At first glance, Charles Nelson is intimidating. He’s tall and immediately commands a presence. But he is charming, welcoming and warm.
The same could be said for his independent housewares gourmet store, Santa Cruz, CA-based Toque Blanche. The store’s name, which refers to the pleated white chef’s hat is a nod to chef and restaurant culture. To outsiders or new customers, it can be viewed as a store for more serious home cooks.
However, the big, “play with your food” sign painted across the wall immediately debunks this myth. Like its owner, the store is charming, welcoming and warm. The product mix contains an assortment of basic housewares, like cookware and easy-to-use gadgets, but something that sets the store apart has been its emphasis on international products.
Nelson spent his career in international business and has a passion for combining his kitchen experience with his international experience, especially when he can showcase how to properly use a kitchen item, sparking joy and enthusiasm in his customer.
“I like the international element of this [store],” he said. “I love getting our French ceramics; our pottery that we get from Colombia; the knives that we have from Germany and Japan. Plus, people are learning to cook from different cultures all around the world now.”
Nelson said that he is seeing more of an interest in international cooking — more paella pans and Asian-style cookware and tools have been selling well in the last few years — allowing him to hit his sweet spot.
“A lot of these products have multi-generational stories attached to them,” he said. “The brands have their stories and the products have their stories. I love the quality of the things that we sell; the forged knives and the heirloom-style cookware. I love that you can buy a pot and, one day, your grandchildren can be using it.”
Open since 2006, Nelson started the store because the town he was living in, Half Moon Bay, CA, lacked a kitchen store. And, he added, the vision for Toque Blanche seemingly came to him all at once.
“We lost our [local]kitchen store five years earlier,” he said. “There was a vacancy in a great building that I knew would work. The idea came to me in an afternoon — what the store would look like, the kind of products it would carry, the name of the store.”
Nelson had background experience working in kitchens throughout his life, he explained, and realized that he had a longing to bring that type of experience to those who cooked at home.
“I’ve always liked to cook. I worked in kitchens when I was in high school and college and in some pretty nice restaurants. I had the flavor of commercial cooking and I wanted to bring those kinds of tools to the home chef,” he said.
Armed with his newfound mission, he headed to the International Home + Housewares Show (now called The Inspired Home Show) and, in a twist of fate, stumbled upon a seminar by Bob Coviello, then-president of HTI Buying Group, that would help Nelson see his mission through.
“Before I even had the store open, I took part in ‘Everything You Need To Know About Opening A Kitchenware Store,’ which was an eight-hour seminar,” he recalled, chuckling at the idea now. “It was sent from heaven. He was talking about rate percentage, markups and what categories we should be dominating. It was just perfect.”
In 2013, Nelson acquired the Santa Cruz store that is his home base now, and shuttered the Half Moon Bay location in 2017. But the shift in business hasn’t stopped him. His drive, vision and community involvement are just a few of the reasons Nelson is becoming of the 2020 GOURMET INSIDER® All-Star honor.
According to Nelson, one of his keys to success has been the way he merchandises his store. He takes the time to bring the stories of the brands and products that he has come to know and love alive to his customers. He uses props, books, colorful photographs and other eye-catching elements to create displays that tell stories in different and unique ways.
“Sometimes, we tell a color story and merchandise that way,” he explained. “Right now, we have a summer display with all of these beautiful aqua tones running through it. And then we have another display that is all about baking, which everyone is going crazy for right now. We also have a huge paella pan that is filled with everything you need for paella and it makes a dramatic statement. Everything should look good.”
For the full story on Toque Blanche, pick up your copy of the July/August 2020 edition of GOURMET INSIDER or read the digital edition here.