On Friday night, an American icon returned to his roots and reminded many of us, merely by his presence, that commerce and community go hand-in-hand, and that bigness isn’t always bad.
Chuck Williams wore his 98 years elegantly and serenely as he joined more than 150 friends and admirers for the Sonoma Community Center’s annual Muse banquet, at Ramekins, a particularly special celebration because, in many ways, Williams has been America’s culinary muse.
In the 1950s, when the country was marching into middle-class prosperity, the average housewife or amateur chef was stuck with what Williams called “lousy equipment.”
Chuck changed all that, thanks to an impeccable sense of style and taste, along with an excellent palate. He brought us soufflé molds, sauté pans and real, hefty chef’s knives. He brought us an awareness, in other words, of the range of tools used by Europeans – principally the French – whose cooking horizons stretched far beyond the limited culinary imaginations of most Americans.
And he anchored that awareness in this small California town long before we became known as the epicenter of a new American romance with food and wine.
Back then, Dijon mustard was a novelty and Le Creuset might have been the name of a witch’s cauldron, if you happened to speak French.
His Sonoma success drove Chuck Williams to San Francisco, but he had the foresight – or perhaps just the gut instinct – to keep the original store’s name, with the word Sonoma, even while expanding exponentially in a far bigger city.
The wisdom of that decision flowed in both directions; it bestowed on the kitchenware store a phonetically-pleasing, emotionally-fulfilling brand name and image, and it bestowed on Sonoma, the town, a priceless association with sophisticated food.
Marketing genealogists of the future may well trace the ever-expanding branches of the Sonoma brand back to the taproot planted by Chuck Williams at 603 Broadway in 1956. It’s an association many here embrace because, despite its expanding international presence and its massive size (Williams-Sonoma with its Pottery Barn division has more than 550 stores) there remains an internal integrity of style, function and purpose to the company, its retail outlets and its products.
An historical aside – Chuck’s step up onto the treadmill of growth and expansion was almost thwarted when, in 1972, he approached Wells-Fargo for a business loan and they almost turned him down because he had no credit rating. One of America’s most successful retail entrepreneurs had never before borrowed any money.
We are delighted that the company has returned to its roots and we can’t help noting that, had Chuck been able to find a storefront directly on the Plaza, instead of a block south, this homecoming would have been blocked by the city’s formula store ordinance.
Auspiciously, the day before Chuck Williams was honored by the Community Center, the Sonoma Planning Commission gave unanimous approval for the comnpany’s plans to restore the original homesite, complete with a snall retail store, a museum, café and cooking school.
To which we’ll simply add, welcome home, Chuck, it’s an honor to have you back.