Karen and Brad Hughes walk towards the painted brick entrance of their two-year-old kitchenware store, Artichoke, in the Over-The-Rhine section of Northern Cincinnati, from the market that inspired its location, waving to other new storeowners who’ve taken a chance on the area’s revitalization.
As they make their way, stopping to greet passersby, the couple reminisces about their involvement with the neighborhood’s development prior to their store opening in 2016.
But, it’s not just the couples community involvement at a time when shopping local and giving back are two main drivers behind consumer spending, but also the truly unique nature of the independent cookware store that they’ve built from scratch that makes the Hughes’ 2018 GOURMET INSIDER® All-Stars.
Walking into the 880 square foot store, what makes Artichoke stand out, both in its local community and that of other gourmet housewares stores, is almost immediately evident. While many storeowners in small locations attempt to maximize every square inch of space and fill it with product, the Hughes’ took a different approach that supported the branding they wanted to portray.
The store’s unique merchandising and product selection strategy follows its open concept approach, and highlights a showroom aesthetic. Most of the products are showcased outside of their packaging for customers to touch and feel and often an entire product line is represented by only one piece. While this is not always feasible for independent gourmet housewares stores, Artichoke has taken this concept and run with it.
While the Hugheses have garnered praise from the community they call home and the retail community they call family for the design and layout of their store, the impact of those qualities has already been felt further than imagined. The store in 2016 was named one of Food Network’s best kitchenware stores in the nation after only being in business a few short months.
“We don’t pile to the ceiling with boxes,” said Karen Hughes. “We wanted people to be able to walk in the front door and see to the back of the store where the kitchen is. It makes for a clean feel to the store. That was very critical for us.”
That clean feel is not only reflected in the open concept, but also in the store’s merchandising displays, which the Hugheses had custom built for the space. The largest wall running from the front window to the kitchen, which resides in the last 100 square feet of the store, is backlit, for example, allowing for the product placed on its walls to shine. Not only that, but the light gives those passing by at night a beacon, drawing them in and piquing interest amongst both the locals and tourists that have taken to visiting the area’s recently bourgeoning streets.
However, while the store’s open showroom concept and branding lends itself to vast differentiation for the Hugheses and acknowledgement from the independent gourmet community and beyond, it was not without challenges. The concept makes for a complex product selection strategy, one that is continually evolving.
Brad Hughes noted, for example, that while some stores have a good/better/best strategy when it comes to the selection of goods they carry, Artichoke is too small to offer such a wide variety. Instead, the Hugheses have adopted what they refer to as their version of a “best” strategy. The couple said that in order to ensure they have the goods that meet the demands of their strategy, each piece is hand-picked and tested at length.
“This is the engineer in me, I experiment with every sample we get. If it doesn’t work, we don’t bring it in. We have to be able to stand behind these products, and if we say it works it has to work,” said Brad Hughes. “But, best doesn’t necessarily mean the most expensive. We have a $4 peeler that’s great.”
Staying true to its branding also means the couple must often make hard decisions. For example, the couple will not on-board anything that doesn’t fit with the branding of the store, which includes a product’s aesthetic appeal from design to packaging. The couple even avoids putting displays for impulse buys and add-ons near the register, regardless of its success in other stores, in order to maintain their streamlined, clean look.
In addition, Karen Hughes noted that if the duo finds a new product that they want to bring in, they sometimes have to make the difficult decision to remove a product from their shelves, due to space constraints. This, she said, makes it imperative that they constantly evaluate their product lines and vendor relationships as they search out newer finds that boast sustainability and responsible manufacturing.