the end of the event, Ponder asked everyone to tag their pictures on Facebook and social media with “Couples Cooking Class” and did the same after his videographer was done editing footage from the event. From there, it took off.

Ponder’s first official Couples Cooking Class sold out within 24 hours. The next class sold out just as quickly. Currently, Ponder has started to work with churches and their couple’s ministry. With one church on board, buying out an entire class for about fifteen couples, word is spreading that Ponder’s classes provide an enriching experience for couples. “One thing my camera guy has [noticed] is that [the couples] keep saying, ‘it’s such a good experience,’” Ponder said proudly, “one thing I live by, people may not always remember what you did, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.”

Get the full interview and more food business and entrepreneurship ideas, inspiration, and actionable advice in the February Issue of Entrepreneurial Chef Magazine.

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