by Micah Cheek
Like many retailers, Mary and David Weldy have felt the pressure of competing with Amazon and other sales sites. But Mary and David aren’t worried about losing money to online markets, because they have made their store everything that Amazon isn’t ― an immersive, informative experience that’s worth traveling for.
Culinary Apple is located in Chelan, Washington, a tiny resort town in the heart of Apple country and on the edge of Lake Chelan. The store actually got its start from being a gift shop and hub for apple tourism. “We shopped for everything apple! Apple candles, apple teapots and apple aprons, to name a few. That’s how we became the ‘Apple Store,’” says David Weldy, Co-Owner. “We private labeled our apple jams, jelly and butters. We started selling beautiful apple gift baskets with these items including fresh harvested apples. And then we ultimately got into buying a fudge factory and putting it in the store.” After separately opening a kitchenware store as well, the Weldys decided to put their two businesses together. “We took the best of each store and developed that. Look at all that fresh fudge! Roasted glazed nuts! [You come in and] all of a sudden you see so many things that you wouldn’t expect in a kitchen store,” David adds. Dubbed Culinary Apple, the new store has been curated with items for each wave of customers that will come in throughout the year. During the summer, Chelan’s population swells from 7,000 to 25,000 with the influx of tourists and people who own second homes on the edge of the lake. “We’re kicking off our high season now. Our peak time frame is June, July and August,” says Mary, Co-Owner. “We have what’s called ‘Conference Season.’ We do conference gifts and attendee gifts. That’s March, April and May, and again in September, October and November, which is our harvest time for apples. Even though our visitors and tourists have gone back to the other side of the mountains, we still have our conference attendees.”
Lots of Culinary Apple’s kitchenware business comes from the seasonal residents who need to outfit their second home with new tools or something they forgot on the trip. “Obviously kitchen gadgets are a huge part of our business,” says David. For a time, the store was also outfitted with a wide variety of electric appliance options as well. But as time passed, the profits from small electrics began to shrink. “We don’t carry a lot of that product like we used to. We’ve already eliminated Vitamix, they’ve sold their soul to Amazon. We were doing Soda Stream, but all the big box stores got involved in it, so we moved away from Soda Stream,” says David. “We reduced our electric lines, and got a lot of shelf space for things that turn better with higher margins.”
The Weldys have created a strong engagement program for customers both online and in the store itself. “We created our own rewards program,” says Mary. “We have over 6,000 people in our rewards program. We send them an email, and our monthly open rate for that email is about 22 percent.” David adds, “We have so many people coming in for that birthday reward. We send them 10 dollars and they walk out with 100 dollars of merchandise.” Culinary Apple also has a schedule of sales that coincide with tastings and tool demonstrations. “Because it’s Reward Friday, when you let people know they can come into the store and get 20 percent off anything that isn’t excluded, we have a lot of people in the store. And a lot of them go to the Gadget Playdate.” The return from the Gadget Playdate can be substantial. Mary adds, “I would say on average, we have a solid 30 people that purchase, and they purchase on a pretty good volume. We’ll actually have customers come in on Thursday to take a look, and then come in to buy on Friday.”
When the rewards bring them to the store, customers will meet a Culinary Apple team that the Weldys have seriously invested in educating. “We do a phenomenal business in knives, and it’s because our team knows a lot about knives,” says Mary. David adds, “A few weeks ago we had WÜSTHOF do training in store for the staff followed by a sales training trip to Seattle for knife skill training by Shun. Then we went to Progressive [International] and did about a six-hour training with them.” To make sure their staff is as knowledgeable as possible, Mary and David take their team to as many company training programs as they can. “We gave up about $2,500 in sales by closing our store, we spend about $800 to take our team over, but that was so inexpensive compared to the team building, training and brainstorming. Every time we get back to the store we see how enthusiastic everyone is to share what they have learned. It just pays off dividends.”
The experienced staff integrates into a store experience designed to appeal to all the senses. “When you come in you’ll smell nuts roasting, or someone in the back making fudge. We’re still getting lots of baby boomers, so we play that music that appeals to them. It makes them feel good,” says David. “Then they’re greeted with one of our team. ‘Hello, would you like to try a cinnamon-glazed pecan?’ And then they get a taste. It’s about appealing to all the senses.”
Culinary Apple has leveraged its fruit-focus theme to leverage deals with manufacturers. “We just completed an agreement with Dexas. They have a beautiful apple cutting board that we sell in the store. We have a co-op that looks for apple products to give to their growers for their big annual fall harvest party,” says David. “We [also] did that with JK Adams with their apple cutting board. These are the kinds of things we’ve done to grow our business. You’ve got to think outside of the box, not just waiting for that next customer to walk into your store, but reaching out to corporate clients and asking for there business. Like our sign says on our front door, ‘Culinary Apple a store to experience.’”
By Robin Mather
For a while, C.J. Bienert thought that he’d love to run his own cheesemaking company. Then he went on a year-long “cheese sabbatical,” as he calls it, and learned something important about himself.
“Cheesemaking is really about washing a lot of dishes,” he says. “I learned that while working at cheese companies in that year. One day someone asked me what I wanted to do and I was surprised to hear ‘I want to open a cheese shop’ come out of my mouth.”
So, after a year of working “when I could” and interning “sometimes for free” with various cheesemakers around the United States, C.J. returned to Des Moines, Iowa, and opened The Cheese Shop of Des Moines in 2011.
The shop, with storage and production in a 600-square-foot basement and a retail space of about 550 square feet at street level, specializes in artisanal American cheeses and domestic charcuterie, he says. It’s located in a strip mall called The Shops at Roosevelt in the Historic Roosevelt Cultural District. “It looks like a standard strip mall,” Bienert says, “but it’s really food-centric.”
The mall is also home to specialty grocer VomFASS, which sells wine, spirits, specialty oils and gourmet foods; and to La Mie, a long-time Des Moines artisanal bakery and cafe. “Most of our employees live within two to four miles of the shop,” Bienert says, “and many of our customers also live in the neighborhood. Each of us (the other food shops) brings in customers for the others, so it works really well.”
The shop is open Tuesday through Saturday, so Bienert and his six-person staff can enjoy a full two days off each week. “We’re a family business,” he says. “I believe we all need time off to reenergize.”
That’s particularly important for Bienert, who with his wife, Kari, has two children: 2-1/2-year-old son Solomon and infant daughter Coral, who was born in early June — the same week that the Bienerts opened Cheese Bar DSM, a 3,000-square-foot 70-seat cafe that offers more seating for customers than the original Cheese Shop can provide.
C.J. met Kari when he was selling cheese in a gourmet shop and she was working in the store’s wine department. “She’d been in organic farming,” C.J. says, “and she’s definitely a foodie, so we had a lot in common.” Today, Kari juggles the company’s bookkeeping and payroll duties while staying at home with the kids. “I don’t think she’d like to hear me refer to her as a ‘stay-at-home mom,’ “ Bienert quips. “She’s probably feeding the kids while she does payroll right now.” Bienert credits ZingTrain, the business development company in the Zingerman’s family of businesses, with much of his success, he says. “We wouldn’t be here, probably, if it weren’t for ZingTrain.” He calls himself a “servant-leader,” and encourages his staff to develop their potential.
“Like I did on my cheese sabbatical, I encourage my employees to take the time to find out what they really want to do,” he says. “I say, ‘If you want to take the summer off to go intern at a cheese plant, you can do that.’ I keep a current list of cheesemakers seeking interns available at all times.”
Bienert qualified for the American Cheese Society’s Certified Cheese Professional accreditation a couple of years ago, he says, and he’s encouraging his staff to pursue that, too, if they’re interested. “I have some staff people who’ve been with me for five years, and some of them came to me with no cheese experience, but now they’ve fallen in love with cheese. I’ve been in the business for 16 years, but I like to be a good ‘servant-leader’ and lead by example. The accreditation has definitely opened some doors for me.”
Bienert got his start when he was just 19, working for Barbara Horn at her Des Moines shop, Wine Experience, which closed in 2006. “The shop was ahead of the curve and it had a great cheese counter, but in those days, there wasn’t a plethora of web sites or cheese information out there like there is today,” Bienert, now 34, says. “Barbara said then, ‘This is a growing industry.’ And today I tell my employees the same thing — cheese is a growing industry.”
Bienert enthusiastically works to help Des Moines help the cheese industry grow. Classes and samplings at Cheese Shop aid in the growth. “We do classes at the cheese shop once a week, on Mondays,” he says. “They’re themed — things like wine and cheese pairing, cheese 101, cheese 2.0, comparing wine vs. beer for pairings, things like that.” Somewhat to his surprise, the classes have become much more than he expected. “When we first started six years ago, we thought the classes would be just marketing, but they also promote revenue. We seat 25 people, oftentimes sell out and sometimes have people standing for the whole class. We make money on our classes.”
His customers have been appreciative, he says, and that keeps his own enthusiasm revved up. “It excites me that people are that interested in good cheese,” he says.
He recognizes that his store occupies a very special niche, but that’s part of its strength.
“I used Europe as our model and travel to Europe annually. We visit cheese shops and independent retailers, and they have a niche that larger stores can’t provide,” Bienert says.
As examples, he says, “Our main competitor would be grocery stores, but they don’t have our relationship with producers. We’ll drive nine hours to pick up a cheese from the producer on our day off, turn around and drive nine hours home again, just so that cheese will be in perfect condition when we get it to the shop.
“We also do products from La Quercia,” Bienert says of the Iowa company that produces prize-winning domestic prosciuttos and other salumi. “Large stores have a hard time doing things like the hand-carving of a full prosciutto with the hoof still attached, and then giving it proper care. But again, that’s something we can do. It’s not only theatrical and looks cool, it’s also tasty.” There’s no other shop in Des Moines like his, Bienert says, “but I feel there will be more, and I encourage the competition. Again, we’ll rely on our connection with our producers.”
Marcel’s Culinary Experience a gourmet retailer and recreational cooking school in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, (Chicago suburb), has expanded its private event capabilities with the addition of a chef-driven on-site event option for individuals, businesses and other groups.
Executive Chef Paul Lindemuth, a veteran Chicago area caterer and popular instructor at Marcel’s, leads the new service, called Maison, which means “house or home” in French.
“Whether you’re planning an intimate dinner at home, a casual barbecue in your backyard, or a lavish cocktail party at your office, Maison can provide the quality and experience you’ve come to expect from Marcel’s,” he said. “These events are infinitely customizable so we can create the exact experience that our customers want.”
Maison differentiates itself by doing all cooking at the event location, where hosts and guests are invited to observe and interact with the chef. “It’s like a chef’s table in a restaurant,” Lindemuth said.
The Maison team can provide whatever’s required – including arranging for rental dishes, glassware, or tables and chairs – or they can use items provided by the host. Maison can also arrange for extras such as flowers and favors for guests.
In addition to preparing and serving food and beverages, the Maison team cleans up. “By doing it all, we let the hosts focus on their guests and not the kitchen,” he said. Each event is custom-designed by Lindemuth, along with other Marcel’s/Maison chefs Brandy Fernow, Robin Nathan and Julie Szimon.
For more information, contact Lindemuth at 630.790.8500 or paul(at)marcelsculinaryexperience.com.