Nearly 50 years ago, a former department store window dresser and gourmet home cook took an old hardware store in a rural California town and turned it into a groundbreaking store that changed the way Americans shop for kitchenware.
Chuck Williams, who turns 90 on Sunday, is credited with introducing American consumers to restaurant-quality European cookware and small appliances and displaying them in a glamorous setting.
Without Williams, cooks might not have learned quite so soon to make pesto in a food processor or to make perfectly smooth icing in a stand mixer or to dress a salad with a dash of balsamic vinegar.
"Like Julia Child," says Nancy Pollard, owner of La Cuisine cookware store in Alexandria, Williams "changed the way we cook and dine and buy pots and pans. He offered Americans a very different selection of merchandise, like real carbon steel knives and little molds for pastry, presented in a way that was visually seductive."
As Williams tells it, it was on a two-week vacation trip to Paris in 1953 that he got the idea for an upscale kitchenware store.
"I couldn't get over seeing so many great things for cooking, the heavy pots and pans, white porcelain ovenware, country earthenware, great tools and professional knives," Williams said in a recent telephone interview from his office in San Francisco. Even today, co-workers say he is the first one in the office in the morning and the last to leave at night. "Here, it was different. For the home cook, there were thin pans in not a lot of sizes and tools were on the cheap side. In those days, people bought kitchenwares in hardware and department stores."
So Williams said to himself, "I'll have a small shop."
In 1956, he combined his surname with the name of the rural town where he bought the hardware store and called the new venture Williams-Sonoma. He carefully filled the shelves with such things as copper saute pans, huge stockpots, high-quality vegetable peelers, Sabatier knives and French kitchen towels. "I bought things I liked myself and built up a customer base that liked what I like," says Williams, a big fan of French cooking as well as entertaining friends.
What he didn't like and refused to stock were trendy gadgets. "It has to be a working tool, never a gadget like a mold that makes square eggs. Now, that is a stupid gadget," he says.
From his years of work in department stores, he knew the importance of positioning merchandise.
"Take a grocery store, for example," says Williams. "Things are lined up and close together." In a kitchenware store, however, "if the merchandise is not displayed well for customers, they are not going to buy it. They won't see it. The handle of the saucepan has to be turned toward the customer. Everything has to have a little space around it. You only have a fraction of a second to get their eye, then they move on."
It was not long before friends convinced Williams that San Francisco would be a better location for such a store, and he moved the business there in 1958. After 10 years of annual buying trips to France, he broadened his search for functional items with good design by going to England, Italy and Germany. In 1971, at the suggestion of a customer, he produced his first store catalogue.
Two years later, Williams realized that he needed help running and expanding his company. A management team was brought in and in short order, branch locations opened in three upscale California communities: Beverly Hills, Palo Alto and Costa Mesa. But as the company grew to $4 million in annual sales, debt grew at a faster rate. Williams-Sonoma was in trouble. Williams saw no alternative but to sell.
"Unfortunately, the [management team] ran the company into the ground," says W. Howard Lester, the former computer software executive who purchased Williams-Sonoma in 1978 for a reported $100,000. "I talked Chuck into staying on as a buyer and adviser" -- Williams is "the best housewares merchant the world has ever seen," Lester says -- "and the rest is history."
Today, Williams-Sonoma Inc., the parent company, has evolved into a retail giant with more than 560 stores in North America as well as catalogue and Web site sales from its kitchenware stores and its Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Teen, Pottery Barn Kids, Hold Everything and West Elm divisions. The first Williams-Sonoma Home store is scheduled to open Friday in West Hollywood. For 2004, net sales reached $2.8 billion, a 16.7 percent increase over the previous year. Net earnings have tripled since 2000.
Lester, the chairman of the board, engineered the company's broad expansion into stores that sell things for every room in the house. "Left to Chuck, there would still only be one store. He never had a desire to build a brand," says Lester. He estimates that 25 percent of the company's revenue comes from its nearly 250 kitchenware stores and internet and catalogue sales. The company went public in 1983.
Williams's impact on the company he founded is still noticeable, and as his birthday approaches,tributes abound.
For decades, Williams-Sonoma is where many prospective brides and grooms have gone to register for gifts. "They have captured the wedding and gift-giving part of the business, and Chuck Williams started that. His personality is stamped there," says Kathy Tierney, chief executive of Sur La Table, a chain of 51 kitchenware stores that started in Seattle in 1972.
Victoria Matranga, design programs coordinator for the International Housewares Association, calls Williams "a pathbreaker."
"He set the stage for the success of specialty stores. And today when department stores are losing customers, it's the specialty stores that are capturing the imagination and the dollars," she says.
"He took the concept of a mom-and-pop gourmet store with individual service and transferred it to a mass concept," says Bill McLoughlin, executive editor of HomeWorld Business, a housewares trade publication. "You can go into one of their stores and talk to a salesperson about the difference between an anodized aluminum and a stainless steel pan. You can't do that at, say, a Wal-Mart."
Last month, the 20-millionth Williams-Sonoma cookbook was shipped. Since 1992, with San Francisco publisher Weldon Owen, 174 titles have carried the Williams-Sonoma name, including international cookbooks and guides for entertaining as well as children's cookbooks. Chuck Williams is the executive editor of every one.
Soon, after a round of birthday parties, Williams plans to be back at his desk editing a new series of cookbooks -- the "mastering" series covering, in order, grilling, vegetables and frozen desserts, for release in the spring. Ever the salesman, he says he tries to personally answer letters from customers. And when a new store opens, he is there to cheer on the sales team.