Once upon a time in America, soufflés fell flat and pasta lacked oomph. Drab kitchens had pots, pans and knives from a department store. Who knew Calphalon from Le Creuset? Or Wuesthof from Sabatier? Garlic presses, slicers, timers, thermometers? It was just meat and potatoes, plunked on a table.
But in 1956, Chuck Williams, a carpenter-gourmet, opened a French cookware shop in Sonoma, California. The timing was fortuitous. Americans were beginning to think about food as more than sustenance. With James Beard’s books for inspiration and Julia Child’s coaching on television, French cuisine was infiltrating the creative kitchen. But high-quality tools, condiments and stylish touches were missing.
Eventually, what became Williams-Sonoma – a retail home furnishings and mail-order giant, with more than 600 stores under its corporate umbrella and $4.7 billion in net revenue – transformed many kitchens into gleaming, efficient refectories hung with copper pots and stashed with pleated soufflé molds, garlic presses and carbon steel knives. It made it possible for ordinary cooks to get serious, and serious cooks to put epicurean repasts on the table.
Williams, who sold the company in 1978 but remained its public face, producing cookbooks and catalogs, operating a test-kitchen and traveling to promote Williams-Sonoma and select merchandise, died in his sleep Saturday at his home in San Francisco, the company announced. He was 100. No cause was given.
“He built a powerful brand that inspired a cultural revolution around food and had immeasurable impact on home and family life around the world,” the company said in a statement.
A soft-spoken, unassuming and jovial millionaire, Williams was the author of more than 200 cookbooks that sold tens of millions of copies and oversaw catalogs delivered to millions of homes. In recent years, he cut back his travels and no longer selected the products. But he drove most days from his Russian Hill apartment to the company headquarters near Fisherman’s Wharf, took tea in the afternoons and loved to reminisce, especially about his discoveries.
One day – it was about 1984, he thought – he was having a whiskey with a friend at the Hotel Hassler in Rome. Water was served in a colorful mug shaped like a chicken, he told The Gourmet Retailer in 2004. He was amused, intrigued, and sought out the maker. Chicken jugs have been sold in America ever since. “I’ve always been attracted to items that have an interesting story to them,” he said.
Charles Edward Williams, who always used his nickname, was born on Oct. 2, 1915, in Jacksonville, Florida, one of two children of Charles and Marie Shaw Williams. His parents were often absent, and his earliest memories were of his maternal grandmother, Leona Shaw, who had once owned a restaurant in Lima, Ohio. She taught him a lot about cooking – working without recipes or measures, making pies and mayonnaise, learning to trust his taste and his judgment – which provided a few happy memories from a hard childhood.
The father’s auto-repair shop went bankrupt in the Depression. He moved the family to California, then abandoned them. Chuck’s older sister, Marie, was hit by a baseball and killed at 19. And after his mother returned to Florida, the boy, abruptly on his own, got work on a date ranch in Palm Springs and went to high school. He later became a window-dresser at a Los Angeles department store.
A thyroid condition kept him out of military service in World War II, but he got a job at Lockheed and worked for four years as an airplane mechanic in East Africa and India. Returning to Los Angeles, he and two friends took a golf trip to the old mission town of Sonoma, 35 miles north of San Francisco, and he fell in love with it. He settled there in 1947, built a home and began renovating houses for other people.
In 1953, Williams went to Europe, spending two weeks in Paris restaurants and kitchen supply shops. He was fascinated by the food and equipment, which was available to any French cook. There were heavy sauté pans, huge stockpots, fish poachers, bakeware, bains-marie, superior knives in many sizes and an array of cutting, dicing and grating tools. And there were pantry items: balsamic vinegar, olive oils, sea salt, exotic peppercorns, Madagascar vanilla and Italian pastas, all but unknown in U.S. kitchens.
Back in Sonoma, he bought an old hardware store, remodeled it and stocked it with items he had seen in Paris, most of them unavailable outside restaurant supply stores in this country. He paid close attention to displays and effusively answered customers’ questions. Many San Franciscans had vacation homes in sleepy Sonoma, and business was good. He grossed $35,000 the first year.
He moved to San Francisco in 1958 and opened Williams-Sonoma on Sutter Street. The store was a sensation, and he handled it himself: building shelves, doing the books, fixing plumbing, traveling to Europe, ordering merchandise, wrapping packages, even sweeping the sidewalk. What customers found inside were racks of gleaming copperware, crystal stemware, imported pastas, hundreds of items and a proprietor who seemed to know everything about French cooking.
“He had tremendous style in everything he did,” Jeremiah Tower, the chef who owned San Francisco’s elegant Stars restaurant, recalled. “It was almost like going to shop in some friend’s kitchen.”
In the early 1960s, Julia Childs’ cookbooks and TV shows helped business; she became a friend. So did James Beard, the dean of cooking in America, who helped spread the word. A regular customer who wrote copy for an advertising agency suggested a mail-order catalog, and in 1971 the first went out to a mailing list of 5,000.
Anyone could open a charge account. The sales people were patient, attentive and knowledgeable about the merchandise. Williams began annual trips to Europe to buy items many Americans now take for granted – choppers and mixers, lemon zesters, stainless steel whisks, silicone spatulas, sauté pans, bakeware, olive oil spritzers, pepper mills with steel grinders.
In 1972, after 16 years in business, Williams realized that one store was not enough. He took on a group of partners. It was a mistake. By 1977, the company had five stores in affluent communities and a mail-order distribution center but was losing money. To grow further, Williams realized, would require real business expertise, not the good taste and techniques he relied upon. He decided to sell out.
W. Howard Lester, who had made a fortune in computers, bought Williams-Sonoma in 1978 for a reported $250,000. Williams was retained to buy merchandise and oversee catalogs, and served as chairman until 1986, then as vice chairman and finally as director emeritus.
The company went public in 1983 and evolved into a home furnishings business that includes Pottery Barn, PBteen, Pottery Barn Kids, West Elm and Williams-Sonoma Home, in addition to seven direct-mail catalogs and six websites.
Williams, who had no immediate survivors, served on the boards of the Culinary Institute of America and the American Institute of Wine and Food. He won many honors, including the James Beard Foundation’s lifetime achievement award, and created many scholarships through the culinary institute and other organizations.