An ear for advice helps Hill's Kitchen owner hone her offerings

By Vickie Elmer
Monday, April 19, 2010

When Leah Daniels started planning Hill's Kitchen more than three years ago, she wanted to carry all American-made and independent merchandise. That would have been a mistake, and it would have cost her gourmet kitchen shop a lot of business from one of her best-selling lines.

Daniels still relishes offering many unusual items, from meatball grilling baskets to squid-shaped whisks, sold alongside aprons, mixing bowls and tongs. And she's learned that her own instincts, while valuable, are not always right. Instead, she listens to customers, her mother, other kitchen shop owners and a trusted employee who's really into baking.

"They have strengths that I don't have," she said. She often brings someone along to trade shows to choose new merchandise. "Fresh eyes are always good."

The result is an independent gourmet kitchenware shop that beckons with copper saute pans, pizza stones, pie and lasagna dishes, wine glasses, colorful oven mitts, paring knives and cutting boards, cheese cloth and bamboo dish towels. Among the 5,000 items are All-Clad stainless pots that Daniels initially bypassed -- a line that has proven popular. All that is squeezed into 1,400 square feet of selling space in an 1884 townhouse brownstone at 713 D St. SE.

She has three part-time staffers and a job that has taken over her life. "I have zero time to cook," she confesses.

Daniels loves Hill's Kitchen, which opened in May 2008, and the neighborhood, where she grew up and managed a used book store for six years. "Halfway through I realized I would never be the owner," she said, "I was trying to find a way to stay in the neighborhood and do that type of job."

She paid attention to her own shopping habits and realized that before preparing vegetarian meals or big breakfasts, she often left the Capitol Hill area to buy parchment paper, tart pans and other cooking items. Now she sells such stuff, and a steady stream of new items added to keep the store fresh.

"It's constant, constant ordering. Every day is delivery day," Daniels said. "I've added so much by what my customers have asked me to get. . . . . I had no idea that I had to have brown sugar bears," she added, referring to the terra cotta dishes that store brown sugar. Not everything she picks works -- some are duds and some end up marked down.

New to the store in the last week or so are small steak thermometers, sold singly or in packs of four, and terra cotta plates and bowls painted in fruit themes, such as tomatoes, snap peas and oranges.

"They're bright and beautiful -- emblematic of the spring," she said, and by July, she'll carry a different tableware offering.

If three customers request an item, Daniels often will stock it. Some things she will not add, either because of its quality or quantity. One example: People often ask for tablecloths, and she knows she'd probably sell a lot of them. But she doesn't have room enough for the array of sizes, colors and patterns to become "the place" for tablecloths. "It's tough. I have to say no to people," at least for now.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company