Retailer Profile: A Grand Vision.
Marie Dwyer and Karl Benson, owners of Cooks of Crocus Hill.
AT A GLANCE
Owner: Karl Benson and Marie Dwyer
Locations: 877 Grand Ave., St. Paul, Minn.3925 W. 50th St., Edina, Minn.324 S. Main St., Stillwater, Minn.
Year founded: 1973
Square feet: Grand Avenue-5,000 square feet, including 2,200 square feet in retail space; Edina-3,000 square feet; Stillwater-4,200 square feet
Website: www.cooksofcrocushill.com; LifeRecipe corporate wellness: www.liferecipe.com; "Cooks' Crop Shares" and local and sustainable foods website: www.simplegoodandtasty.com
For Cooks of Crocus Hill, a culinary store with three locations in the Twin Cities area, it all starts with the vision.
"Our vision is that Cooks of Crocus Hill is a place where community is inspired through experiences with food," notes owner Karl Benson. "We do this by inviting learning and curiosity into every one of our relationships. Today, we are absolutely focused on bringing the Cooks experience to life."
A key part of orchestrating this vision is the three stores' cooking schools. Each year, Cooks of Crocus Hill offers hundreds of classes on a diverse range of subjects: cooking basics, kids' cooking, Japanese kaiseki, butchering, wine appreciation and more.
Cooks of Crocus Hill is striving for more than ringing up transactions: It's focused on building relationships through experiences within the community-with its customers, vendors and area businesses.
"We make connections and bring ideas to our community," notes Benson. "Culinary education is key to what we do."
The retailer has created several programs to bring those ideas to fruition. For more than 15 years, Cooks of Crocus Hill has been reaching out to area businesses with its culinary team-building program, which is held in the Grand Avenue location's cooking school. To address wellness in the workplace, Cooks of Crocus Hill devised the "LifeRecipe" program. To help teach children healthy eating and cooking tips-and perhaps reduce childhood obesity in the process-Cooks of Crocus Hill was in the process of creating a program for schools at press time. To help educate the community about local and sustainable food options, the retailer helped launch Simple, Good and Tasty, an independent website. Through its "Cooks' Crop Shares" program, the retailer offers about 100 specialty fresh produce and fresh pork sold in bulk.
Cooks' private label line, which is packed in-house, includes preserved Meyer lemons, brining spices, tea, coffee, salt and pepper and local honey.
"Cooks of Crocus Hill was started to bridge the gap between awareness and execution. For 40 years, we've been building on this concept," notes Benson.
Over the years, there have been changes. "Innovation is critical to what we do," says Benson. But the retailer has always kept its vision intact.
Back in the '90s, Cooks of Crocus Hill had locations inside 15 Marshall Field's department stores (that relationship ended when Macy's acquired the stores in 2005.) "Our branding and visioning efforts helped us be clear about who and what we were, so we wouldn't lose our identity," explains Benson. "These tenets of our branding initiative are in place to this day."
Cooks of Crocus Hill dates back to 1973, when sisters Martha Kaemmer and Mary Rice opened a kitchenware store on Grand Avenue and Lexington Parkway in St. Paul called Thrice. Pioneers in their day, they wanted to bring a greater level of culinary understanding to families in the Twin Cities. The store, less than four blocks from its current location, had 250 SKUs and four employees.
About a year later, Rice left to pursue other interests. In the late 1980s, Kaemmer rebranded the store as Cooks of Crocus Hill, named for an area landmark, and purchased the four-plex brownstone on Grand Avenue where Cooks is located to today.
In 1994, urged by a friend, Marie Dwyer began helping out Kaemmer as an independent contractor, working on the store's visual merchandising. Before landing in St. Paul, the Michigan native had worked "behind the scenes" for Esprit in the apparel company's San Francisco office. While there, she honed the essential visual merchandising skill of taking a style and making it work in different settings.
About four years later, Benson, whose background was in corporate marketing and software, joined the team as general manager. Kaemmer, he says, was at a crossroads with the store; she was in the process of finding "someone who would love it up or close it." Even though he had no retail experience, Benson, who describes himself as a hobby cook from Chicago, took on the challenge.
In retrospect, "It was the single-best career decision I made," Benson says.
In 2008, Benson and Dwyer, now married, purchased the business from Kaemmer, who remains a member of the board.
At all three of its stores Cooks sells cookbooks-everything from classics such as Julia Child's works to recent releases and seasonal titles. Often, they are used in merchandising. "We love to tell stories with them," says Dwyer.
Stillwater Runs Deep
In April 2012, Cooks acquired Chef's Gallery, in Stillwater, Minn., after the owner, Laura Bachman, died.
When Cooks struck the deal for the kitchenware store and cooking school, it agreed to take on half of the store's existing square footage, reducing the size to be more in line with the other two locations. Inventory, too, needed to be scaled back and realigned with Cooks' core assortment: cookware, gadgets, knives, electrics, bakeware and food.
The Stillwater store, inside the historic Grand Garage building, has 13-foot-high ceilings. "It definitely takes more to merchandise in there," says Dwyer.
Chef's Gallery's selection was 50 percent bar, tabletop and gift. "The store had a significant tabletop business," says Dwyer. "For us, we learned that tabletop does not do well."
Before reopening under the Cooks of Crocus Hill banner, the Stillwater location was closed for a week for reorganization. To help clear out some of the discontinued inventory, Cooks held a liquidation sale-and then deep-discounted the remaining SKUs at its annual garage sale in June.
To make sure all is running smoothly in relation to its three stores, online store and online class schedule, Cooks of Crocus Hill uses two real-time, fully integrated software solutions: CounterPoint for its point-of-sales programs and Great Plains for its accounting. "They deliver a consistent experience across the board," notes Benson.
Before the upgrade, "In Edina, at Grand Avenue or online, nobody knew if there was one seat left in a cooking class," explains Benson, adding that "the workarounds were costing us more in time and energy.
"Our system has to be robust enough so that we can ring up a purchase and enroll a class in one transaction-all in real time," he notes.
Behind the scenes, the system helps Benson and Dwyer run the business more efficiently. "We have a complete, detailed understanding of our business," notes Dwyer, adding that she's in the system every day, looking at the category levels and doing a "weekly drill-down" of the numbers so she and Benson know when to "dump the dogs."
The retailer evaluates its metrics monthly, quarterly and annually.
Conversely, the system helps them keep track of best-sellers, which are cookware and gadgets. The two core categories are "neck and neck all year long" for the top spot, says Dwyer. One of the retailer's most popular gadgets is The Cheese Knife, which is made in the USA. Overall, tools and gadgets related to cheese are hot, says Dwyer. In recent years, Cooks of Crocus Hill has seen an increased interested in home preserving, canning and the overall DIY trend.
"Ten years ago, we sold all the canning equipment in the garage sale," Benson adds. "Now it is an in-demand item."
From the messaging on Cooks' shopping bags to its marketing materials, consistency matters. "We not only view this as important, it defines who we are, and we take it quite seriously," explains Benson. "Every touchpoint needs to be consistent with the overall brand, and it needs to be consistent across all platforms."
Not a Cookie-cutter Approach
All three locations have a unique look and feel, and cater to a distinct demographic. In Edina, the cooking school encompasses the front of the store-which is located in the suburb's upscale 50th & France shopping district. The St. Paul store, located on Grand Avenue-one of the city's well-established shopping areas-has a 40-foot setback with a kitchen garden, with windows serving as a visual backdrop. "Grand Avenue has always had pockets of interesting retail," notes Dwyer, adding that there are several universities and colleges nearby. Residents are "very supportive of local business. It's a great area with neighborhood shoppers."
In the summer, the Stillwater area is popular with boaters, and day trippers from the Twin Cities and beyond. Because of the store's touristy location, gift items perform well.
To bridge the gap between its core assortment and tourist tchotchkes, Cooks of Crocus Hill stocks a few "high-quality items that add a layer of kitsch," says Dwyer. For example: cutting boards in the shape of Minnesota from Duluth, Minn.-based Epicurean Inc.
With a focus on education and experience, the cooking schools are an essential part of the Cooks of Crocus Hill concept.
Survival of the Fittest
Cooks of Crocus Hill's three stores have one thing in common: "Space is super-efficient," notes Benson. "Our product philosophy is not to offer every product produced by every vendor. Our objective is to offer the most appropriate housewares product for the task."
Cooks' knowledgeable staff can sell, sell, sell. Recently, Cooks sold 850 All-Clad plans at promotional prices.
Cooks' edited product selection has been vetted by its team of culinary experts. Every item sold at the stores must pass through the school; products are tested and food is tasted.
"Everything here has to contribute to the bottom line," says Benson. That includes the cooking school. Unlike some retailers that use their cooking schools as loss leader, at Cooks of Crocus Hill, the cooking school and retail store work hand in hand. Products are used in classes to create awareness and drive sales.
To keep the staff informed and knowledgeable, training sessions are held twice a month. Twice a year, the entire staff gathers for a team dinner to share ideas and align work efforts, explains Benson.
In 2011, Cooks of Crocus Hill was selected as one of Minnesota's Top Workplaces by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "We used to say, 'We are a small family business.' Now we say, 'We are a business of small families,'" says Benson. Cooks offers competitive wages, store discounts, incentive compensation, paid holiday and vacation, and a full benefits package including two options for health insurance.
With Dwyer's years of experience in visual design, all three Cooks of Crocus Hill locations are thoughtfully merchandised. The seasonally updated displays are designed to inspire interaction. They may focus on a specific promo item or cross-promote items across several categories. For example, a recent window display at the Stillwater store focused on Moroccan cooking-complete with jars of Cooks of Crocus Hill's own brand of preserved lemons, a tagine and a cookbook on the subject. An apron adorned with the same bright hues-displayed on a dress form-completed the scene.
"Displays accentuate our assortment, and they must tell a story," notes Benson. "All displays are purposeful, support merchandising and marketing objectives, and, where appropriate, offer category diversity."
Not all of Chef's Gallery's tabletop items were discontinued. The manager urged Benson and Dwyer to keep the GurglePot, a fish-shaped stoneware water pitcher, available in 12- and 42-ounce sizes, that makes a gurgling sound when poured. The item has done so well, in fact, that it's now available at all three locations. Benson admits, "We're shocked by what [Stillwater sells and] carries back here."
Seizing upon the popularity of the pitcher, "We brought in a pallet of colors-red, orange, yellow, green, violet and white-that created a beautiful eye pop," says Dwyer. "We've sold tens of thousands of dollars' worth."