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It was a random weekday in 2011, and Jan Pinnington was trying to get through her front door to start a busy day.  Her 11-year old daughter needed help making breakfast, and Pinnington suggested that she “crack some eggs to make omelets.”

“She looked at me like I had two heads, and I realized I had never taught her to cook,” Pinnington recalled.

Pinnington encouraged her daughter to invite some friends to come to their home after school, promising she would teach them basic kitchen and cooking skills.  The kids enjoyed it, and lessons began happening on a regular basis.  Suddenly, her teaching skills caught on and were warmly welcomed by other busy parents.  “I had parents coming to my house and putting money in my apron, asking if their child could come over to learn to cook more, and I realized I could maybe turn this into a business,” said Pinnington.

Jan Pinnington, founder of Healthy Hands Cooking

Pinnington had spent 18 years designing corporate communication programs for large companies, but she quickly began investing her time and creativity into building her own business–and graduating from nutrition school.  She wanted to design a business that wasn’t just about enabling children to prepare food, but also to prepare healthy, wholesome foods.  While learning about family nutrition, she also obtained proper licensing for food safety and began marketing her own business.  But Pinnington’s aspirations went far beyond her own home kitchen and her daughter’s group of friends.  She wanted to enable other people to do exactly what she was doing: host healthy cooking classes from the comfort of their own homes.

It wasn’t just cooking lessons she wanted to sell; Pinnington wanted to train others to do what she was doing.  She designed a sellable training program that explained nutrition, business licensing, and social media marketing for anyone who wanted to follow in her footsteps. She included lesson plans, healthy recipes that children would enjoy, and support materials to help others build their businesses.

Six years later, Pinnington is the proud founder of Healthy Hands Cooking, an obesity-fighting, web-based business that educates and empowers individuals who want to teach others healthy cooking skills.  She even has a patent-pending automated software program.  Although it started in Pinnington’s kitchen just six years ago, Healthy Hands Cooking now has over 400 instructors across eight different countries.

Pinnington’s story may sound like a rapid climb to success, but she maintains that there were many hurdles in the road.  “I probably have wanted to quit more than a dozen times, because there are times when you just you put all your energy into developing and creating, but it just doesn’t seem to be moving,” she explained.  She cites challenges that range from very technical problems with her website to more complicated, expansive dilemmas such as not understanding her pricing level strategy or market.  She also had to mortgage her own house to fund development and patent of the software program she needed to make the program even easier and more accessible to the instructors.

What has kept Pinnington pushing through the challenges are the Healthy Hands Cooking instructors themselves.  “It’s the story about the child who has started to love spinach if he puts it in a smoothie, or parents calling you saying, ‘I can’t believe my child knows how to read a label’–all those stories inspire me every single day to keep this going.  Lives are being affected and changed,” said Pinnington.

Not all of the stories she has heard from instructors have been that happy; one instructor recently told her that her child’s friend died suddenly of obesity-related health problems.  It continued to motivate Pinnington to help get the message out about healthy cooking even more.  “It’s this mission that I’m on,” said Pinnington.  “It’s not about the money.  It’s never been about the money.”

 

Pinnington with a student.

A closer look at being an instructor

Many instructors have adapted their lesson plans to incorporate other healthy activities like art and yoga.  Some instructors report making a mere extra $15,000 of side income; others report making six-figure incomes after two years of working full-time for Healthy Hands.  “Our business model is really different,” said Pinnington.  “It is so flexible in how they can run their business, because we’re not franchised, but they still have a support network that has a teamwork attitude.”

Although there is some room for creativity with instructors, Healthy Hands Cooking is strict about the requirements needing to be a certified instructor.  For legal and liability policies–as well as protecting the integrity of the company’s mission–instructors may only use Healthy Hands Cooking’s own recipes.  There is extensive testing required, full background checks, and required education about food handling safety, first aid, marketing, media, and permits and licensing.

Instructors are recruited not through marketing, but by mere Internet browsing.  Most typically find Healthy Hands Cooking when doing web searches for how to prepare healthy meals for their families.  “They fall in love with the concept and they just sign up,” Pinnington explained.

Healthy Hands Cooking provides extensive, detailed nutritional information and lesson plans for each cooking session, and they now have lesson plans for all ages, from 2 years old to senior citizens.  “They all start with some nutrition game or activity to set the stage for learning,” she explained.  She has designed lesson plans for special events, birthday parties, camps, nursing homes, high school groups, and Christ-centered classes.  

The food philosophy behind Healthy Hands is simple.  “We’re all about whole foods,” explained Pinnington.  “That means no packaged foods, no artificial sweeteners, colors, or ingredients.”  They have lesson plans designed to accommodate over 300 recipes, including those appropriate for traditional cooks who prepare meat, vegan and vegetarian instructors, and gluten-free classes.  The recipes employ a variety of tabletop appliances, including pancake grills, toasters, and blenders, which make them ideal for traveling instructors.

Pinnington has become so busy managing and supporting her business that she herself has not been teaching classes for about two years.  Healthy Hands Cooking now has its first teaching kitchen, located in Ballentine and set to open within months.  “I am going back into teaching mode as soon as the kitchen’s finished being built, so I can keep my finger on the pulse of classes and stay connected to the instructors,” she said.

Healthy Hands Cooking was awarded a $10,000 grant from SC Launch that will allow locally based instructors to use their new kitchen to hold classes free of charge.  Pinnington is also anticipating renting the kitchen out to personal chefs, caterers, or tasting event planners.  She has also expanded her business into contracting with local entities like Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House, where instructors will teach cooking skills to children suffering with diabetes or obesity-related health issues.  She also hopes to build grant-sponsored classes for the general public to attend.

Although Healthy Hands Cooking receives some grant funding now, it is still designed as a for-profit business.  “Each of our instructors is self-employed, creating their own small businesses,” explained Pinnington.

One of those self-employed instructors is Amy McClain, who Pinnington recently hired to work as an instructor support leader.  McClain said she loved working as an instructor because the lesson plans were “so easy to facilitate.”

“They’re very down to earth.  It doesn’t matter if your audience has any nutrition knowledge or any cooking skills at all…A lot of the people I teach in my area don’t have access to the higher end culinary classes.  Some of them have never cooked,” McClain explained. I have parents who bring their children to me but stay in class and watch, then say later, ‘I’m jealous! Now my son knows how to make homemade salad dressing and I don’t even know how to boil an egg!’  These recipes use simple techniques and measures, and recipes that are obtainable for any level of skill and knowledge.”

 

A rapidly growing company

McClain earned her job by being an active member of a private Facebook community for Healthy Hands Cooking instructors, where she was always eager to share advice and tips with other instructors.  Pinnington recognized the value in McClain’s encouraging spirit and offered her a leadership position in the growing company.  Although she was based in Ohio, McClain is now moving to Columbia and is eager to help Pinnington grow her business.  “Our community is so unique as far as the instructors go, and we’re very supportive of one another.  We’re a mix, so we have anyone from stay-at-home moms all the way up to registered dieticians.  We have people who are just home cooks up to private chefs.  There’s such a mix of people, but we all have this common mission, and it unifies us.  It draws people with the same heart.  I think that’s important for people to know about Healthy Hands–it’s not just another way to make money. There’s a mission and purpose behind it.”

Pinnington has also selected California-based instructor Colette Woods to take on a leadership role in their online community, as an instructor relations specialist.  After getting divorced, Woods was working as a warehouse superviser for a major retailer, and every work week she clocked in more than 40 hours.  With two children under the age of five, including one who has a learning disability, the newly single mother wanted to find a way to still earn a decent income but be able to spend more time with her children.  A web search led her to Healthy Hands Cooking.  “I got certification quickly–everything was done in a week or two–and I started with very small private classes, because I didn’t have facility,” Woods explained.  “I relied on word of mouth, so it was slow in beginning.”

Woods found her rhythm soon enough by engaging in what she calls “kitchen lab work,” or creating recipes.  She helped develop Healthy Hands Cooking’s programs for assisted living facilities, tailoring recipes to meet the dietary needs of seniors.  She also teaches classes for college students who are limited with food preparation in their dorm rooms.  In her newer position as an instructor relations specialist, she provides help over the phone or the Internet to other instructors who are struggling with marketing, teaching, or developing their businesses.  The once overworked single mother now sets her own hours every week, and her kids often accompany her to her classes.

Her youngest child, now eight years old, has grown up in Healthy Hands Cooking classes and has developed exceptionally healthy eating habits.  “My oldest still likes donuts from time to time,” said Woods with a laugh.  “But my youngest doesn’t eat sugar by his choice.  He’ll turn down cupcakes, cakes, soda–he always makes healthy choices…This program does work.  It becomes a habit of who they are.”

Things may be moving quickly for Healthy Hands Cooking, but Pinnington is not running short of her ambition.  “Now, we need to figure out how to scale up to 15,000 active instructors–one for every McDonald’s restaurant in America,” she explained.  “Even with that, we still won’t even bump into each other.”  For South Carolina specifically, Pinnington says she feels the “minimum number of instructors we would need to affect change” would be over 250.

“Entrepreneurs need to have unshakable passion for what they’re doing.  There’s so many things that will try to discourage them from keeping going,” said Pinnington.  “I will tell you, I’ve never drawn any money from the company. I’m just reinvesting everything to make the website better, the experience better for the instructors.  If I didn’t have the passion, I would have given up…but this is what i’ve been gifted to do.  I can’t stop.”

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