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The cook's choice: housewares retailer the chopping block regards itself as a cooking school first.

INSIDE CHICAGO'S MERCHANDISE MART IS ONE OF THE most unique retailers in the housewares industry--The Chopping Block--whose stated mission is to get people to cook, in the words of Shelley Young, its founder and owner.

Certainly, one could say that about other housewares specialty stores, notably Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table. Both of these retailers not only offer housewares in a variety of categories, but also conduct hands-on demonstrations of the products.

But The Chopping Block goes a step further. It is actually a cooking school as well as a retailer. In fact, according to Young, the retail part of the business is an adjunct to the cooking classes it offers.

"We do 250 to 300 classes a month, handling about 3,000 students a month," Young said. "And it's all recreational." The store carries merchandise such as cookware, utensils, kitchen gadgets, cookbooks and tabletop items. But, as Young pointed out, "the school is our first priority. That's not the case with similar stores."

Young opened The Chopping Block in 1997, after serving as a chef for the previous 17 years. "It was not like I planned to open a cooking school," she said. "I had two full-time jobs at the time, one as a private chef and another as a chef at Cafe Du Midi."

The first store opened in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. In the beginning, Young taught each class herself. As demand expanded, she found the need for a second location, which opened in 2003 in Lincoln Square, also in Chicago. In 2005, Young moved the Lincoln Park location to its current home in the Merchandise Mart. It measures about 8,000 square feet, which encompasses the store, two kitchens and a dining area where events can be held.

To Young, The Chopping Block's story has been one of continuous growth. "We grew a lot in our first two locations," she said. "After business slowed somewhat at the Merchandise Mart, we've grown here every year since 2008. Last year was our busiest year ever." She said the business has grown by an average of 10 percent a year since 2008.

Hard work has helped get The Chopping Block to its current standing, but so has an approach to its business that Young feels is unique. "We respond to what our customers want, not to what we want," she said. "Most people who get into this do it because it's charming and fun. We are in this because we want the country to cook."

Focusing on what the customer wants is the first principle of retailing. Young is showing that she is also cognizant with other key principles of being in a retail venture. "Expansion is essential," she said. "First of all, we can't build our brand awareness unless we build online. This will be one of the keys to our growth over the next five years."

The Chopping Block's website now includes class schedules, how to arrange events, information about its "boot camps" (cram sessions on a variety of cooking topics) and a blog. "We have places at the store and online where people who want to cook can interact, "Young said.

Inevitably, opening additional locations has crossed Young's mind. "We haven't decided on specific markets yet," she said. "If we're successful, we'll know where we can open a new store."

But Young has no set store count in mind as she looks ahead. "I don't care if we don't open another location over the next five years," she said. "What I care about is the brand and how we rethink the retail experience."

She also said a television show could provide an opportunity to build The Chopping Block brand. Another opportunity would lie in licensing the store name to manufacturers for collections of housewares products.

Further opportunities could emerge from repackaging The Chopping Block's educational offerings. "This could serve our consumers in broader ways," Young said. "We're rethinking the classroom part so that it's adaptable and affordable and entertaining--in a way that makes people feel warm and comfortable from the experience."

The Chopping Block is also in the process of revamping its retail offerings. Although Young would not provide specifics, she said it would involve narrowing its assortment of core products while expanding into new categories. Product development will play a huge role in building the brand, she said. The company is in the process of building an innovation center that won't be open to the public, but will serve as an internal lab for developing new products and services.

The ultimate goal of the expansion plan is to establish The Chopping Block as "a physical, solid brand," Young said. "It will be a brand that's easily identifiable, with consistent facilities, innovative product development and a bigger online presence. It will be a brand that reflects our focus on providing a hands-on experience for people who want to learn to cook. That's where we have the advantage."

BY DAVID GILL

Caption: The store has two kitchens with state-of-the-art cooking equipment. The Chopping Block offers 250 to 300 classes a month, handling an average of 3,000 students. Cookware, utensils, kitchen gadgets, cookbooks and tabletop items are offered in the retail portion of the store.
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Title Annotation:housewares
Author:Gill, David
Publication:HFN Home Furnishings News
Date:Dec 1, 2015
Words:868
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