For many decades, Williams-Sonoma thrived by being one step ahead of its customers, selling them housewares they didn’t yet know they needed. But with this weekend’s opening of its newest venue, in Sonoma, the trendsetting company is looking back to celebrate its 99-year-old founder and recall its humble debut.
The project also reflects the Boomer-fueled brand’s efforts to woo a younger generation — Millennials, who aren’t exactly rushing to buy homes and stock kitchens.
This retro Williams-Sonoma, at the site of the original store, re-creates the look of the shop that Chuck Williams opened in 1956, down to the black-and-white checkerboard floor. “It’s going to be a total doppelganger,” said Wade Bentson, one of Williams’ first employees, who helped with its design.
With a 12-seat cooking school showcasing local talent, an edible garden, vintage merchandise and museum-style kitchenware exhibit, the store is opening in a town famously hostile to chains. But the billion-dollar retailer, for the most part, is being welcomed like a hometown hero.
“I’m totally excited about it,” said Sheana Davis, a community activist and proprietor of Epicurean Connection, a nearby cafe and cheese shop. “If you’re looking for opposition, I’m not it.”
Williams, who celebrated his 99th birthday this week, operated his store near the historic plaza for only two years before decamping to San Francisco. But his later success made Sonoma itself an international brand.
Visitors still inquire about the chain’s birthplace. “I’ve been introduced as his son several times,” said Steven Havlek, who owns Sign of the Bear, an independent kitchenware store on the plaza.
Re-creating the original
When the site at 605 Broadway became available in 2012, the retailer swooped in. The property included both Williams’ original 570-square-foot shop and an attached home and garden that he had shared with his mother.
“We found enough pictures and enough from (Williams) to rebuild the store exactly as it was,” said Janet Hayes, president of the Williams-Sonoma brand. The restoration includes original signage and the clean-lined open white shelving that became the stores’ trademark.
The new Sonoma store includes an exhibit of ingredients and tools that Williams popularized, such as Fini balsamic vinegar, Maldon sea salt, Le Creuset cookware and French mandolines. Williams’ restored home, attached to the store, has been repurposed as a design studio and showcase for Williams-Sonoma Home furnishings. The store is not all retro; the made-over garden boasts an outdoor kitchen with pizza oven and lots of merchandise from the company’s new Agrarian line, launched in 2012 in keeping with a younger generation’s fascination with urban farming.
The DIY cheese-making kits and high-end chicken coops that Williams-Sonoma is betting on today were definitely not in the mix when Williams began his retailing career. The society matrons who patronized Williams-Sonoma in the late 1950s were lured by the gleaming copper saucepans, Pillivuyt porcelain and fluted tart tins that Williams discovered in France. Jackie Kennedy and Julia Child were about to make French cuisine the epitome of chic, and Williams was poised to profit.
Cooking to entertaining
Urged by his affluent customers to move the shop to San Francisco, Williams listened when one of them suggested a spot near Elizabeth Arden, the high-end salon on Sutter Street. “In those days, women had beehive hair that required a lot of attention,” recalled Bentson, who began working for the store in 1961. “It wasn’t unusual for them to go to Arden’s two or three times a week, and they went right by our store.”
Women from Hillsborough, Piedmont and Marin would have their ball gowns shipped to Williams-Sonoma, drop their dogs off at the store, and then go and have their hair done, recalled Mary Risley, who founded Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco and is a longtime friend of Williams’. They bought Christmas presents and wedding gifts at Williams-Sonoma, especially after the merchant — again nudged by a customer — created a bridal registry to compete withGumps and Tiffany.
Child’s popular television show, which debuted in 1963, also fueled Williams-Sonoma’s sales. If Julia used it, “people beat the way to our store to get it,” Bentson said. San Francisco cooking teachers like Risley andJoyce Goldstein sent their students to the store for quiche pans, flan rings and souffle dishes — equipment that department stores of the day did not stock.
“Everybody was either taking cooking lessons or giving cooking lessons,” recalledJacqueline Mallorca, an early customer and ad agency employee who persuaded Williams that the store needed a mail-order catalog. Begun in 1972 and, for years, written by Mallorca, the innovative full-color mailer put Williams’ finds and favorite recipes within reach of all Americans.
Today, the recipes have migrated to the company’s website, and the catalog copy is far more clipped and concise. The September issue still includes Le Creuset and All-Cladcookware but also features packaged mixes for Bundt cakes, quick breads, waffles and breakfast bars — a shift noted unhappily by the culinary doyennes of San Francisco.
“There’s an awful lot of tableware,” sniffed Mallorca, an Englishwoman whose polished manners don’t conceal her dismay. “People today are not so interested in cooking as much as entertaining.”
Positioning for future
Goldstein, who later collaborated with Williams on several cookbooks, concurred. “At some point, Williams-Sonoma made the shift from being an educating store to being a lifestyle store, with tablecloths, napkins and pottery,” she said.
The publicly traded company’s other concepts — among them, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids and West Elm — are thriving, but the net revenue of the Williams-Sonoma brand has been stagnant in recent years and the store count is down. Branding experts and trend forecasters see both opportunities and challenges for the chain as it positions itself for the future.
Many affluent young consumers aren’t hurrying to buy homes, they say, and are more inclined to spend on experiences than on stuff.
“I’ve been invited to buy wedding gifts at experiential websites,” said Kara Nielsen, culinary director for Sterling-Rice Group, an advertising and branding agency in Boulder, Colo. Nielsen and others also point to a minimalist trend, a preference for smaller, less cluttered homes and simpler lives.
“A lot of Millennials believe in access but not ownership,” Nielsen said, pointing to the success of businesses that enable consumers to share cars or rent special-occasion clothes.
Building in diversity
Like other retailers, Williams-Sonoma needs to respond to changing demographics, marketing experts say. “Diversity has to be built into their product range and into their staff,” said Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, a consultant to high-end brands. Pedraza points to his own multicultural family, which includes Colombians, a Jewish lawyer from Long Island and a Hindu doctor.
“We make samosas for Thanksgiving with turducken and Spanish rice,” he said. “And we’re not atypical.”
Marc Halperin, a food and beverage consultant with San Francisco’s Center for Culinary Development, believes the chain is still a tastemaker and sharp observer of trends. The Agrarian line dovetails neatly with the urban homesteading wave, Halperin said. And the shift toward offering tableware, juicers and other appliances that have little to do with cooking may also be wise.
“There’s clearly a huge understanding of the consumer,” Halperin said. “The number and variety of espresso machines they’re selling is mind-boggling.”
Janet Fletcher is a food writer and cookbook author in Napa. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org
1956: First Williams-Sonoma store opens on Broadway in Sonoma.
1958: Chuck Williams moves his thriving cookware store to Sutter Street in San Francisco.
1972: Williams-Sonoma mails its first cookware catalog, with a print run of 10,000.
1973: Williams-Sonoma opens its second store, in Beverly Hills. Chuck Williams introduces the Cuisinart food processor, a revolutionary French appliance.
1978: Chuck Williams encounters balsamic vinegar in Italy and begins to import it.
1983: With its initial public offering, Williams-Sonoma becomes a publicly traded company to raise money for expansion.
1986: Williams-Sonoma releases its first cookbook, starting a hugely successful publishing program.
1999: Williams-Sonoma starts its e-commerce site.
2006: Debut of Williams-Sonoma Home, a furniture and home decor collection
2012: Williams-Sonoma starts Agrarian, a line of products designed for urban homesteaders.
2014: Williams-Sonoma opens its240th store in Sonoma, at the site of the original store.