Food, designing, teaching…Erin Boukall is a woman of many interests. She’s cleverly found ways to combine her many passions, and this led to her opening her own Spreadshop, Chef Shirts. Due to her compelling background, we chose Chef Shirts as our Shop of the Month. Take a look at our interview below for some valuable lessons, tips, and insight into the Shop owner experience…
You’ve got a clear passion for culinary arts. Where did this passion come from, and what ultimately inspired you to open your own merch store?
I’ve been really interested in food since I was 16 or 17. After that, I became a quintessential foodie. Since that time, I’ve collected around 600 cookbooks… so yea, I’m really into food. I just started to learn how to cook myself, and I’ve started checking out restaurants and becoming interested in chefs.
I resisted going to culinary school because I wasn’t sure how else to use that training other than to become a restaurant chef, and the hours and the physicality were daunting. When I first graduated high school, I went to art school, and that’s kind of translated here into Chef Shirts.
Now I’m a high school culinary teacher. That’s really been another way for me to embrace my passion for food, and I’m actually going to school part-time to finish a culinary red seal to be a certified chef.
Is that like a black belt in Karate?
Not quite as cool. It’s basically the government certifying me as a trained chef. I’m kind of doing all of that at the same time, and that’s where my passion for food has taken me.
In terms of opening a merch shop with you guys, the designs came from me designing handouts for my students in my culinary class. I was looking for these visual images to use as a teaching aid, but I couldn’t find access to them. So, I started relying on that art school experience (I told my parents I’d use it one day). I kind of used these designs to showcase things that I wanted to teach, and I guess they turned out cooler than expected. People started saying ‘that would be so cool on a t-shirt.’ I was like ‘oh, okay, I guess I could do that.’
When I first decided that I was going to be producing and selling these shirts, I just posted something on a whim on my Instagram account. Then I started getting this international buzz; people were messaging me from Italy, South Africa, Portugal, Mexico. They were just like “hey, I want these, how do I get them?” That’s when I started seeing that international interest, and I figured out that I was going to have to think outside the box. I didn’t want to keep a bunch of t-shirts in my garage and only sell them to friends, and I didn’t want to sit on that inventory and stock. I figured if I wanted to have that international reach, I needed a way to get the product to those customers. Spreadshirt was the solution for me because it was like a low-startup platform for me to start selling and focusing on the designing.
Food, designing, teaching… they’re all pretty different. How did you end up finding the perfect way to combine these interests?
I’ve always been a perfectionist, and that lends itself well to food. My art background has also played a role in my love for food. It’s about color, it’s about design, but then it’s so much more. It’s about taste, balance, harmony, textures…just playing with all those and making sure this idea that you’ve built up in your head translates to the plate. It’s the same thing when it comes to my shirts. It’s playing around with the design on paper and seeing that final product that you can share with people. It’s really cool.
Your designs have a hand-drawn look to them. Can you elaborate on the process that sees your designs going from paper to digital?
I’m pretty old school. Even while I was at art school, I really resisted going digital. I would always find those sneaky shortcuts so I could do everything by hand. That’s just how I worked best.
These designs started as sharpie doodles on paper, like a piece of printer paper or something I ripped out of a sketchbook. I had never even opened Photoshop. Eventually I realized that I needed to learn how to use the software.
I kind of taught myself how to use it and asked some people around me for tips and tricks. I was just trying to make sure they were crisp and sharp and had that graphic quality that I was looking for while still maintaining that kind of hand-drawn aspect.
You’re active on social media. What platform have you found the most success on?
It’s definitely Instagram. Being such a visual person, that’s how I communicate best with others. Instagram is pure visual content. It’s in your face, you see it in your feed, you’re scrolling through before bed…I think that’s helped people get exposure to my brand.
Another nice thing about Instagram is the opportunity for collaboration, which is something I’m very interested in pursuing. I want to reach out to other accounts, have them repost my images, and then I can get exposure from a different cliental. That will let me reach different audiences and different people in different time zones.
How often do you post to Instagram?
I don’t automatically set a posting schedule. I didn’t find that it was as authentic.
At the minimum, I’ll post once a day. At the maximum, I’ll post three times a day, but that’s a rare case. Then, depending on what I’m posting, I’ll be pretty selective about the timing. If I think it’s something that’s going to be popular, I’ll save it for those peak times.
You’ve used your social media channels for promotions. Have you found that any particular strategy works best?
I put a lot of effort into that, because it’s another way for me to showcase my love for food, not just my shirts. I think the thing that’s been most successful with promotions (especially through Instagram) has been the fact that the people who follow me are my exact target audience.
Lately, I’ve been into really naturally-colored foods, so I’ve been making rainbow dumplings and rainbow sushi. People follow me for that because it’s eye-catching, and that provides me with an opportunity to expose them to my shirts. It’s really about understanding my target market, connecting with them and keeping the engaging content coming.
What is your experience in terms of shop promotion and what do you have planned?
I want to dive deeper into Instagram, particularly with stories. I predominantly do my advertising out of my personal CulinaryCalgary page because I have more followers there, and then I’ll link it to Chef Shirts.
It’s about having that branding. It’s funny because we’re talking about all of these terms, and besides being a high school culinary teacher, I also teach business classes. I teach management and marketing. This knowledge helps me a lot, and it’s cool because this little pet project of mine is starting to grow and expand. I can basically use it as a case study to show students some of the real-world experiences of actually using those techniques.
Outside of social media, I’d like to have physical business cards and post cards. I’ve also been producing stickers with some of the imagery from my shirts, and that’s been going well.
Where do you envision your brand going in the future? Is there a plan or strategy?
My first strategy was having a passion for what I’m doing, and then combining all of those interests. I kind of have that foundation by using the things that drive and inspire me. I have a contest idea that I want to pursue on Instagram where I’d ask followers for design suggestions. If their idea is selected, they’ll get a custom printed shirt.
Finally, do you have any helpful hints for those who may be starting with Spreadshirt?
I think it’s important to have a strong foundation of designs before launching a Shop. Make sure that your images are crisp, clear and honed in. Five designs is a good place to start. On top of that, I’d make sure that everything’s cohesive. I’m talking about making sure that the branding is solid…making sure that there’s a cohesive package that will make sense to the customer. Aside from that, and this might sound corny, is being able to see that your heart is in it; just that you care about what you’re doing and you’re passionate about it. The internet is what it is, and once you put your designs out there, you can’t take them back. You want to make sure you’re putting forth a quality product, whether that be your shirts, yourself, or your business.
Thank you for participating in the interview, Erin. For more of her designs, you can visit her Instagram. Also, make sure you tune into the Spreadshop Merch Cast for more insightful interviews with Shop owners.