The Happy Cook Eyes Evolution Without Losing Its Roots

Working in retail wasn’t in the plans for Monique Moshier and Steve Belcher, owners of Charlottesville, VA-based The Happy Cook. But it was especially not something Moshier wanted after growing up the daughter of retailers herself.

“As a kid and when I was getting into college, I specifically didn’t want to take over my parents’ business and I would have never thought of buying a kitchen store,” she said.

In the early 2000s, Moshier, who holds a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from Sweet Briar College, was a virology research assistant in clinical studies at the University of Virginia studying research, and Belcher, too, was on a completely different life track, working on his PhD in political philosophy. But it was a part-time job at The Happy Cook that swayed the couple into the retail life.

“We had just moved to Charlottesville. I got a part-time job at The Happy Cook because I loved cooking and wanted to outfit my kitchen with good kitchen tools,” recalled Moshier. When the previous owner was ready to move on and began looking for a buyer, Belcher encouraged Moshier to put her hat in the ring. “Steve just really pushed me and said that it was the perfect fit. It ended up being the perfect fit for us and as our family has grown, it’s just been a huge part of our family,” Moshier said.

Added Belcher, “I knew nothing about retail when I get involved, but I watched Monique work at the store for a few years before we bought it and saw that she loved it.”

They officially took the helm in 2005 and got to work evaluating and re-evaluating product mix, customer sentiment and growing their business. It is their constant focus on growth and evolution that has cemented their place as GOURMET INSIDER® All-Star retailers.

Moshier explained that when big box stores, internet sales and MAP pricing began hitting the industry hard, The Happy Cook was at a crossroads. Struggling to figure out how to best compete, Moshier said the duo began stocking — and overstocking — too many items in an attempt at being “everything to everyone.” Then, she said, she realized that wasn’t feasible.

“The Happy Cook is really big into testing our products and telling our customers, ‘we know the products in and out and you are going to come here for our recommendation.’ We identified that the market was changing,” she said.

Moshier explained that instead of people coming in looking for a kitchenware item to help them do a job — a peeler, for example — customers began coming in with a preconceived notion of what they wanted and began asking for more specific items.

“If we didn’t have it, they would just say, ‘OK, no big deal, I’ll grab it from Amazon.’ We started to notice that type of change and that was when we decided that it was time to pivot our business model,” she said. “We used to picture ourselves like a Sur La Table — a bunch of different items to choose from in a given category. But, people became hyper-specific so that wasn’t working. So, we decided to go with our strength — the things we loved and the things we were behind.”

Moshier said that she, Belcher and the staff went through the sales trends and decided on a more curated selection of goods for the store.

“Sometimes it sounds obvious, but you have to know what to change,” Belcher said. “As the internet has become a bigger behemoth, people overcorrect. We have never changed who we are — we have never changed our identity. We just changed how and what we offer.”

But with a more paired down selection came a blessing, too. The shift in inventory gave Moshier and Belcher the room to create a new culinary center inside The Happy Cook, which they opened in September 2019.

“We know that experience is the thing that consumers want. You can never get that fulfilled by the internet,” Moshier said.

Belcher added, “We know that experience-based platforms are going to be important, because as you’re evolving as a brick-and-mortar, you have to offer something beyond just product. Our cooking school has been the gateway to our products — introducing people to what we sell through the experience of having a class. It underscores that we are experts in this field and people trust us even more.”

Watch Monique Moshier talk about what it means to be part of her local community in this video interview. 

For the full story on The Happy Cook, pick up your copy of the July/August 2020 edition of GOURMET INSIDER, or view the digital copy here