Before one even walks through the door at Tyler, TX-based Sweet Gourmet, the smell of chocolate hits your nose. Once the door is open, any foodie would feel like a kid in a candy store with the amount of shelf-stable foods available, the store’s homemade pimento cheese dip on the counter and a selection of, well, candy, that is enough to make anyone suddenly have a sweet tooth.
Glance to the right and it’s a home cook’s dream — cookware, aprons, kitchen tools and other housewares are merchandised neatly and efficiently, allowing customers to find just what is needed.
Within seconds of being in the store, one is greeted by Pam Gabriel, owner of Sweet Gourmet, not as if you’re a customer, but as if she is inviting you to a party.
“We like to have fun here and we are just real. Our customers see that and I feel like that connection is one of the reasons we have been successful,” she said.
Gabriel never thought she would end up in the independent gourmet housewares industry. The now-retailer was working as a salesperson for an electronics company when she said that she wasn’t having fun anymore and sought out a change.
“I remember being in the car and being really mad about something. I called my husband and told him I was going to quit. My next call was to Michael Furlinger, a friend of ours that owned Sweet Gourmet. I asked him if I could come in and work a few hours, just to be doing something, and he said I could,” Gabriel said.
But working as an associate didn’t last long. Furlinger was gearing up to leave Texas and approached her about purchasing the store, which mostly carried chocolates and gourmet food. With it being less than a year old, she was tentative to agree and struck a deal — if he would stay through the holiday season and everything checked out, she would make the purchase. A few months later, she was the proud owner of Sweet Gourmet.
“I remember the first morning when I opened the store and it was mine. A lady came in and she bought half a pound of coffee. I remember nervously putting it into the cash register and I thought, ‘Wow, this is mine’,” she recalled.
Now, 12 years later, Gabriel has taken the original store concept and grown it into a place of her own. She added housewares to the mix over time and then expanded Sweet Gourmet when the store next to hers closed. She’s divided the store into two complementary sections — things to cook and things to cook with, as she calls them.
Like the store itself, her recipe for success ebbs and flows to tailor to the strengths and weaknesses of both her and her staff, allowing each one to shine at what they do best. And, in some cases, she keeps it old school and in others, she embraces what’s new — mixing unconventional marketing and merchandising tactics with a traditional bookkeeping method.
In her back office, Gabriel’s desk has a paper calendar and is stacked with catalogs and notepads. She takes inventory with her own eyes and skims the catalogs for goods she either needs to order or wants to try out.
“We do not have a big, fancy computer system. We check everything in. We hand price it with a pricing gun. You don’t have to be above what you’re comfortable with to be successful,” she said.
When it comes to selling that product, Gabriel’s tactics are just as unconventional as her journey into the industry. She puts the focus on having fun and whether it’s in-store or on social media, the image that is portrayed is one of realness and amusement, something she wants all of her customers to feel when they shop at Sweet Gourmet. This may not work for some, but for Gabriel, this method has been the key to her success. Case in point: Sweet Gourmet is the only Le Creuset boutique shop that is situated in an independent gourmet housewares store.
“Le Creuset came to us and told us that they had this concept they wanted us to consider. So, about a year ago, we decided we could do it and decided to move forward with it. A bucket of orange paint and some new fixtures later, and we are Le Creuset’s first independently owned shop within a shop in the U.S. It’s beautiful and we are so proud of it,” she said.
The Sweet Gourmet brand experience extends to the store’s social media pages, where Gabriel and her staff members regularly put out videos and implement Facebook Live. She centers these posts around new products or seasonal events, and they often come with a side of wit and humor.
“The first one I ever did was when my husband was getting ready to go duck hunting and I was in the back of the truck. We got such a great response that we started doing them all the time,” she said.
One of the in-store events that has shown the more entertaining side of Gabriel and her staff is a girl’s night out party-type event that, she said, is run in a format similar to those on QVC.
“We created these classes and we call them ‘try before you buy.’ Customers pay an entry fee and the classes hold about 25 people. It lasts for about an hour and people may try a product in different applications, like a sauce out of the jar with a tasting spoon, but we also make it into meatballs or something. Then, we sell as we taste. We’ll have the [item]there and say, ‘We have 11 of these, who wants one?’ The amount of merchandise that goes out of here during these events is unbelievable. It just works,” said Gabriel.
But while business is always top of mind, she prides herself on being able to help her customers find exactly what they came in looking for with care, consideration and a laugh or two.
“One of the things that makes us special is that we still give old fashioned customer service. We’re like one of the old dinosaurs left, even though the store is only 13 years old,” she said.