Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma kitchen stores, dies at 100

6 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Charles E. “Chuck” Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma, dies at 100.

Chuck Williams, who founded cookware retailer Williams-Sonoma Inc. in 1956 and helped spur a gourmet revolution in American kitchens, has died at the age of 100.Charles E. “Chuck” Williams, founder and director emeritus of Williams-Sonoma, Inc. (NYSE:WSM), has died of natural causes, the company announced today. A building contractor with a passion for cooking, Williams started the company in 1956 in Sonoma, California, selling kitchen items then unfamiliar to most Americans such as saute pans, souffle dishes and fish poachers.

Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma and the man responsible for introducing French cookware and high-end ingredients into American kitchens, died peacefully in his sleep early Saturday. Two decades later, he brought in partners who expanded into home furnishings, building a retail and mail-order empire that now includes eight brands that generated revenue of $4.7 billion in the latest fiscal year.

Williams learned to love cooking from his grandmother and “filled the store with what I wanted to see in my kitchen,” he said, according to a 2003 interview in Fortune Small Business magazine. His selection of knives, copper pans and high-end pots first made gourmet food accessible to home cooks in the economic prosperity after World War II. He helped introduce kitchen equipment including garlic presses, food processors and pasta machines and said he was the first to import balsamic vinegar from Italy. From his stores, and the popular catalog and cookbooks that followed, he fueled a national interest in culinary exploration that is now a staple of American culture. He not only imported products previously unseen in U.S. kitchens, but he also worked with manufacturers to roll out such staples as KitchenAid stand mixers and Cuisinart food processors. “I think he shaped the taste of all those who love to cook,” Child told Newsweek in 1997. “In the early days of my show, the home chef couldn’t buy any of the items I used in cooking.

Chuck changed all that.” Today, there are more than 250 Williams-Sonoma locations selling a vast range of items including jewel-colored enamel cookware, cupcake mixes and wine glasses. Risley first met Williams when the two were neighbors on Nob Hill and would shop at a grocery store nearby. “The store put produce at front, but the better stuff was in the back,” Risley recalls. “Chuck and I would meet going through the tomatoes in the back room. We knew all the tricks.” Born and raised in northern Florida, the housewares enthusiast had fond early memories of baking alongside his grandmother, who once owned a restaurant. Williams was best known as the merchant who introduced America to French kitchen products such as the soufflé dish, the Madeleine mold, the sauté pan and even balsamic vinegar, but his impact on American life was more profound. He introduced American cooks to the tastes and tools of new cultures, inspired curiosity around exotic flavors and preparations, and enriched American home and family life by bringing people together around food.

He also became editor of Williams-Sonoma’s library of cookbooks. “His eye for detail has allowed him to find that unique item hidden on some shelf in an obscure showroom that would ultimately become a best seller with American cooks,” Lester said in the introduction to a 1995 oral history with Williams archived at the University of California at Berkeley. He once placed an enormous vase of lilies on top of a giant pedestal in the glove department, a bold move that “shocked everyone,” he recalled, and became a store tradition. He said the trip inspired him to start Williams-Sonoma. “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,” Mr. He relocated to Sonoma after a golf trip with friends left him smitten with the then-sleepy town, and began socializing with friends who also had loved to cook and entertain. In those days, people bought kitchenwares in hardware and department stores.” He christened his venture by combining his last name with the then-rural California town in which it was located, prompting some of his early patrons to call him “Bill Sonoma.” Mr.

Williams’ family relocated to Palm Springs, California, where he worked in carpentry and customer service at the roadside stand of a family-owned date ranch. Williams knew customers would be more inclined to buy his products from attractive displays with plenty of room for handling the goods before deciding whether to purchase them. Pieces were arranged with a reverence more akin to a museum or art gallery than the cluttered department and hardware stores people had become accustomed to browsing.

He quickly became enthralled with both the cuisine he experienced and the tools necessary to produce such dishes — the coq au vin and the Dutch ovens, the pates and the molds, the gratins and the mandolins. “Back then, American cooks typically had two knives — a big one and a small one — and not necessarily sharp,” Mr. That signature design now includes track lighting trained on items arranged on warmly colored wooden shelves and a trademark cooking station that attracts shoppers with samples. “There was no place else really to buy those wonderful French culinary implements,” chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Alice Waters said in a 2005 interview with the San Jose Mercury News. “And he had such a great sense of taste — mixing the antique with the new. Williams served as a volunteer for Lockheed’s traveling maintenance crews and utilized his time while stationed in India and Africa to explore the regions’ food, drinks, and unique cooking techniques and tools.

They would wobble on the stove, and it was hard not to burn food in them.” Based on the requests of his society women friends — who urged him to relocate to the same block as Elizabeth Arden where the fancy ladies got their hair done — Williams opened the first San Francisco location of Williams-Sonoma in 1958 and shortly thereafter launched a wedding registry. Service to his customers — who were also his friends — was the signature of the Williams-Sonoma store. “Right from the beginning, I wanted them to enjoy their visit,” Mr. Popular cookbook writers including Marcella Hazan, author of “The Classic Italian Cookbook” (1973), and Child visited for book signings and food preparation lessons. “He had impeccable taste, unique insight for selecting the right products at the right time, and the highest standard of customer service,” she said.

They said he had an uncanny intuition about choosing products that would prove both useful and of the highest taste; he was so attuned to detail that he insisted on the exact placement of pans on a store shelf so that they were easy for someone to pick up. He once delayed a catalog photo shoot after sampling the apple pie that was to be featured, declaring that it did not taste good enough to be authentic and requested it to be remade. He crafted a simple logo with the words “Williams” and “Sonoma” in block letters over a woodcut illustration of a pineapple – a symbol of hospitality. Williams sold the majority of the company, which at the time included five stores and a mail-order catalog, to Howard Lester, though he remained the face of the company and worked in a variety of capacities until just a few years ago.

The popularity of Julia Child’s landmark cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and her cooking show on television drove additional interest and customers to Williams-Sonoma. Williams was in his office as recently as his birthday last October, when he was delighted to be shown the new merchandise, his last major contribution was to play a role in opening a retro Williams-Sonoma at the site of the original store in 2014, which re-created the look of the shop he opened in 1956, down to the black-and-white checkerboard floor. Williams was given numerous industry awards and honors, including induction in the Halls of Fame for both the Culinary Institute of America and the Direct Marketing Association. Williams remained intimately involved with the company’s operations, selecting merchandise and writing and editing a line of popular Williams-Sonoma cookbooks.

He continued to work into his 90s and received some of the culinary world’s most prestigious honors, including a James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Williams outlived many of his close friends, he had a small circle that he still saw regularly and was seen about the town even within the past month. Williams carefully curated what Williams-Sonoma would sell, adamantly resisting items he deemed gimmicky or impractical. “I bought things I liked myself and built up a customer base that liked what I like,” he told The Post. “It has to be a working tool, never a gadget like a mold that makes square eggs. Williams never retired from the company he founded, continuing to edit cookbooks, provide input on merchandise strategies, and make public appearances well into his nineties. “I don’t think of us as a huge company, though, but as one store,” he told Fortune in 2003. “I still recommend what appeals to me, and what I think represents good design. These products, representing eight distinct merchandise strategies – Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, West Elm, PBteen, Williams-Sonoma Home, Rejuvenation, and Mark and Graham – are marketed through e-commerce websites, direct mail catalogs and 623 stores.

Williams-Sonoma, Inc. currently operates in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, offers international shipping to customers worldwide, and has unaffiliated franchisees that operate stores in the Middle East, Philippines and Mexico City.

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