November 26, 2006
Kitchen shops prepare as demand heats up
Special to The Seattle Times
ERIKA SCHULTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Stephanie Brown would rather sell pressure cookers than work in one.
But during the holidays, things heat up at her Kitchen N Things shop in Ballard as hundreds of beginning bakers and seasoned foodies arrive looking for everything from cooking coaching to the latest gourmet gadgets.
With Thanksgiving behind them but the hectic Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year feast- and party-planning holidays ahead kitchenware retail salespeople see the hottest demand for work at the end of this month and next. And with celebrity chefs filling the airwaves of the Food Network almost round-the-clock, the year-round demand for these epicurean experts is moving to a front burner.
Some of it began 30 years ago, when "cooking as a source of entertainment was really awakened after Julia Child and Graham Kerr [hosted TV cooking shows]," says Carol Bromel, owner of Mrs. Cook's in University Village.
"Since then, cooking for pleasure cooking for fun has just grown and grown and grown."
It's part of the reason at least one large-chain newcomer is entering the region's pots-and-pans market.
To carve a little deeper into the kitchen-retail pie, Kohl's Department Stores, which has three stores in the Seattle area, says it will begin selling cutlery, table linens, pantryware and other Food Network-brand items in its stores by next fall.
The link between TV's celeb chefs and the real thing doesn't surprise Brown.
"When Rachael Ray uses a new knife, sales of that knife go through the roof," she says. "If we sell 10 silicon basters in just a few days, we know Emeril must be using it."
With or without Martha Stewart's latest good thing, this is the time of year that kitchen shop workers are put to the ultimate professional tests, Bromel says.
At least 50 percent of a kitchen retailer's revenues comes in the year's fourth quarter, insiders say, and at least half of that quarter's sales occurs in December.
That's why Bromel doubles her recipe for staffing from 13 or 14 workers to nearly 24 to handle the holiday rush. Those with the most cooking and product knowledge are assigned to work with customers on the sales floor. Newcomers often college students typically begin behind the cash register.
At Kitchen N Things, Brown expects extra hours from her year-round staff and then beefs up her team with seasonal workers including one studying pastry-making and another majoring in biology, because, as Brown says, "so much of food is about science."
"People who are homemakers someone with that love for cooking or nearly anyone who wants to be the next Martha Stewart" could be successful in this work, Brown says.
Bromel selects new hires based on their self-confidence and poise and not necessarily their ability to fricassee or flambé.
In-store training and weekend cooking demonstrations add to their culinary and product skills, she says. Bromel also treats her employees to dinner at her home where she showcases all manner of products. "All of this can be learned but retail sales is about working with people."
Before hiring a new salesperson, Brown invites candidates to walk through her store with her, as if they were a customer, and tell her which dishes they would whip up with various products.
"We offer extensive training on all the products in our store and we personally use, probably, about 95 percent of the products that we carry, so everyone here is an expert," Brown says.
"Some of our customers come in with questions about the trend-of-the-week, and they depend on us for the straight scoop," Bromel says.
What she found: "mango slicers baffle people;" "salt, flavored from different seas, is the up-and-coming product;" and "un-sexy potato ricers make fabulous, really creamy, mashed potatoes."
Such expertise is something customers have come to rely on even when they're not buying a new product.
Many of Brown's younger customers in Ballard come to her staffers trying to create dishes from their great-grandmother's Scandinavian recipe written with unusual ingredients or names of utensils they don't recognize. Her staffers frequently rescue desperate cooks whose thermometers break midgravy; salespeople run the product curbside to save the customer time.
"We had one guy who came in after buying a ton of cherries because they were at a really good price but they were about to go bad all over his kitchen," Brown says. "We had to help him find a cherry pitter, show him how to work it, and then teach him how to freeze his cherries.
"I always tell people: If we had a nickel for every call we get with just a request for information or help, we'd be rich," she says.
Instead, wages are on par with other retail-sales jobs in the area. Average hourly salaries are about $13.36, and range from about $8.20 to $20.31, according to Washington state Employment Security Department figures.
While no specific hiring projections are available for this retail niche, Bromel and Brown agree that at-home entertaining is on a solid upward trend that historically has defied most economic downturns, offering stable employment and wages. And those cooking shows on TV don't hurt hiring either.
"From the Food Network to public television, the awareness of cooking has absolutely been heightened," Bromel says. "It's held steady over the course of time, even when Boeing has had its problems and after 9/11. We see entertaining at home as growing more and more popular."
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