Where it all Started
Back in 2001, when the idea of starting a cookshop first occurred to Mary & Andy, the typical UK cookshop looked like a cross between a cramped store cupboard and a Victorian kitchen. This was despite the fact that Britain’s first recognisable cookshop only opened in the late 1960s. Somebody, somewhere, had decided that high-quality cookware had to appear old-fashioned to have merit.
Although Mary & Andy both came from corporate backgrounds, and their interest in food was purely in the ‘keen amateurs’ bracket, Andy had spent about 15 years travelling the world whilst working in the tableware and food sectors – he’d met manufacturers with beautifully-designed kitchen and dining products and, more importantly, he’d met dozens of retailers, from Sao Paulo to Hamburg to Kuala Lumpar, who presented those products with panache and a contemporary sensibility.
The defining moment for the idea came in early 2002 when they sat down in a Darlington café with a group of friends, friends of friends and a few others to show off some product pictures, style boards and interior ideas. Not only did the group love what they saw, they were very insistent on where it had to be located – not Northallerton, not Yarm, but Grange Road in Darlington. At the time, that was something of a challenge, as Grange Road was a short stretch of high-quality retailers with few openings for newcomers. However, with a little persuasion and presentation, a lease was secured and Cooks & Kitchens opened on May 2nd 2002, after 10 weeks of frantic refitting, supplier sourcing and journeys into the unknown – it’s amazing how far you push things when you don’t know ‘how retail works’!
Since those early days, much has changed. Customers expectations have risen immeasurably with the makeovers of the kitchen and dining sections of department stores; many of the brands that Cooks & Kitchens introduced to the North East are more widely available, many cookshops have shaken off Victoriana or gone bust; and most significantly, the internet has commoditised even super-niche products by making them available at a click. In fact, Cooks & Kitchens was an early adopter of online technology and began selling online in 2005 through a website that went on to win awards. There’s no doubt that online shopping has been a massive benefit to consumers and got rid of some of the snobbery in high-end retail but, on the other hand, we’re in the middle of a process that will see many specialist retailers closing their physical outlets, as we have, and the consumer will lose the opportunity to touch a product and discuss their needs with someone who’s passionate about the products..
So, how did a small independent cookshop responded to these challenges over the years. Well, mostly by constantly changing, constantly trying to find the special product over the mundane product and by offering customers good reasons to shop with Cooks & Kitchens – from demonstration days to charity activities to prize draws to special promotions to loyalty schemes to winning awards – they all contributed to how much customers trust what you do and feel involved in it.
These days, we’ve followed many of our customers in focusing on online business and shows and events, as this combination of ‘transactional’ online shopping and ‘leisure’ event shopping seems to suit them. However, we still try to make our knowledge, our excitement and our supplier relationships work for customers in these environments.
Over the years, the business has received recognition both locally and nationally for its sometimes off-beat fund-raising ideas for charity and for simply being, at least in the eyes of the judges, a really good kitchenware and cookshop business. Mary & Andy have also been judges themselves over the years for various national awards. Andy sat on the board of the Cookshop & Housewares Association and even wrote the Guide to Selling Kitchen Knives for the national training body.
As for what comes next, it’s really more of the same. But if that sounds a little pedestrian, it means more innovation and a continued effort to try to be nothing short of excellent in customers’ eyes. So, look out for more appearances at events, new brands, a design overhaul of our eBay store …. oh, and this, the fourth Cooks & Kitchens website in 10 years!