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Culture Curator: Storytelling Through Merchandising A Bright Spot For Toque Blanche

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.”

He said that while product selection is important for the success of the store, in the ease of purchasing on the internet, it is the store itself that has to make an impression. Nelson puts extra emphasis on ensuring his customers feel a “wow” factor throughout the store, putting parameters in place for how it should be presented.

“It has to be clean,” he said. “The merchandising has to look good, the shelves need to be stocked and items need to be forward-facing. The displays should be up-to-date. In the competitive environment that we have, there is not enough room to drop the ball.”

There is a generosity and responsibility to the local community that has been upheld since the beginning of Nelson’s entrance into the gourmet housewares retail industry, too. The Half Moon Bay store had photos of local chefs dotting the walls, highlighting some of the neighborhood’s talent. Nelson has been known to sponsor a table at the neighborhood farmer’s market for the use of local non-profits. The booth is outfitted with the store’s name and logo for branding purposes, but otherwise was dedicated to helping local non-profits.

“We do a lot of local events and find ways to support the local non-profits, that’s something we like to do,” Nelson said.

And, he said, his employees have helped him continue to cultivate a culture of giving, enthusiasm and top-notch customer service. He invests in outside training from vendors for each employee and also does peer-training, so everyone is well-versed in product knowledge and customer service.

“Anyone who comes in the store should pick up on that right away, how we react to customers, how we treat customers and how we treat each other,” he said. “That’s really been key. Finding good people is really important, too. I’m not in the store every day, so I am very fortunate to have people that know everything, that are willing to accept responsibility and grow in their positions.”

However, added Nelson, there is a special requirement to work in his store — one that has more to do with passion than anything else.

“The first thing I ask them is if they like to cook. If they don’t like to cook, I don’t care how smart they are, they aren’t going to work in a cooking store,” he said. “They need to be able to connect with people on the most basic point of cooking and baking and to share that enthusiasm.”


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