He’s an American icon, a man credited with changing the American kitchen – a man who’s won every culinary award imaginable.
He’s hobnobbed with Julia Child and James Beard. He’s dined with cookbook author Marion Cunningham and knife magnate Wolfgang Wusthof. And he’s appeared on television with Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and others.
Charles E. Williams, known as “Chuck” to the world, has built an empire from his love of cooking and made Williams-Sonoma, the company he founded, a household name.
And while it should be obvious, not everyone knows that Chuck Williams’ dream started here in this small town almost 70 years ago – a town that captured his attention and his heart.
“It seemed natural to select Chuck Williams as our 2013 Muse,” said Toni Castrone, executive director of the Sonoma Community Center. “In the past two years, we’ve completed the Rotary Kitchen and expanded our culinary programming. It was the right time.”
The event, which annually honors a historic or iconic figure related to Sonoma, will take place on Friday, Oct. 11, at Ramekins Culinary and Event Center. When it first opened, Williams, who is now 97, was present to give it a good start.
His own start came many years earlier, at a time when the town had a population of 2,500 and a hardware store came on the market.
“Three Sonoma Business Firms Have New Owners,” said the Index-Tribune’s front-page headline on Oct. 15, 1953, with small stories about three new merchants. One of them was Chuck Williams, who was pictured holding a stack of boxes with cluttered hardware store shelves in the background. The story said he’d come to Sonoma as “a guest of friends at Sonoma Golf Course and immediately fell in love with the area and has made it his home since.”
The story went on to say that he planned to “expand the business operated by Ralph Morse for five years.”
Expand he did. Chuck knew all about remodeling. He liked to work with his hands and build things. After returning home after World War II, he’d helped a friend in Porterville build a home and remodel others and decided to become a building contractor. It was 1947 when he settled in Sonoma, and during the next six years he built three houses here, which he sold. All are still standing today.
But becoming a merchant appealed to him more than home-building. Having grown up during the Great Depression, he wanted to engage in a business that had more stability. The hardware store, built in front of a house, could be turned into smaller spaces, providing rental income, and the house could be his residence.
One of his remodeling efforts nearly caused him serious injury.
“Chuck Williams Escapes Injury as Fumes Explode in Kitchen in Store,” read the headline in the February, 1956 edition of the Index-Tribune. The fire department, just across the street, arrived in record time. Chuck, who was using a binding cement to install a sink top, was unaware of its flammability and the fumes, ignited by a pilot light in a heater, caused the fire. He was unhurt, but the “resulting explosion smashed all the dishes and glasses, burned all the cabinets, broke the ceiling plaster and shattered kitchen windows. “The damage estimate was several hundred dollars.
Undaunted, he made his repairs and finished the work. When completed, he rented spaces to a beautician and a florist, and kept enough space for his own use. But then he needed more space, not for the hardware store, but to put in place an idea born of a trip to Europe that was starting to germinate in his mind.
Williams had always enjoyed cooking. His grandmother had operated a restaurant in Ohio and had taught him how to make pies and other basic dishes. He maintained his interest and had collected recipes that he tinkered with to make them his own. But he’d not taken his interest to the level of a business – not yet.
Just prior to his purchase of the hardware store, he‘d taken a trip to Europe, invited by a Swedish friend, an electrician who was a fellow Mason.
Williams, whose father was a Mason and whose mother had been in Eastern Star, had joined Masonic Temple #14 of Sonoma, soon after his arrival in town.
He is often quoted in interviews as having said that the trip to Europe, which lasted a few months, opened his eyes to the wonders of the French kitchen, and the deficiencies of the American one.
In a 2009 interview that appeared in The Mason, Williams is quoted as saying, “Professional chefs always had quality equipment, but there was a perception that the home market just wasn’t ready for it.” He said the ordinary home in France had quality cookware, but in America only professional chefs had access to good tools.
He decided it was time for a change.
The first Williams-Sonoma shop opened at 605 Broadway in the former Ralph Morse Hardware Store on Sept. 15, 1956. His ad in the Index-Tribune said, “Chuck Williams announces the opening of a new store, Williams-Sonoma, with a complete and carefully selected stock of domestic and imported Housewares, China and Glass, Gifts and a Gourmet Shop.” Under each heading was an effusive description of his offerings. The ad also depicted his logo, a pineapple, designed by a local artist.
True to his dream, he carried quality kitchenware. His ad listed “Revereware, Mirro pots and pans, Descoware, French Vallauris earthenware casseroles, Finnish and Swedish ovenware, Bazar Francais imports and a full assortment of kitchen equipment and gadgets for the most discriminating Sonoma culinary artists.” He also carried cocktail and wine glasses, something not often found in shops even in the’50s.
“Dinnerware by leading designers and manufacturers both American and European” were also advertised as were “traditional and contemporary styles in serving pieces and correct table accessories.” Adding to his inventory were table linens and aprons, and a complete line of foodstuffs and seasonings he called “delightful, exotic, the most.”
Presentation was also important. He arranged his products in a methodical, practical way to show them off, doing little things like lining up pots with the handles all pointing in one direction. He painted his walls white to show off the stock, and he advertised – not just in his local paper, but in the New Yorker magazine.
Soon the little store on Broadway became a popular stop for serious cooks and too small to carry the inventory he wanted. Friends advised him to find a spot in San Francisco, and he did – reluctantly, but it was a wise move.
His closing notice in the Index-Tribune said simply, “Williams-Sonoma, 605 Broadway, Sonoma, is now Williams-Sonoma, 576 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Kitchen, house and giftwares selected from the best available in Europe and America. San Francisco’s newest store devoted to the fine arts of cooking and hospitality.”
The man who grew up in Florida, whose family lived in several states while trying to survive the Depression, who learned about retailing while working as a teen at Sniff’s Date Garden in Indio and in the I. Magnin complex in Los Angeles – became an immediate success.
Chuck’s first love – cooking – never waned. He perfected his recipes and, in 1986, published his first, “The Williams-Sonoma Cookbook with a Guide to Kitchenware.” Chuck has written or edited more than 100 cookbooks, including the best-selling “Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library” series.
Today, Williams-Sonoma has more than 250 stores, has test kitchens, and an online and mail-order catalogue that has been produced since 1972. Williams incorporated the business the same year, and in 1978 sold much of it to the late Howard Lester, who became chairman of the board and ran the company. Williams maintained his position as buyer and made sure displays were meticulous and appropriate to the company’s image. Outgrowing the Sutter Street site, the home of Williams-Sonoma is now 340 Post Street, San Francisco, where it’s been since 2003.
The store that held Chuck’s first business is still intact, and Williams-Sonoma recently bought it back and is going through the planning process. Down the street from the Plaza where chains are banned, Sonoma may once again have a tiny taste of the store that started here.
But its purpose will be two-fold: to honor the man who had a vision and thought American cooks deserved better choices, and to show the world that the American dream is alive and well in Sonoma.
If you want to join the Community Center Oct. 11 in honoring Chuck Williams, merchant, check the center’s website at sonomacommunitycenter.org. Health permitting, he plans to be there.