With the Thanksgiving season behind us and holiday soireés coming up, I thought a conversation with Cassandra Schultz, owner of Cassandra's Kitchen, was the perfect moment to talk all things hosting and the business of being a female CEO. Having a strong family bond with Ina Garten, Cassandra has taken an idea and solved a problem with her company, all while being a mom and holding on to who she is and wants to grow into.
Our Leading Lady series is more than just who and what. With every conversation and interview we want to highlight the powerful drive behind each entrepreneur and more importantly show how they have defied expectations and shattered glass ceilings.
Cassandra is not only a successful entrepreneur but also a close family friend of the renowned chef and TV personality, Ina Garten. Let's dive into her story and learn more about her background and the inspiration behind Cassandra's Kitchen.
How did it all start? What inspired you to open Cassandra's Kitchen?
"I've known Ina Garten for as long as I can remember. I used to work at the store for Barefoot Contessa and about 25 years ago, my mom became her assistant as well. Being constantly surrounded by Ina’s food was fun and we started to notice my mom receiving emails inquiring about the products Ina used. That's when I decided to set up a website where people could easily find and purchase those items. It started small and gradually expanded from there."
Such a close connection to Ina must have been an inspiring thing to witness as a young woman. More importantly I love that you had that connection with your mom working towards something she loved. Watching women solve problems is actually so natural because that's what we do. It's important for our readers to hear story after story of that being funneled into business ideas.
"Yes, over four decades ago, when we relocated to East Hampton, it was my father initially who joined Ina's team. Then, all five of us children found ourselves contributing at Barefoot Contessa as well. My sisters and I were the most involved, with my mother eventually becoming Ina's right-hand. I've gained so much of my knowledge simply by observing Ina and reading her interviews. She truly exemplifies a remarkable businesswoman, and I've learned invaluable lessons from her in that regard as well for both my business and personal life. She’s such an amazing woman!"
How do you select the products you carry in your store? Are there specific criteria or guidelines that you follow?
"At first, I mainly relied on what Ina used. I'd invest time in tracking down her exact products, and sometimes I'd find similar items that people would appreciate but I’ve always kept the concept that quality is key.
You don't necessarily need a high-end kitchen setup to be a great host; you can stick to the basics. Personally, I love large white platters and bowls, along with smaller bowls for various uses (like our shallow bowl).
A simplistic, non-trendy collection is my guiding principle. It has to be uncomplicated; I don't stock items with excessive details or limited seasonal use.
While I do dabble a bit in holiday-themed pieces from time to time, I believe you don't need distinctive items for every season. Swapping out napkins and tablecloths can be just as effective as investing in costly platters. Always stick to the basics first and make sure the items are transitional."
Can you share any memorable experiences or lessons learned from running Cassandra’s Kitchen?
"While I really do love creating photoshoots, they can be quite labor-intensive…honestly, the real joy of curating content has always come from collaborating with others, like Trent @storeboughtisfine, to bring them to life. It makes the process so much more fun when you can see others enjoying it, too!
One of the most significant memories stems from our growth, which led to the construction of an additional garage at our family home for inventory, followed by the incorporation of a warehouse, and eventually the transition to larger stores over the years.
These huge steps are always etched in my memory because I’ve learned so much along the way and experienced all the emotions with every step!
Personally, my favorite aspect is the day-to-day grind, immersing myself in the physical parts of the job, such as managing stock and overseeing the warehouse.
As for the lessons learned…there are MANY…everyday teaches me something new and they always tend to run into personal life, too. The funny thing is: my college degree was actually in criminal justice rather than business so I find myself learning something fresh about the business world each day. Currently, my main focus is on cultivating discipline and intentionality, with the belief that the invaluable lessons from my business endeavors can be applied to enrich other areas of my life."
What advice would you give to women looking to start their own business, especially if they aspire to have a successful business like yours?
"First and foremost, consider starting on your own. Partnerships can be challenging. Begin with smaller steps to allow for scalability, rather than diving in headfirst and trying to do everything at once! Think in terms of baby steps, not going from 0 to 100 immediately. Test the waters and then expand gradually.
With the abundance of influencers and small businesses on Instagram, it's important to filter out the noise. It can create a sense of needing to do it all, which isn't necessary. Identify your strengths and focus on sharing those. Don't EVER let fear dictate your path. If something isn't bringing the results you expected, take a moment…take a deep breath, and ask yourself, 'What else can I be doing? What other products can we introduce?'" Try not to focus on the frustration…just be a problem-solver instead!"
Have you faced any unique challenges or obstacles along your journey that you didn't anticipate?
"Dissolving a partnership presented a HUGE challenge from both personal and business ends. It was a really difficult time personally, so that would’ve been one of my first huge challenges. But honestly, at every single stage of growth, there’s always a new challenge.
Initially, there was the concern of managing inventory in our home, trying to figure out the logistics of shipping and inventory. Then, transitioning to a warehouse brought rent payments and the logistics of handling deliveries. After that, moving into a physical storefront posed an entirely new challenge, particularly for someone with no prior experience in retail. But - I viewed this lack of retail experience as an opportunity to offer something truly distinctive because I was free to approach the retail landscape in a totally new way.
Every single stage will teach you something…"
Have you had any influential mentors or friends that you feel helped you along the way? If so, tell me about that experience.
"Firstly, there's Ina…of course. Having her as a role model has been incredibly valuable. It's like having my own personal series called "What Would Ina Do?" She's an amazing businessperson.
Then there's my mom, who is incredibly resilient and diligent…she’s such a hard worker…both of my parents are, really. I like to think I inherited my hard-working mindset from both of them.
And then, there’s the best friend who's always there. I’ve known my best friend for 40 years… she’s an attentive listener and always lends a helping hand. Many lessons from the business world seem to translate into personal life, so having a best friend to bounce ideas off of is so valuable to me."
How do you approach balancing work and personal life as an entrepreneur?
"Being a mom is one of the most challenging roles, and it's one of the primary reasons I launched my business. My children always come first, and I wanted to be the one caring for them…pick up, drop off…bedtime..all the things. I've taken small, deliberate steps to ensure that this was manageable with three kids.
While I'm not entirely sure if I've mastered the balance, it somehow falls into place! My mindset has always been that my children are my top priority.
Anything I take on has to be flexible enough to be set aside if they need me. This means working at all hours, whether it's 4 a.m. or 10 p.m., or even multitasking…like now, I’m coming up with interview answers super early in the morning while making my oatmeal in the oven! You have to find time to make the things that are important to you happen."
Can you share any hobbies or interests that help you unwind and rejuvenate?
"There was a time when volleyball was a big part of my life, even playing when my kids were younger. Now that my own children are in middle and high school, their hobbies have taken first place for sure.
I make sure to work out daily and take my dog for a walk; it keeps me balanced. Someday, when my kids have gone off the college, I'll have time for those fun activities again. I don't feel a sense of loss - my children are my current passions and interests, because I know I only have them with me for a limited time."
What is in store for you in the future?
"I'm really striving to be more deliberate and disciplined in all our launches and my daily life as a mom. Looking ahead to next year, when I think about what I'll be working on in 2024, I don't anticipate a massive shift because my kids are such a central part of my life at this moment. I'm truly committed to taking it one day at a time.
A funny goal: I was talking to a friend recently about her weekly schedule and I thought…I don’t have a true schedule or take time for lunch most days. It might sound funny, but if I can say, “alright, at 12:30, I'll sit down and have lunch," I'll be content! I’m sure most business owners can understand that fully!"
The Leading Ladies of our time are an inspiration to us all. They remind us that we have the power to shape our own destinies and create a life that is truly extraordinary. By following their example, we can pave our own way in life and leave a lasting legacy for future generations.Thank you, Cassandra, for sharing your story and insights with us. It's truly inspiring to see how your friendship with Ina Garten has shaped your entrepreneurial journey. We wish you continued success with Cassandra's Kitchen!
Where you can find Cassandra Schultz
**Shop for Autographed Barefoot Contessa Cookbooks by Ina Garten at Cassandra's Kitchen