Just outside the doors of Rochester, NY-based independent gourmet housewares store, Cooks’ World, there is a sign that says, “Free Coffee.”
Chris Wiedemer, owner, puts the sign out almost everyday so that people passing down the main road see it. The coffee, he said, is made fresh and served up with a variety of additives. It’s handed out to customers, would-be customers and just random passers-by that may not make a purchase — or even know the store was there to begin with.
“We put the sign out and if people just want to come in and get a free coffee and a smile, they can,” Wiedemer said. “We hope that when they do need something for their kitchen or when they need a piece of cookware, they’ll remember us and come back.”
That hospitality, among several other factors, is what Wiedemer has become known for both in his local community and the independent gourmet community and just one of the reasons he has been named a 2018 GOURMET INSIDER® All-Star.
Cooks’ World opened its doors 40 years ago on Monroe Avenue in Rochester where the building still stands. The store was owned and operated by Wiedemer’s father, George, and Al Larter, his father’s business partner. But, in 1994 after 26 years together, Larter was looking to retire and Wiedemer got a phone call that changed his life.
“My dad called me and asked me if I wanted to come home and take over the store,” he said. “I was living in Chicago at the time, working in the travel industry, and I had no plans to return home. I was not even a good cook,” he said with a chuckle as he reminisced on the moment. But, he seized the opportunity, packing his family up and moving back to Rochester after buying out Larter’s half of the business.
Now, after being in the industry more than 24 years, Cooks’ World is still a robust, healthy business and Wiedemer himself has become a respected member of the independent gourmet retail world, becoming someone known for taking chances, sometimes on behalf of an entire group, and smart business decisions.
“I feel that the reason we are unique is that we focus on the three C’s — customer, collaboration and community. I know that may sound like buzzwords, but I think we really live that life,” he said.
The store’s core customer base, said Wiedemer, is people who love to cook. It’s what the store was built on and something he emphasizes will always be part of the foundation. His father, he said, told him, “never lose sight of who you are,” which was a life lesson for him, but was also a piece of advice he incorporated into the branding and approach of Cooks’ World after taking the helm.
He and his staff, said Wiedemer, have been able to both retain and grow business because, at the core, the values the store was built on have not changed. Cookware is still the flagship category that the store has been known for, although he has moved into other segments, like cutlery and gadgets, as the needs of those in the home kitchen have evolved.
“We have branched out into other areas that have become more important as the industry has taken them on,” he said. “But, we have been able to connect with our customers, build the relationships that we need to and have been able to maintain those relationships.”
But that’s the thing about Wiedemer. While he knows that things have to stay the same at their core, he also knows that continued success comes only after pushing ahead, sometimes even out of his comfort zone.
He is constantly doing research and asking questions about new products, testing goods that he thinks may do well in his store and figuring out new ways to brand Cooks’ World in order to reach a new demographic.
A local blogger outreach program has been on his mind, even though he just re-launched the Cooks’ World website, which now includes e-commerce and a blog section. Wiedemer has built social media marketing dollars into his budget and works with a local agency to help with SEO best practices and the ever-changing algorithms that are the Internet because, he said, it’s working for him.
“This has opened up all kinds of opportunities to link things together to reach customers that don’t know about me. I am trying to get people in the store, even though I have an e-commerce site, I want them to come into the store to buy. But, I want to build traffic in the store through my [digital]relationships,” he said.