Cooking Classes Connect Local Store to Customers Cooking Classes Connect Local Store to Customers

Donna Pascarella Has A Knack For Teaching.

HARTY: Since opening 12 years ago, a family owned Italian imports store and deli has become a staple in North Syracuse. Vince’s Gourmet Imports has grown in popularity by catering to consumer requests. Dan Harty reports how cooking classes have helped Vince’s bring in business and connect with customers.

HARTY: The voice of Donna Pascarella is the soundtrack to many afternoons and evenings at Vince’s Gourmet Imports. Pascarella has been the instructor of Vince’s popular cooking classes for about a year and says part of the fun is never knowing what to expect from a group of students.

PASCARELLA: Some are here to learn how to cook or do something different. A lot of people are here because they remember things from their mother or grandmother. Some people are here just to drink wine and get together with their girlfriends.”>

HARTY: Whatever their motives may be, Pascarella says the most important factor in making a class enjoyable is her ability to create a friendly environment.

PASCARELLA: You know it’s like anything, you have to read the crowd and see if you have to pull it out of them.

HARTY: On this night, however, the air is filled with laughter amongst a room of strangers…

HARTY: …and nobody is feeling shy, clearly…

HARTY: As the new friends learned how to prepare different Italian holiday appetizers, Sam Mondello, the owner of Vince’s, referred to the cooking classes as one in a series of smart business decisions that dates back decades.

More than 50 years ago, Mondello’s father in law Vince Lombardi immigrated from Italy to America with his family in search of new opportunities. The Lombardis settled in Syracuse and opened an aptly named Italian market.

MONDELLO: Him and his brothers and father started another store called Lombardi’s which is on the old north side where a lot of the Italians found homes.

HARTY: After more than 30 years at Lombardi’s, Mondello says Vince considered leaving the north side of Syracuse, an area that was in decline.

MONDELLO: I would be afraid to let you or even my kids walk down the street without any supervision.

HARTY: However, Vince’s brothers had no intention of moving. So, with Mondello’s help, Vince founded Vince’s Gourmet Imports.

MONDELLO: His brothers actually didn’t want to leave the store. So I found the building and here we are twelve and a half years later.

HARTY: After working in grocery stores as a teenager, Mondello never imagined he’d be the owner of an Italian imports store.

MONDELLO: I always vowed, honestly, I would never get back into retail (laughs).

HARTY: But after more than a decade at Vince’s, Mondello says he’s done pretty well for a guy who had sworn off retail forever. He attributes the store’s success to its ability to adapt to the customer.

MONDELLO: We’ve grown, we’ve changed, we’ve evolved with a lot of customer requests.

HARTY: Mondello is usually open to suggestions, whether changing the deli menu or adding seating. About five years ago, when people began asking for cooking classes, however, Mondello needed some convincing.

MONDELLO: I originally told people, ‘No. I’m not going to do them.’ And I kept getting asked for it. If I get asked for something numerous times, that’s usually a good sign that there’s a need out there for it.

HARTY: Evidently, there was. Mondello says Vince’s cooking classes took off. An open seat at one of the twelve cooking stations became a rarity. Soon, he was selling out classes months in advance.

MONDELLO: At the end of the second year, the classes had gotten so popular. By the time we released the last three months, I think I sold them out in like three hours.

HARTY: Now in their fifth year, Mondello credits Pascarella for the continued popularity of the classes, saying she has the ability to connect with every customer. This particular night is no different.

HARTY: Pascarella guides a room of diverse students of all skill levels.

HARTY: Take newcomer and beginner Zach Ruhnow for example…

RUHNOW: It was like a 50/50 you don’t know what you’re walking into type thing because I hadn’t been here. But ya it was a great time.

HARTY: Or returning customer and experienced cook Tobi St. John…

ST. JOHN: Honestly I had walked past it forever. I had been in here a million times. I had a sandwich and was sitting there last week and I looked over and realized what it was. I said ‘Oh my gosh I have to sign up for it.’ It’s great.

HARTY: Two very different people who both left with the same feeling…

RUHNOW: Ya we’re coming back.

ST. JOHN: Now I’m coming back for the cooking classes.

HARTY: And for Pascarella, bringing customers back has always been the goal.

PASCARELLA: I can see that there’s repeat business. It’s always in the back of my mind that this is business and I have to keep it moving for him.

HARTY: While the success of Vince’s is the priority, Pascarella says seeing students who are proud of their work feels pretty good too.

ST. JOHN: I think I nailed it…I did…with Donna’s instruction.

HARTY: Dan Harty, N-C-C News

By Dan Harty SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — After more than 14 years working in the catering department at Syracuse University, Donna Pascarella was looking for a change.

“After SU, I was thinking I didn’t want to do full time work anymore,” Pascarella said. “I just wanted to do something different. I had been there, done that.”

About a year ago, Pascarella found what she was looking for. She started a new job as a cooking class instructor at Vince’s Gourmet Imports, a traditional Italian imports store and deli in North Syracuse.

Since then, Pascarella has been teaching up to 12 cooking students in Vince’s cooking classes that are held a few times every week. Pascarella’s expertise comes from years of experience in which she picked up skills every step of the way.

“When I was little, I learned from my mother and grandmother,” Pascarella said. “Then I went to school for hotel and restaurant management. I learned from different restaurants and I’m still learning today.”

With Pascarella at the helm, Vince’s cooking classes have continued to be one of the store’s most popular features.

Zach Ruhnow chops garlic.
Each student in Vince’s cooking classes gets his or her own cooking station equipped with all of the necessary supplies.
© 2018 Dan Harty

However, when customers first presented the idea of cooking classes to Vince’s owner Sam Mondello five years ago, he was a bit skeptical.

I originally told people, ‘No. I’m not going to do them,'” Mondello said. “And I kept getting asked for it. If I get asked for something numerous times, that’s usually a good sign that there’s a need out there for it.”

After a lot of convincing, Mondello installed sporadic cooking classes, once or twice per month. He soon realized, however, his customers wanted more. With increased demand, Mondello soon set aside a few nights per week for cooking classes and the people kept coming.

At the end of the second year, the classes had gotten so popular,” Mondello said. “By the time we released [the schedule for] the last three months, I think I sold [all of the classes] out in like three hours.”

To this day, Vince’s continues to sell out cooking classes. Mondello credits Pascarella’s ability to connect with her students. Pascarella said that’s easy to do, especially because she loves coming to work every day.

“Sam certainly promotes a family atmosphere,” Pascarella said. “He’s a family guy and you can tell. He knows people’s names when they come in like it’s Cheers. It’s a great place to work.”


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