Family Ties: 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.”

In the middle of a shift in business, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, their hustle didn’t stop. After stay-at-home orders were put in place in Virginia, Moshier and Belcher wasted no time creating opportunities that were bigger and more expansive than before. While free local delivery and free in-store pick-up options were tapped by many, the duo ended up thinking bigger.

Losing revenue from the culinary center they put in the year before, Belcher and Moshier quickly jumped into action, contacting local chefs and doing research on some of the best technical equipment for cooking classes. Soon, The Happy Cook was doing virtual cooking classes and demonstrations for their clients — as well as clients all over the world.

“We just did a teambuilding class for a major corporation, which spans across two countries,” said Mosher. “People have heard about these classes and it’s really been more than we would have thought.”

Companies in New York and Boston have also tapped The Happy Cook to produce virtual cooking classes as well. The family feel is the impression that Belcher and Moshier want all of their customers to leave with, virtually or in-store.

And they don’t just walk the walk. “I am a people person and I love that side of the business,” said Belcher. He explained that being able to connect with customers, both new and regular, has given The Happy Cook a leg up on online competition and big box stores.

“We have never changed providing customer service that is over the top and I hope that never goes out of style,” he explained.

And, just like the way Moshier grew up, the couple’s kids are a constant presence in the store as well. Belcher and Moshier believe in teaching them the value of hard work and what the retail environment is really like. They also believe that the presence of family in the retail space helps the customers realize what shopping local really means.

“I grew up in the same situation the kids are in, which is why I like the kids being at the store at a young age. Life is totally different than we had planned, but it ended up being totally in sync with what we were looking for,” she said.

For the full story on The Happy Cook, pick up your copy of the July/August 2020 edition of Gourmet Insider. Digital copies are also available for free here and here.