Homage to America’s Pioneering Cookware Shopkeeper:
By Jana Soeldner Danger
He was stunned by its perfect simplicity. A placemat, napkin and flatware made up the minimalist setting for a clean-lined butcher-block table. Artfully placed French decanters and classic Virginia glassware suggested a fresh, creative way of entertaining at home. “I had never seen anything like it before,” he said. “It was unique. It represented a whole new sort of lifestyle.”
Soon after, West became a close friend of owner Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma, the company that transformed the way America cooks. At a time when most Americans stocked their kitchens with Pyrex and aluminum and few knew the difference between pans for soufflé and quiche, Williams introduced them to high quality French porcelain, tin lined copper cookware that he discovered on annual trips to Europe. He chose tools, utensils and tableware found in French restaurants and bistros rather than home kitchens, brought them back to his California shop and taught people how to use them.
Home cooks who walked past the store’s enchanting window displays could rarely resist going inside. “It was a new style of dining and entertaining at home,” West said. “It intrigued a lot of people.”
Williams used merchandising techniques ahead of their time. “Chuck was very particular about how he displayed things in his store,” said Pat Connolly, who joined the company thirty-seven years ago and became a close friend of Williams and now serves as Chief Strategy and Business Development Officer.
“Chuck was the most creative and disciplined merchant that I have ever met. Williams-Sonoma was defined by what Chuck selected, but also by what he didn’t sell. Many have tried to copy Williams-Sonoma over the years, quickly trying to offer what they saw new in the stores or catalogs, but they never took the time to think ‘what isn’t Williams-Sonoma offering that we are’. Chuck’s discipline of what not to sell was a hallmark of his genius.”
Talent, Creativity, Discipline
The story of Chuck Williams is one of talent, creativity and discipline. Born in 1915 in Jacksonville, Florida, Williams learned to cook from his grandmother. When the Great Depression hit and his father’s business failed, the family moved to California.
World War II came along and Williams volunteered as an airplane mechanic. After the war, he became a residential building contractor, a far cry from his later success in the culinary world.
His love affair with French cookware began on his first trip to Paris in May 1953. He immediately became enchanted with the City of Light – and its cuisine. On his first morning, he purchased some croissants, the first he had ever tasted, at a small bakery and ate them at a sidewalk table in the spring sunshine. He quickly discovered the Les Halles food market and E. Dehillerin, a huge store that carried a vast array of mysterious cooking tools used in French restaurants. Always curious, he would visit the kitchens of small bistros where he ate, watching how chefs used the unfamiliar utensils.
Starting with Hardware
In the mid 1950s, Williams bought a hardware store in Sonoma, but he quickly became bored with nuts, bolts and tools and began converting his inventory to cookware. To make his shop stand out, he installed an eye-catching décor featuring yellow walls, black and white flooring and glossy white shelving. It opened as Williams-Sonoma in 1956.
It wasn’t long before customers who lived in San Francisco began urging him to move his shop to their city, and in the spring of 1958, he found a building there. He decorated the new shop with the same yellow walls and white shelving as the Sonoma shop, but chose to use all black flooring so he could avoid the constant cleaning required by white tiles.
Then in June, shortly before the store was to open, Williams was struck by the plague of the 1950s: polio. Fortunately, he didn’t suffer any paralysis and recuperated over the summer. Ready to get back to work at last, he finished stocking the store and finally opened it. About a year later, 20-year-old Wade Bentson came in looking for a job. “I had an interest in cooking and also in retail and merchandising,” he said. “I was an easy fit for the business.” Bentson became Williams’ first employee, and before long he began accompanying his employer on buying trips to Europe. “It was like a treasure hunt,” he remembered. “There was so much to find. And when we found something, it was totally exciting.”
For years, Bentson shared Sunday dinner with his employer and friend. “I loved watching him cook and serve a meal,” he recalled. “He made it seem effortless, but it was always perfect and always delicious.” Connolly recalled that Williams preferred simple recipes. “He wanted people to be able to make them at home, and he wanted people to be confident in their own kitchens.”
Williams loved to entertain, and hosted culinary legends like Julia Child and James Beard at his table. They became his close friends. During the Christmas season, James Beard would come in to tend shop and greet customers at Williams-Sonoma because Chuck was busy in the basement, beautifully gift-wrapping hundreds of customer parcels with such meticulous folds that he didn’t need tape.
In 1972, Williams-Sonoma put out its first catalog. It was an instant success. “Chuck wanted it to show end results,” Connolly recalled. “You couldn’t just show a French Bundt pan; you also had to show the cake it produced and include a simple recipe for readers. He felt that if home cooks had the right equipment, they would get good results.”
That same year, Williams-Sonoma incorporated and opened additional locations in Beverly Hills, Palo Alto and Costa Mesa. In 1978, Williams sold the majority interest in his company, but remained extremely active in it. “He was there 24/7 and he still did all the merchandising for the catalog,” Bentson said.
The company published its first cookbook in 1986, and through the end of 2015, tens of millions of copies have been printed representing over 200 titles. Until the past few years, Chuck served as editor for all of them.
During the course of his long life – Williams died last year a few months after his 100th birthday – he received many honors, including a Lifetime Achievement award from the James Beard Foundation and induction into the Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame. But it was his personality that people loved most. “He was a very caring person,” Bentson said. “He was very generous, and the most faithful of friends. And he loved Williams-Sonoma.” “His legacy lives on today in the hearts and minds of all our associates,”
said Williams-Sonoma brand president Janet Hayes. “We’re committed to honoring Chuck’s values, which have always set this company apart.”