By Piritta Törrö, International Marketing & Business Development
Living the Life at Crocus Hill
Karl Benson and Marie Dwyer are the passionate pair behind one of five 2013 gia Global Honorees, Cooks of Crocus Hill. They share their story with Michelle Hespe – about how they got to where they are, and what they’ve been doing since they reached the top of their hill.
Cooks of Crocus Hill was one of five Global Honorees at the Global Innovation Awards (gia) this year, sponsored by the International Housewares Association and the International Home + Housewares Show, held in Chicago in March. The proud business owners know one thing for certain about their customers – that they “love this place!” Karl Benson and Marie Dwyer have heard this cry of joy from so many of their regular customers and freshly converted discoverers, that they included the ‘Love this Place!’ tagline on their choice of gift cards. And the gia jury, consisting of four globally recognized retail experts and seven editors and publishers of home and housewares trade publications from around the world, felt the same way.
Karl and Marie bought Cooks of Crocus Hill in 2008, after being involved in the business for several years already. But, there is a vast history of cooking and passion for the retail industry that came before. In 1973, Martha Kaemmer and her sister Mary Rice created Cooks, a store located in a sprawling 1,500 square foot space. Back then, there were only four employees and around 250 cooking items for sale. Mary moved on to other ventures, while Martha carried the brand forward for more than thirty years.
The company has now moved twice, added three more locations, closed one. They even opened and closed 15 shops in Marshall Field’s. Like many sustainable businesses, Cooks of Crocus Hill have grown and downsized in time with the ebb and flow of business, and they’ve always stuck to what they know best: the joy and connection that cooking fosters.
Today, Cooks of Crocus Hill, or ‘Cooks’ as its affectionately known, is not just a store that offers the best in cooking tools and accessories, but also a famous cooking school that has given birth to a loyal community with global followers. And the two people behind the operation today (with Martha still on the board) could not be more proud of the culinary haven they have created for people who share their love and passion for cooking, and all that it brings.
“For us, we love time spent in the kitchen – indoors or out. Time spent sharing meals with friends and family. It is a wonderfully intimate act of connecting our hands and our hearts. Creating experiences that we wouldn’t miss for anything in the world,” the couple states on their website.
The journey towards a gia win has been a big learning curve for Karl, who heads up the leadership and business development side of the business, and for Marie, who is in charge of the retail, branding and creative side of the business.
For 20 years, Karl has had various positions in sales, marketing and organizational development, and during the last almost 16 years he has been partner/president/owner at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul. “This company is a brand-driven, independent specialty culinary retailer and educator focused on the belief that life happens in the kitchen,” he says. He has worked with a variety of branding projects with domestic and international clients including Target/Marshall Field’s, Mayo Clinic and Staub USA.
Marie has been at the company for 19 years. She has always had an ability to understand the subtle difference between good design and fantastic design, and this intuitive awareness has contributed to a lifelong connection to design and the creative processes inherent in it. In addition to serving as a partner at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul, Marie has worked with Room and Board, Target/Marshall Field’s, Esprit and Staub USA.
Commenting just after their win at the Global Innovation Awards, the couple was momentarily lost for words. “We’ve never been to the Academy Awards, but we think it must be something like this, and we’re sure it felt just as good!” Marie said. “It was so exciting, and the anticipation was unbelievable. When our company was announced at the gala dinner, it felt like everything happened in slow motion, and we were speechless until it sunk in. It was an incredible moment.”
“We are completely involved in everything we do, because we live what we say and do every day at work,” says Karl. “Our business is our life. We work closely with farmers to sell locally grown produce to our customers. That defines us as a business, and makes us unique.”
Some companies take a more modern, shiny approach to business, but Cooks of Crocus Hill is all about reality and a focus on love and home, and presenting that reality in a beautiful way. “Our aesthetic is rustic and real,” says Marie. “We offer a full experience – not just a focus on product. We live the life we encourage – it’s what we do, every single day, constantly…foraging at the market for everything we use in the school. And the quality of everything we use and sell is legitimate – we do the testing, so we’re very confident of what we offer.”
Since winning a gia award in Chicago, where 23 stores, chosen as national winners from 22 countries around the world, competed for the five global honoree awards, Karl and Marie have been hard at work making sure that their company is more on track than ever.
“The gia win has encouraged us to double our efforts when it comes to being innovative,” explains Karl. “In today’s incredibly competitive environment, being innovative and pushing the creative side of our business is the key to sustainability. Since winning, we sent out a press release, we’ve sent copies of a great article that appeared in the highly acclaimed U.S. The Gourmet Retailer magazine, to over 50 marketing contacts, and we’ve appeared on local television shows. We also published a running commentary via our social media channels.”
Nothing, however, will change the core philosophy of Cooks, which is all about creating a life-affirming experience in the kitchen that inspires others to live the same way. “We really are what we do,” says Karl. “For many years, we pursued certain strategies because they’ve felt true to our vision and values. But when you are in business and looking for a way forward, being on the edge can sometimes feel a bit lonely. So it was nice to receive recognition and validation for all the years of hard work. We are definitely inspired to keep dancing the dance and push even harder.”
No doubt, that dance that Karl and Marie are doing will only become more innovative and exciting the more they do it, and because they love it, it is obvious in everything they say and do. “We do the work we do because it comes from the heart,” says Karl. “Our team is incredible, and we reinvent ourselves on an annual basis. We are inspired to discover and share culinary experiences. Fortunately, this presents limitless opportunity, and so we will never run out of things to share.”
For more information about the gia (Global Innovation Award) program, the co-sponsors, or participating in 2013-2014, contact Piritta Törrö at email@example.com. Additional information on the gia program is also available online at www.housewares.org/gia.
For more information about the International Home + Housewares Show and to pre-register for the 2014 Show, taking place in Chicago on March 15-18, 2014, please visit www.housewares.org.