This feature is part of Chuck’s Story, a series chronicling the life of Williams-Sonoma founder Chuck Williams, who passed away on December 5th. This post comes to us courtesy of Laura Martin Bacon, a writer, creative consultant, and Chuck’s longtime friend.
Chuck Williams would tell you that Williams-Sonoma’s official culinary legacy began back in 1956, when he opened his original cookware shop in the Northern California wine country town of Sonoma. “My first trip to Europe really encouraged me to open up a shop. I saw what the French, Germans and Swedes were using in their kitchens, and I thought Americans would like what I saw,” Chuck said.
“When I returned to Sonoma, I found an old hardware store that was for sale, along with the building it was in, at a price that I could afford. Before long, the axes and saws disappeared, and in their place appeared the tools of cooking.” That small-town hardware store became the very first Williams-Sonoma.
As with Chuck’s house construction, he built or remodeled everything in the shop himself — and the design for every Williams-Sonoma store since then has been inspired by Chuck’s original ideas for display.
“Back then, most people bought pots and pans in department and hardware stores, which usually piled them on tables in heaps,” Chuck recalled. “I didn’t do that. Not many people in this country had seen some of the things we were selling, so I thought you should see each pan in the best possible way.”
“I put just one of each of my pots and pans up on a shelf in size order, with all the handles facing the same way. This gave cooks an idea of how it would feel to use a particular piece. And of course, if a customer wanted to buy something, they would have had to ask me to get it—starting a conversation.” Soon after Chuck opened his store in Sonoma, friends and customers encouraged him to move the shop to San Francisco. In early 1958, he followed their advice.
“The reason I moved the shop from Sonoma was because so many of my customers lived in San Francisco,” Chuck said. “As for the exact location, the people who knew the city best told me, ‘You must have your shop on Sutter Street — it’s the direct route between the Financial District and the city’s finest women’s and gentlemen’s clubs.'” The location and clientele proved to be everything Chuck hoped they would.
When you ask him for a favorite example of his customer service, Chuck would take you back to those early days on Sutter Street, when many of his customers were wealthy society women who patronized the nearby Elizabeth Arden salon.
Just as he did when he owned his original Sonoma cookware shop, Chuck would bring his Belgian shepherd, Bill, to work with him every day. When customers realized this, instead of leaving their dogs in their cars during beauty treatments, they asked Chuck to take care of them—and he did. Chuck told it this way: “I said, ‘No problem! I’ve got my own dog that stays behind the checkout desk, so just leave your dog here. I promise your dog and mine will be friends from now on.'”
Kids merited the same courteous attention, savoring the delights of Williams-Sonoma with Chuck and Bill while their grateful mothers lunched at their clubs or enjoyed a day at the salon.
If one of Williams-Sonoma’s customers was having difficulty figuring out a new recipe, she could always call Chuck and he’d talk her through it, step by step. Or if a dinner party hostess found herself without the right pot or pan for a signature dish, she could count on Chuck to jump on a bus and deliver it to her in time to cook and serve a perfect meal.
According to Chuck, it was his pleasure — and all in a day’s work. “That’s just what we’ve always done at Williams-Sonoma: we make friends with our customers.” Word of Chuck’s expertise and kind hospitality soon spread—and into the store came young business people, Bay Area homemakers, global steamship cooks and a world of food lovers, including San Francisco’s legendary 1960s hippie generation.
With the growing interest in good cooking, the store became a gathering place for anyone who needed expert guidance or wanted to discuss their own kitchen interests or quandaries. “Everyone wanted to talk about food,” Chuck said. “I found myself dispensing culinary inspiration along with the pots and pans.”
Chuck would tell you that the Sutter Street shop was the proverbial melting pot, where you might find a wealthy society matron discussing the merits of a copper pot or olivewood spoon with a young intellectual bookstore clerk from Berkeley and a chef from one of the nearby restaurants. “I found myself planning menus and discussing every possible kitchen technique, from how to boil an egg or make a vinaigrette to the details of constructing a classic French croquembouche or encasing a roast turkey in real gold leaf,” Chuck recounted.
“As I began teaching people, I had to think clearly about such basic procedures as making mayonnaise or a simple cheese soufflé. Everyone shared their recipes, travel stories and kitchen anecdotes—and the store soon had a bulletin board filled with information on sources and people related to cooking.” Chuck recalled how Williams-Sonoma’s front counter was like a cooking school, with lively culinary discussions taking place every day while business took place.
Some of the chefs and authors who visited the Sutter Street store were among the best known in the culinary world. “James Beard started coming by the shop that first year, and we became good friends—he enjoyed coming to my house for dinner,” Chuck recalled fondly. “There were others, too, like Helen Evans Brown and the food writer, Elizabeth David.”
“I was offering Americans all sorts of things they’d never seen in the way of cooking and entertaining, so it was a learning experience for all of us,” he observes. “And you know what? I’m still learning!”
Chuck notes that the great French chef Auguste Escoffier observed that good cooking is the foundation of true happiness.
“I’ve never really had a family of my own, so Williams-Sonoma has been my family,” Chuck has said. “Good cooking, good food and good company are what Williams-Sonoma has always been about—and I hope we always will be.”
Select photos from Merchant of Sonoma, by William Warren.