Happy 100th Birthday Chuck Williams October 02 2015
100 years ago today, Chuck Williams, the founder of Williams-Sonoma was born. Some of you might know that my background in retail merchandising began at Williams-Sonoma and I've always been a huge fan of the company. Chuck is an interesting man who bought a hardware store in Sonoma in 1953 and at that moment he started it all. He was a creative and inspirational foodie, who traveled with friends to Europe post-war by steamship and noticed the gorgeous, quality cookware and edibles in Milan, Paris and Florence that in America, we just didn't have access too.
Williams-Sonoma became Chuck's "hardware store" meets "specialty european cookware" retail creation. In the '70's he launched his catalog business and it was not long before he sold Williams-Sonoma, and the company went public some years later. Chuck stayed on the board, and was active. He's made a name for himself as a cookbook author and it is rumored that he still sometimes edits Williams-Sonoma catalogs. Today WSI is a global company with over 6 brands and hundreds of store locations from Sydney, to Kuwait.
In my early days at Williams-Sonoma, I was working as a low level merchant setting up products and training to be a buyer. Someone at our office organized a holiday party which involved a good old fashioned bake-off (a baking contest). I'm not much of a baker, but I decided to throw my hat in the ring and bake some classic and understated shortbread cookies which I rolled in pistachios with cardamom. Similar recipe here. Chuck showed up to judge the bake-off! At the event, all the baked goods were tasted by a panel and Chuck (being a mid nineties man) was very soft spoken and quiet. He didn't weigh in much on the contestants or goodies until all the prizes were given out. "My cookies didn't stand a chance", I thought to myself. Prize winners included cakes shaped like our best-selling sofas with pantone perfect marzipan upholstery, and cupcakes expertly dressed in fancy buttercream frosting, cookies bedazzled with toppings and boasting century-old family recipes. At the end of the judging, recognizing Chuck had been very quiet in the process, someone said to him, "well, thanks for coming, any final words?".
He slowly leaned over, reached down to the table and grabbed one of my shortbread cookies and held it up in the air, he exclaimed "this is the best darn cookie I've ever tasted!" I couldn't believe it! No awards, but honorable mention it is!
I'll never forget the smile on my face in that moment and pride that ran through my body. A silly small human moment. Happy birthday Chuck and cheers to your hardware store turned great American dream. You will always be remembered at our stoves and pantries as you've inspired many great American meals.
Photo credits: Taste, Williams-Sonoma Inc.