The young couple walked into Williams-Sonoma en famille. Accompaniments included one small, new baby in a stroller and the wife's mother.
The mother-in-law positioned herself in a chair on the sidelines with the baby and the wife stood by smiling as the husband made an announcement. "I'm going to re-equip our kitchen," he said. "I'm doing the cooking now."
By re-equip he didn't mean buy a can opener, although he certainly did buy a can opener, too. He meant Re-equip the Kitchen, beginning with pots and pans, working through knives, cooking spoons and other utensils and ending, over $2,000 later, with dish towels.
The pots and pans he bought were mainly Calphalon, the high style, high quality, high cost and high profile aluminum cookware whose manufacturer, Commercial Aluminum, advertises its product in the pages of refined magazines like The New Yorker.
The knives the man bought were also highest quality. His new collection included a 12-inch chef's knife, an implement with approximately the same efficacy as a samurai's sword. He complained that the knives already in his kitchen were too wimpy.
Take a good look at this man. His sophistication, his desire to exchange lots of money for lots of quality, and his new position as male cook-of-household represent what cookware retailers see as the new shopper, at least among that part of the population with some "discretionary" money to spend.
There is a female version of this shopper, too, who is equally sophisticated and interested in buying high quality equipment. Her traditional role of mother and caretaker may remain, but with amendments. Nancy Pollard of La Cuisine in Alexandria reports a resurgence in cookie-cutter buying around the holidays, often by women dressed in suits. Pollard ascribes this phenomenon to "working moms having quality time doing cookies."
These young, professional shoppers are the kind that retailers can't get enough of. They are "interested, curious," says Pollard. "Whether they're eating out or cooking at home, they want to do it well. They have money and they want to spend it. They're not out to litter shopping malls with their bodies all day, they're out to purchase."
And they are sophisticated. Appetites whetted by an increase in good restaurants, a proliferation of information via food magazines and good cookbooks, and the efforts of manufacturers like Cuisinarts to educate its customers in the ways of the home gourmet, these shoppers are heading for the stores knowing a lot about what they want.
Start with those most staple of kitchen staples, pots and pans. Back in the old days brides used to consider themselves lucky to get a set of stainless steel pots and pans. Nowdays, hardly anybody even utters the word "bride" anymore and sets are definitely out.
Expert cooks know that certain materials are more suited to certain cooking tasks, and, lo and behold, the trend now is to buy by the piece and not by the set. "Consumers tend to look at material more and more," says Geri Brin, publisher and editorial director of the housewares trade magazine Entree. "And they might mix materials, buying some cast iron, some stainless, some aluminum."
Besides a desire to vary materials to suit the work, there is the matter of money. Sets of high quality cookware can very quickly run into the several hundreds of dollars. But, says Sherman Shapiro of Kitchen Bazaar, young people prefer to make do with a few good pots and pans of high quality rather than have a kitchen full of rickety stuff after a few years.
Professional quality cookware -- at least cookware marketed as professional quality -- is popular among the growing ranks of the cognoscenti. Legendary New York-based importer and distributer Charles F. Lamalle has been selling fine cookware such as copper pots and pans to restaurants and retailers since he came to this country from France in 1927. Lamalle says he's seeing old customers, who for several years may have deserted him for the cheaper side of the street, come back to quality.
Calphalon was once the exclusive province of the professional, but thanks to an assiduous marketing effort by the company and the fact that it is heavy-gauge, no-nonsense stuff, it has made itself into a yuppie byword. When it first came on the retail market 10 years ago, says Jeff Cooley, national sales manager of Commercial Aluminum, nobody was willing to pay $25 for an omelet pan no matter how good it was.
Then in 1978-79, demand was "created" by a small group of gourmet shops in California, who introduced the product to their cooking public, a population most professionals consider to be the most sophisticated and innovative in the country. And the rest is history. "We've been able to cash in on a life-style product," says Cooley. "We've become stylish as well as functional."
A Calphalon pot, like heavy-gauge copper and like other good aluminum pots, will literally last a lifetime. Which brings up another, paradoxical problem for retailers.
As Shapiro of Kitchen Bazaar points out, what is there left to buy after you've got your last-a-lifetime pots, pans, knives and whisks? Not even the most profligate consumer is likely to throw out a $100 saute' pan because he's just plain tired of it.
"Teakettles," remembers Shapiro; "if a woman wanted a little different feeling in her kitchen, she'd get a little brave and throw out the old teakettle. She never threw away her double boiler, but she threw away her teakettle."
Now Shapiro and other retailers are looking for other items that might fill the teakettle gap.
The answer, for many stores, is to also sell things that break or things that get thrown away after one use. Called "tabletop" or "software" in the trade, they will never be the backbone of the kitchenware business, but they will increasingly come to the rescue of the profit margin.
Kitchenware stores nearly always stock a veRy few fine foods, too, for essentially the same reasons. Extra-virgin olive oil, fine chocolate and coffee are among the most likely inclusions.
The stores that are the most successful in selling to this smart crowd are the ones that can offer the most knowledgeable service. Manufacturers' representatives go crazy when they visit certain department stores, for instance, whose personnel resort to "if it isn't on the shelf we don't have it" responses.
Consumers who are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for their pots and pans, their knife collection or their ice cream maker want information, and it had better be good, too. In most cases they can't be fooled with blah-blah. Shawny Burns, regional fashion director for Bloomingdale's, says that her stores have to work hard to make sure sales people are well trained enough to answer sophisticated questions.
The presence of sophisticated and pricey kitchenware, particularly small appliancances or mechanical devices like ice cream makers, has also necessitated more in-store demonstrations. Cuisinarts, the company that managed to make its trade name into a generic term for food processor, is considered the master at this. It demonstrated the basic processor relentlessly when it first became available, and now demonstrates its attachments as well.
The result is that many foods that were once made only in professional kitchens can be made at home, and that the food processor is considered by many cooks, even those who wouldn't know a truffle if they saw one, to be as essential as pots and pans. Not bad for an appliance that runs into three digits.
Increased cooking sophistication means also that gimmicks and gadgets are being forced off the shelves by things that really work. "People used to be fascinated by gadgets, but no more," says Charles Lamalle. "They have learned that you don't use them hour after hour after hour."
Entree's Geri Brin identifies the low point in gadget fascination as the early '70s when the doughnut maker and the sandwich maker, both one-trick ponies, were in their heyday. "The day of the single-use appliance is over," she says.
Not that it isn't possible to convince the American public that it has to have certain interesting but essentially frivolous items. According to Anne Kupper of Williams-Sonoma, "what very often happens is that Chuck Williams sets a lot of trends." Williams is the founder of the company, and others in the profession agree with Kupper's assessment.
A case in point is cast iron muffin pans in different shapes -- apples and acorns, for example. Williams first saw one of the pans, painted green, hanging as decoration on a wall of one of the booths at a kitchenware show. He asked the company's representatives if he could order the pan, sans green paint. They snickered, then they said they guessed so. When Williams said he would order several thousand they began to pay attention.
The muffin pan was featured in a Williams-Sonoma mail-order catalogue, a document that is considered by many in the business to be a compendium of what's happening now. Last year Williams-Sonoma sold 17 tons of that one design and Chuck Williams presented a bronzed version to the manufacturer as a token of mutual understanding and admiration.
Another case in point is the cataplana, a clamshell-shaped copper utensil used especially for making and serving seafood stews. Williams "found" the cataplana in Portugal, where it has been used for eons by ordinary people. He showed it to chef Jeremiah Tower, who began using it in his California restaurant Stars and, even better, displayed a whole row of the pieces as part of the restaurant's decor. A big hit in California where fish stew is very popular, the word "cataplana" is now beginning to be uttered on the East Coast as well.
Cookbooks that catch on also have the ability to generate demand for the equipment that goes with them. There was a rush to cast iron, for instance, after New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme's cookbook appeared, including a recipe for now-ubiquitous blackened redfish which requires a cast-iron skillet.
Baking equipment, especially for pies, seems also to be a benefactor of increased attention partly because of interesting cookbooks. Ironically, sweet, rich foods in general seem to be among the darlings of today's health club crowd. And pizza, now metamorphosed into trendy versions topped with smoked duck breast or shellfish, its crust made with rye and whole wheat flours, may no longer be recognizable by any self-respecting Sicilian, but it and the equipment needed to make it at home are big business among certain groups of American cooks.
Ice cream making equipment has never been bigger. One genuinely new idea surfaced recently in an ice cream maker called the Donvier, which uses no ice, no salt and no electricity. It has been selling extraordinarily well, proving that good, non-gimmicky but completely new items can find a niche in the marketplace.
In sum, the trend among all shoppers seems to be towards quality. And there is also a trend for cooks, thus shoppers for kitchen equipment, to be men.
They are not always particularly young men, either. Shawny Burns of Bloomingdale's watched as her mother, who has always been an expert cook, redid the family kitchen after all seven children were grown and gone. "My father had never stepped foot in the kitchen before," says Burns, "but all of a sudden there he is at the Jenn-Aire. That Jenn-Aire is his." The Jenn-Aire is an expensive, high-quality indoor grill with downdraft ventilation.
While there is general agreement that more and more men are at least taking part in the shopping for kitchen equipment, there is disagreement about whether their shopping style is different from that of women.
One local retailer thinks they are different. "They don't get all emotionally involved with the price," this person says. "They want things explained to them, what the differences are, and then they make up their minds. It's not a question of 'sell me.' "
"There is a lot more sharing now," says Anne Kupper of Williams-Sonoma, "and when husbands and wives come in together to purchase, the husband is much more willing to spend money on the equipment."
Women, Kupper thinks, have been taught that they should be able to cook good meals with whatever they have at hand.
And the industry, seeing men on the horizon side by side with women, where once they saw women alone, rejoices. "There's no question about it," says Kitchen Bazaar's Sherman Shapiro. "The young couples today cook together. Today you can talk to any average man about quiches or souffle's. What it's basically done is expand the market in terms of that much more interest."