We recently travelled to Paris seeking new product and new vendors. Over the last few years we have seen a steady decrease in quality products from quality name brands. Good people from these manufacturers had been let go due to the economy. Product delivery and service was in disarray. We needed new relationships.
Before our travels a good friend/client came into the store bringing along some fantastic muffins, as usual. (Note to prospective clients: good muffins will always cause an immediate discount on your account.) She picked out an 8” stainless steel butterfly spatula. “This is made in China,” she said. “I don’t like buying things from China.” We then explained that most of our kitchen stainless was now being manufactured in Vietnam or China but we were going to Paris to look for new product. Including, evidently, an 8” stainless steel butterfly spatula made in France.
An email followed with a few more requests. She had a worn apron- the last of a series of aprons purchased in Paris in 1972. “Much used, tattered, and loved aprons of thick cotton last purchased at Samaritan in Paris. Can you find more of these?”
And then there was the note.
Our client was heading to Paris in the late 1960s looking for good food, good cookware and utensils. Back then there was no Williams-Sonoma, no Sur la Table, and certainly no Unicahome. There was, however, Julia Child. Ms. Child gladly wrote back when asked where to find the best in Paris. “Excellent Batterie de la Cuisine,” she typed, adding handwritten comments.
When we arrived in Paris we had a few days’ work at the Maison et Objet trade show. The only artisan-based items we saw were a series of hand forged knives from Japan, retailing at $900. There was, however, a day to explore Paris searching with Julia Child.
The majority of the addresses given were situated around Les Halles, the central market of Paris which was summarily disassembled in 1971 and now consists of a park, a few excellent eateries nearby, a transit hub, and a mall.
Our first stop, for lunch, was Au Pied de Cochon, a Les Halles area restaurant open since 1946 which never closes. Famous for their French onion soup and pork ‘parts’, the restaurant looks more like a giant billboard than a traditional brasserie. Au Pied de Cochon of 2010, is a far cry from the restaurant in 1971, and is now owned by the Groupe Freres Blanc which proudly has over 30 restaurants and brasseries under their moniker. Fluctuating between a tourist trap and a classic eating venue, the food is good but the atmosphere is lifeless, and the service is non-existent. We were, however, sandwiched between two young French lovers eating and gazing and two older ladies swilling champagne and slurping oysters while we sat drinking overpriced Brouilly. The Temptation de Saint Antoine (a.k.a. “parts”) was calling, however, and we ate. And left.
Just down the road, at 18 Rue de Coquillere, was Dehillerin. Dehillerin was exactly as imagined, an imposing family business packed to the gills with cooking supplies of all types. The staff was helpful; the cookware excellent, but the French spatulas were cheap and inferior. Their aprons were flimsy and white- certainly no defense against grease. We were expecting to be awed; exposed to cooking utensils which we had never before seen, of a quality we could never have imagined. Charlie and his uncle in the Chocolate Factory. The majority of product selection, however, could be found in almost any specialized department or cookware shop. It is quite possible that deep within the bowels of the building there is some primo batterie- we just did not have the golden ticket for access.
Which brings up Ms. Child’s last suggestion: Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville- which is now BHV, one of the major department stores in Paris. A quick search of the other upscale department stores such as Galerie Lafayette and Bon Marche turned up similar selections of brand name items.
What about the apron? Samaritan has been closed and the Halles-Villette address (which was once the location of the abattoirs of Paris) is now also a park developed during the Mitterand era. Nevertheless, we found a similar apron in thick sturdy cotton, made in France, in a French department store. The search was long, however, and it appeared that only one manufacturer of quality aprons was available in Paris amongst Ms. Child’s resources.
Once back in New York, we took a quick tour around an unnamed US chain of kitchen supplies. The aprons at the chain confirmed what we heard from our client- flimsy and cheap, the aprons were white label product from China and India.
So what did we learn with Julia?
In the beginning the major specialty suppliers of cooking goods in France were situated around places where demand ruled- the markets and abattoirs (slaughterhouses). Distribution channels in France were changing, however, and the concept of health was as well. The markets closed and moved or fragmented.
Williams-Sonoma’s (founded in 1956) concept was to provide high-quality cooking items from France which were relatively unavailable Stateside. The idea of gourmet home cuisine was in its infancy here in the US. Competition developed along the trail blazed by WS and diversification of the company (and product) was needed. With competition came profit margin issues- from retailers and suppliers alike. Some family brands became publicly traded corporations- where the bottom line is king and a profit slightly lower than projection can cause stock value to tumble.
In the last ten years many manufacturers have decided that cost and market share were the decisive factors. An increase in market share demanded lower prices and with that, lower quality. Many brands looked towards larger distribution among retail chains. National pride was farmed out to manufacturers overseas. Most manufacturers did not extend lower pricing to their clients for established products- only for new introductions. More clients were able to afford the newer product, however, and business boomed as the economy soared. The problem, however, was that the quality which we had seen a decade ago had tarnished- and clients accepted this tailored and compromised quality as bona fide. A dilution the gourmet store concept also occurred as products such as drink and cake mixes began to pop up in the retailers- with increased margins at heart. Other retailers in the design industry went so far as to cross the line between authentic designs and inexpensive under-the-table knock-offs, deliberately misleading their clients, all in the name of profit.
So what about the present? As we pull out of the recession there should be a step back before manufacturers, retailers, and clients move forward. Manufacturers need to understand that diversification of a brand may not be the intelligent solution for long-term growth. We need to support the idea of quality production along with stable, long-term business growth. Not at the expense of our clients. At the same time, however, clients need to be better educated about product and their choices. There is no reason why a client should settle for lower quality. Like Au Pied de Cochon, everything looks as expected but there is something missing from that experience. Our job is to enable that better experience for our clients. Honestly.
This is a great time for new companies to build a brand. New York and Paris had numerous small manufacturing and design companies with great promise. A long time ago Julia Child assisted someone who searched for something better halfway across the world. We should do no less.
Unicahome.com was founded in 1998 by Hugh and Bonnie Fogel. Featuring over 65,000 products, Unicahome.com is a complete lifestyle store for home, office and contract use featuring Bridal Registry, Furniture, Lighting, Accessories, Barware, Food and Great Gifts from noted designers and top brands sourced worldwide. Our 18,000 square foot store is located in Las Vegas, Nevada, just minutes away from the world famous Las Vegas Strip. We hope you enjoyed your visit to Unicaworld!