The Kitchen Store: New England Cozy
Herbs and spices are a small but growing part of the business at The Kitchen Store in Guilford, Connecticut, where Owner Karen Schumann sells only things she’d use in her kitchen at home to a customer base that’s gradually evolving to include more younger and more male home cooks. The store is a long, narrow space with beautiful yellow walls, open cabinetry, mahogany countertops and wood floors. “It’s very European-looking,” Schumann says. “People feel as though they’re coming into a different world when they come in here.” A new online store, added just this year, conveys the same feeling to customers who arrive at its virtual doorstep, and it also offers “Karen’s home kitchen only” merchandise.
Of the 1,200 square feet in her storefront, about 1,000 square feet are selling space, and of that, about three-quarters of the shop space is devoted to selling the same brands of kitchenware that Schumann uses in her kitchen at home, while the other quarter of the space is devoted to Wildflower Foods, Schumann’s brand for the pizza dough mix that she makes as well as sells, high-quality dried culinary herbs, oils and vinegars, coffees and teas and her own spice blends that bring in customers who stop off on their way home from work because they need a spoonful of this or half a cup of that to complete their dinner menus. “A lot of people are working and have a recipe in mind, and they know exactly what I have, and so they come in and gather what they need. A lot of times, I have an ingredient that’s hard to find. People can come in and buy a tablespoon of it,” Schumann says. “People here cook like crazy – Middle Eastern, Jewish, Italian, vegan and vegetarian, everything. There are some fabulous, fabulous cooks. It’s always a food education for me.” Food sales now generate about five percent of the store’s revenue, but that share is increasing month by month. The store’s average sales check is somewhere between $50 and $60, Schumann says.
She makes a point of selling nothing in her store that she doesn’t also use herself at home, and that defines her inventory choices. “Knives are a big category. I’m a knife sharpener, and I have these handcrafted knives from these local guys who make these incredible knives that I love,” she says. “Customers appreciate good knives, unbelievably so. Customers know, and I love watching their faces when they handle a spectacular knife.” Schumann carries very few brands of knives in her store: primarily those from Global and handcrafted knives from local smiths. “Opinel are my fun, fabulous knife,” she says. “They’re so colorful, and they’re so sharp, and they’re so fabulous. For someone looking for color and functionality, they’re amazing.” Knives from the Culinary Institute of America also occupy a small niche.
Schumann opened The Kitchen Store in 2008 in a 1,200-square foot space in a Guilford strip mall also occupied by a nail salon, tae kwon do gym and a bank. Her decision to open the store was inspired by her memories of The Kitchen Place in Madison, Connecticut, which borders Guilford’s eastern edge. She’d shopped there when she was a young wife and mother in her early 20s, and when the store’s owner put the business up for sale, she thought about buying it, but she couldn’t quite reconcile her desire to become an entrepreneur with the needs of her small children and let the opportunity pass. “I kicked myself for quite a few years,” she says.
The Kitchen Place’s owner closed the business and sold the premises, which became a nail salon, and it was another five years before a new kitchen store opened in Madison. “I had been a stay-at-home mom, but I had also been an art and a music teacher at my children’s school,” Schumann says. “For a few years, I went to school with my kids. I was a stay-at-home mom – I didn’t go back to work until I opened the store, and finally, I knew I had to do something.”
Since the new kitchen store in Madison was filling that market niche in her home town, Schumann began looking for available premises in the other nearby communities. She found a space she could afford in nearby Guilford, a combination residential and summer community with a population of 22,000 that, like Madison, is a bedroom suburb of New Haven with its own thriving small business community. Once she found her space, her former husband built the store’s countertops and shelves and installed the flooring. “He let me put everything we had into it, which not a lot of people would do, so I will be forever grateful,” Schumann says. “When I decide, I just jump in with both feet. I had a great deal of faith that it was all going to work out, and I could do it. And I did it.”
Even though 2008 economic conditions weren’t particularly encouraging for a new small business, the local community was, Schumann recalls. “People here wanted me to be here. They’re just amazingly supportive,” she says. “They come and shop with me. I am very blessed and very lucky that people just keep coming back. They were so thankful that they could come in and feel and touch. They wanted stores like mine, so they were willing to support them.”
The Kitchen Store benefits from Guilford residents’ strong sense of community and their support for the other local small businesses as well, Schumann says. “They were tired of going to a mall and not being able to talk to someone who knew what they were doing,” she says. “I know that if I don’t have something here at the store, usually I know the place in town to go to. Everybody sends the customer where they need to be.”
“So many people have grown up here. They might have moved away, but they’ve come back,” she continues. “There are people in their 50s and 60s who’ve lived here for a long time, and now their children are coming. They come in and get an instant network from me. I tell them where to go to get what they need.”
In the store’s early days, The Kitchen Store’s typical customer was a woman older than 55 or so. That’s no longer so. “Now as the younger 20s and 30s are being inspired to cook, they have found my shop,” Schumann says. “There are people who work in the city who come here, but there are also stay-at-home moms. I have a lot of men. Men are fabulous, cooking a great deal more than they used to, and they’re proud of it, and they love it.”
As her customers come in to shop, Schumann finds that her younger customers are interested in product quality and they prefer to buy products made in the U.S. or in Europe, especially favoring products that have been made for a long time in the same place. “All my customers are looking for quality. It’s refreshing to see the younger generation doing the same. I was brought up, my mother taught me always to buy the best and you’ll have it for a lifetime. That’s what I taught my children. I have three sons who are discovering that now. My son, he’s going to buy the best, because then he’s going to have it,” she says. “Young people come in knowing to buy a Vitamix and a really good pan and a really good knife. They know it makes a difference. It blows me away when the young people come in. It’s so invigorating. They know their ingredients. They’ll search out things. They’re so inspiring if people will let them be.”
This story was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Kitchenware News, a publication of Oser Communications Group.