Michelle Hespe catches up with Bianca Bonte, the managing director and founder of Kookwinkel Bianca Bonte, and discovers a charmingly rustic, modern cookware store in the Netherlands that pays homage to its surroundings.
At the 2014 Global Innovation Awards (gia) held in Chicago in March, Kookwinkel Bianca Bonte, a store lovingly run by Bianca Bonte in the city of Oostburg for 25 years, was upheld as one of the most innovative stores in the world. A jury of editors and retail experts from around the world chose the store, alongside five others, to showcase the finest in modern retailing. And Bianca could not have been more surprised. “As a member of Gemengde Branche, the Dutch organization for retail entrepreneurs, I regularly receive the Gemengde Branche magazine,” she said. “And in it, I’ve read a lot about gia. All of the winners in the Netherlands are well-established names, so the thought of becoming a gia honoree never even crossed my mind! I just didn’t think my little store was on that same level.”
The judges certainly thought differently, and the loyal following that Bianca and her dedicated staff have amassed over the years also believe that Kookwinkel Bianca Bonte stands out from the rest.
One of the many reasons that the quirky store is different is because it lovingly and cleverly absorbs the character and heritage of the area around it – a port city, in an industrial, working-class area. Bianca recently renovated the store for an expansion and a fresh look that harks back to days gone by. Using industrial elements synonymous with the port area, such as shipping container doors, corrugated iron sheets, exposed brick walls, rough and ready textures, concrete and warm wood floors, and even an old, large, free-standing stove, Bianca has created a space which one could easily see housing a funky New York advertising agency or a cool menswear boutique in an artistic Parisian neighborhood. And that’s exactly what Bianca had in mind when she designed her store and finessed its style, giving it a rustic, well-loved, look. “I sought inspiration in the latest cool restaurants and boutiques,” she says. “But it was also about making the place seem homely, and we have so many online stores now with which we have to compete, so we had to put more emphasis on ambience and personal interaction. People love being here in the store. They feel comfortable and welcome.”
The process of entering gia for Bianca was one that highlighted the many aspects of how she has run her business for a quarter of a century. “It is a good experience, looking at yourself and your business through a magnifying glass,” she said in retrospect. “Entering gia was a time for great learning, and many ideas for the future of the business leapt up from it. Even if you are not aiming for a gia award, I certainly recommend, to other retail entrepreneurs, taking a critical look at your business once in a while, because there is always room for improvement.”
Bianca may have room for improvement, but on the night of the gia awards dinner, all of her efforts and what she has done so far paid off. “I didn’t expect to win at all! Seeing my name appear on the big screen sent me into a daze. It all went so fast, and I was so excited, that my memory of all that happened after my name was called out is blurred,” she said with a laugh.
Immediately after receiving the Global Honoree award, the gia Netherlands corporate sponsor Boska (a specialist in cheese tools) and Bianca posted the store’s success on FaceBook. “A press release was sent to local and national newspapers and press agencies, and these actions generated enormous response,” she says. “A radio journalist called me when I was still in Chicago, and I did a live interview for national radio. Lots of my customers also contacted me to send their congratulations.”
The day after the gia dinner, Bianca started planning a party for her customers, family and friends, and as a homage to the great experience she had in the US, she planned an American-themed party. “But to my surprise, friends and employees back at home had already done so!” she says with another delighted laugh. “Winning this award 25 years after I started my store certainly is the icing on the cake for me, and for my staff.”
However it wasn’t all about the awards for the small team that travelled to the U.S. They all took advantage of the business trip and had a great time in Chicago, seeking inspiration everywhere they went. “Not only did we explore the International Home + Housewares Show with great enthusiasm, but we also treated ourselves to all that Chicago has to offer,” said Bianca. “We shopped, dined, saw the sights, went to nightclubs and took spa treatments. We loved it! We experienced the ‘American Way’, and some of it we took home, hoping we can translate some of the things we saw and experienced into Dutch equivalents.”
So the question is, with a gia under its belt, where to now for Kookwinkel Bianca Bonte? “Well, this year we celebrate the store’s 25th together with the gia award, its double festivities the whole year through! The gia logo has been added to my own logo and is visual on most printed and digital media and other corporate identity items. Our gia award itself has a prominent place in the store, and publications writing about our award have increased, and as a result, we are receiving lots of new visitors both from far away and nearby.”
But nothing has changed in Bianca’s approach to selling her wonderful cookware. She is still a business owner focusing on selling great products to her loyal customers. “I love selling high quality products to those who love to cook and bake,” she says. “That gives me joy each and every day.”
And after all the hype and the new business that it has created, Bianca has a message for anyone considering entering gia: “What are you waiting for? Go for it! As someone who has experienced it, the whole experience of being there in Chicago and participating in gia was something we’ll never forget and always treasure.”
For more information about the gia (Global Innovation Award) program, the co-sponsors, or participating in 2014-2015, 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 2015 Show, taking place in Chicago on March 7-10, 2015, please visit www.housewares.org.