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100 Years of Good Taste

The year was 1976 and there was a sense of patriotism and American Pride that was sweeping the country being led by the big Bicentennial. It was a time for change and average people could feel it and breathe it in the air.

Opportunity was everywhere. While “Silicon Valley” was penned for the first time a few years prior, most Americans had no idea what it meant. There was a new crop of students both graduating from Stanford that year and another equally dynamic group dropping out of Stanford that year, hammering and welding away in garages creating a new direction for growth, new high technology, visionary products from science fiction magazines that would revolutionize not just California, but every house and office in America and, eventually, the entire world. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, young entrepreneurs, formed and launched Apple Computer; NASA unveiled America’s first ever Space Shuttle, the Enterprise; and the Concorde took off on its maiden flights from London and Paris to East Coast cities.

While all this activity was set in action, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, in Sonoma, another man had a big idea to bring to the world. He had refined his ideas from 1958 when his store first opened, right off the Square in Sonoma, and transitioned from being a humble hardware store selling hammers, ladders and screws into a kitchen emporium selling the finest French cookware and German cutlery.

It took 18 years, but he was finally ready to make his move from the sleepy Wine Country town to San Francisco which was just starting to be recognized around the world as the up-and-coming capital of good food and great dining.

Once, Lorraine, my wife, asked me, “Who has been the most interesting person you have met on all your travels to date?” I shared with her random names of business movers and shakers in electronics, real estate, technology and, of course, retailing. And then, I paused and I told her that of all the people I had met, there was one man that stood out in my mind that I would have to classify as exceptional and he was not at all what I had been looking for on my trip of discovery. He was a man of slight build, was about 60 years of age, extremely soft-spoken and didn’t appear to be able to muster a loud roar if his life depended on it. I explained that I had been walking to an appointment on Sutter Street in San Francisco and saw a crowd outside of one store with people standing in the street waiting to enter one by one. It was, of all things, a kitchen shop and from the street I could see through the window the biggest collection of copper cookware I could imagine and immediately fell in line in back of the last customer.

I entered the store and instead of rushing to pick up a Cuisinart Food Processor like everyone else, I took a detour to really look around and study the store. The products were beautiful, but instead of flash or bright color, there was simple design with natural metals and white dominating the visual appeal of the experience. You wanted to linger and get lost in the space to digest the experience. It just felt right.

As I strolled about the store, my eyes kept falling on this one gentleman who was dressed in a conservative, well-tailored garb covered with an apron. You could tell he was the owner, not because his employees were doing all the work, but because he had such a passion about what he was doing. From answering a customer’s question to refilling a shelf or sharing a recipe, he simply did it all with an energy that never quit.

I stayed in that store for hours that first day and kept on coming back, trying to understand what made the passion of this one man so different than that of all the other business executives I had the privilege to meet throughout the prior months and, in the end, I realized that for so many of the others, it was all about them. Here, I had discovered a real person where he under- stood that success was all about the customers and the experience he provided them with was the only thing that mattered. I found great purity in that attitude.

Before I left the store that day, I carried my handful of tools, including a peeler and grater, and as I approached the counter, the man took my items. While he was wrapping and ringing, I introduced myself to him and told him that my family and I had just moved from Connecticut and I had been in the Housewares business. I told him that I loved the store and that he should be proud because he has created something that was so special and timeless. When I took a breath, the man extended his hand, grasped it and said, “I’m Chuck Williams.”

On that day, at that particular moment, Chuck and I became friends forever. It has always been a friendship grounded on mutual respect because that is the way Chuck treats everyone. From our first meeting, time has moved on and that 60-year-old shopkeeper has become an icon of retailing providing the vision and inspiration for not just his company but for all companies that are dedicated to keeping their customers as the most important priority of their business.

Those of us that have had the opportunity to work with Chuck during these years benefited from his partnership, vision, leadership, understanding of team and appreciation of the opportunity he afforded each of us. He taught us that business isn’t just about the mechanics and details like profit margins, returns, shipping documents, etc. but all of these things are incidental to providing customers with the best shopping and product experience possible. The world is a better place because Chuck’s style, class and grace have touched each of us in how we cook; how we entertain; and how we spend time enjoying family and friends in a way that just didn’t exist before he showed us how to do it. How much business Chuck rang up in his cash register each day was never his goal.

Many years ago when Julia Child was still teaching at the Cipriani Hotel in Venice, I met her one morning by chance. We had a cappuccino together and it was natural for our moments to always speak of Chuck.

In the early years of the store, Julia’s mention of a particular tool on her show brought lines of Pacific Heights ladies to the store and Chuck was always frustrated that Julia was so spontaneous that she could never give him a heads up to what she was going to be using on a show. Chuck never wanted to disappoint any customer by being out of stock.

That morning while taking her last sip of her coffee, Julia looked at me and said, “That Chuck, he certainly is doing some pretty good work, isn’t he?”

A true Julia Child understatement, to be sure, but softly spoken with care and passion from one American icon about another American icon.

That first visit I made to a Williams-Sonoma store on Sutter Street in spring 1976, when I met Chuck Williams for the first time, I really did make a friend for life. That doesn’t happen every day but it happened that day. I believe all of his customers, employees, business partners and friends look back throughout these years with wonderful memories of their experiences with Chuck Williams.

From an Industry that Chuck has helped grow and change, the entire retail community wishes Chuck Williams a very Happy 100th Birthday and values all that he has done to help the retail shopping experience for the American consumer grow through his commitment to the highest standard.

If you have never enjoyed one of Chuck’s books, pick one up and read it. It is filled with recipes about food, but more importantly, each is filled with recipes to create a life well lived.

Chuck has given us much more than stores, books and products. He has been an example as to how to be in business with the highest level of commitment to perfection in performance, highest level of integrity and respect for his partners while never losing sight of the fact that all things begin and end with “his” customers.

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