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Making Fantasies Come to Life

By Micah Cheek

Near the southern tip of California wine country, Kitchen Fantasy is catering to home cooks and restaurateurs alike.

Ernie Rodriguez, who has been selling kitchenware since 1984, has made his store thrive in the same shopping center as a Target and a Home Goods. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Rodriguez. “A lot of times, [customers] go into Target looking for something and they’re disappointed.” Kitchen Fantasy maintains the attitude that the store should do everything online shopping does, including offering high value.

To compete with online prices, as well as the superstore prices nearby, Rodriguez buys in high volume. “We’re stocked floor to ceiling, merchandise on merchandise,” says Rodriguez. “It’s more pleasing to the customer to see that we’re stocking a full range of products.” Buying high volumes of merchandise obviously has its own drawbacks. If a product doesn’t sell well, there is a lot of stock to work through. This is where Kitchen Fantasy’s other major demographic comes in. “A lot of times, we’ll be sitting on a product for six to eight months, and a restaurant [owner] will come in and say, ‘This is the perfect guitar-shaped serving dish, can we get more of them?’”

The store has invested greatly into relationships with local restaurants. “We’re selling Chefworks and high-end knives for them, too,” says Rodriguez. “A lot of the local restaurants want me to just be a restaurant supply.” Surprisingly, professional equipment has sold quite well to home cooks as well. “Most of the homes here are a bit larger, with larger backyards. People will come in and buy stuff for these big events they do,” says Rodriguez. “Mom at home loves the restaurant supply stuff. It’s really great having those hotel pans, they’re so versatile.”

Kitchen Fantasy’s knife sharpening service also caters to both professional and home cooks. Along with a sharpening service with pickup and delivery for restaurants, Kitchen Fantasy has in-store sharpening for everyone. “People wash their knives in the dishwasher. They’re cutting on hard surfaces or granite countertops. We really stress making a conversation,” says Rodriguez. “People will come in and say, ‘You sharpened my knives two weeks ago and they’re already dull.’ That’s a good thing, that’s a conversation that will usually end in a sale. We can get them something that will hold an edge better for only $20 more.”
Kitchen Fantasy spares 400 square feet to cooking classes, currently taking on 12 classes a month on subjects ranging from French galettes to sushi. “Our sushi classes are the place where lots of people try sushi for the first time,” says Rodriguez. “We have a lot of frustrated chefs over here that want to put duck on the menu, and we’re the place where people get to try things like that.” Kids classes for parties are popular at the store, and Rodriguez doesn’t go easy on them. “With the popularity of baking shows on TV, they want to do baking competitions. We give a little class, and then they prepare the pastries for a judge the parents choose,” says Rodriguez. Kids from 8 to 13 learn techniques as complicated as crème anglaise and even souffles. “When you start with a good foundation, those things aren’t intimidating for you,” says Rodriguez. “If you learn how to make a souffle at 10, you’re up for almost any challenge.”

In the Temecula area, two products stand out with growing popularity. Sous vide circulators have gained interest with the potential for temperature-perfect steaks. “A few restaurants in town use it. It really helps your steak not get sent back,” Rodriguez adds. One of the selling points Rodriguez points out is the fact that it can hold foods at temperature for up to 12 hours without ill effect, and some cheaper cuts of meat are even improved by all that time in the water bath. Fermenting is popular because of the proposed health benefits, and a growing interest in artisan cooking. “You can always buy a fermenting crock for 200 or 300 dollars,” says Rodriguez. “That always stopped the home cook because you can buy a hundred pounds of sauerkraut for that! I picked up a line of home fermenting caps and weights, that’s a lot better for them.”

While these products have been on the rise, one tool is surprisingly stagnant for the area: grinders. While the casual observer would expect the interest in gluten free eating and natural foods in southern California would increase sales in flour makers, but the results haven’t been as expected. I have a few customers that who are really into it, but it’s one of those products that sits on the shelf for a long time. It’s sad, because there are stores that sell grains and rices in bulk, but it’s not really taking off right now.”

Like many other retailers, Rodriguez has noticed customers looking for more open stock pans rather than full sets, as a way to save money and specialize their kitchen sets. He has also been giving more advice on cookware materials and the effects of nonstick linings.

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