Nikki Bell grew up cooking bacon, eggs and grits with her grandma and eventually grew into an experimental chef in her own right. Even though her professional credentials are in marketing, not cooking, she followed her passion to a Food Network competition in 2014 — and realized she didn’t need formal education to do what she loves for a living. Nikki used her marketing savvy (and Thumbtack) to grow her side hustle into a successful, full-time catering and personal chef business in Atlanta, Georgia, called Nikki Can Cook. In 2 years, Nikki’s raked in over 180 jobs and over 120 reviews — and she keeps upping the stakes with catering contracts on movie sets and TV shows. Here’s how she does it.
How did you go from a marketing career to being a successful chef in the span of a year?
I was working full-time in marketing and pursuing cooking as a passion project on the weekends before I found Thumbtack. Cooking is something that I’ve loved since I was seven. I was an only child raised by my grandparents, and my grandma started me off cooking traditional breakfasts—bacon, eggs, and grits. Once I was successful, she opened up her cookbooks to me. I spent my free time in the kitchen experimenting and trying different foods. But I’m from a country town, nobody is a professional chef, I didn’t know any chefs, so when I left for college it was a marketing degree, not culinary school. In 2014 I competed on the Food Network and was there for four weeks. I realized I didn’t need culinary school to do what I loved for a living. I took my 15 minutes of fame and created Nikki Can Cook. When my marketing job laid me off in 2015, instead of looking for a new marketing job I turned Nikki Can Cook into a full-time job.
Your business has grown like crazy in those two years, where is it now?
Nikki Can Cook has gone from what was basically a hobby to a full-fledged business. Last year I brought in $125,000 using Thumbtack, and I’m just a team of one. Since I joined 3 years ago, I’ve worked on movie sets and TV shows. I’ve put in a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Through Thumbtack I got a six week contract on the set of an MTV show—which haven’t been released yet so I can’t spill any names—with well-known celebrities. That six week contract paid me nearly the same amount I got in a year from my old marketing job.
How much of Nikki Can Cook’s business is sourced from Thumbtack?
About 90 percent of my business comes from Thumbtack. I would say 80 percent, but I have those customers who have become repeat customers as a result of Thumbtack.
You have over 120 reviews! How did that happen?
I started by importing reviews from three or four customers I had worked with before Thumbtack. I sent them the link and asked them to help me. Beyond that, I honestly don’t really ask for reviews. People just provide them to me. It’s just one of those things where people have a good experience and they want to share that experience.
When you started, how did you decide what to include on your profile?
I think I joined while Thumbtack was fairly new. There were a lot of changes for me, I had a profile but experimented with the photos, experimented with my prices, experimented with the wording, experimented with how to reel people in. I realized that my time on the Food Network show was my “reel ‘em in” tactic. The message it sent was, “Hey if you book me, you book someone good enough to compete on national television.” So I included a short video clip from the show. Most of all, I wanted to convey that I’m a passionate person who loves food.
How do you get so many clients?
I highly recommend having a consistent, concise message about how you’re the best pro for the job. I encourage people to read my profile and my reviews. I let people know that I’ve been hired over 180 times and have over 120 reviews and to check me out. I also mention the Food Network piece in my profile.
Any special jobs that stand out for you?
I was recently hired to cater a birthday party, and in the middle of the party (there were about 60 guests) the couple got married! It was a complete surprise to everyone. They are a same-sex couple that’s been together for 15 years and they decided it was time and wanted to make it a surprise. The highlight of my job is bringing people together to celebrate around food and being part of those special moments.
You’re a successful woman running her own business, any advice for other business women out there?
First and foremost believe in yourself. Go for what you know is going to make your heart happy. Know and understand the money will follow if you’re doing what you love. And don’t be afraid of your dreams. Thumbtack is a great resource to help you invest in your dreams.