In cities like Seattle, the aspirational kitchens of young cooks have small footprints and shrunken appliances.
SEATTLE — For many, the American dream kitchen has long been a grand showplace, filled with granite islands that stretch like aircraft carriers through a sea of shining appliances.
But in the urban-technology centers that have become the nation’s new factory towns, the kitchen gold standard glorified in design magazines and lovingly ogled in Nancy Meyers movies is being redefined. In cities like this one, where Amazon plans to fill 10 million square feet of office space, the aspirational kitchens of young cooks have small footprints and shrunken appliances.
The microkitchen, stocked with expensive blenders, elaborate coffee makers and professional-quality knives, suits digital workers who eat free at work or take their meals in homey but globally influenced restaurants in their apartment buildings. Dinner may come from one of a dozen app-based delivery services, either as a fully prepared chef’s special or a meal kit that requires cooking but not much chopping.
That does not mean no one is cooking. Food has become a cultural touchstone, and what and how one eats are as important to some people in their 20s and early 30s as certain genres of music or film were to previous generations.
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“We are kind of a showoff generation, and food very much matters, especially when you are around other people,” said Jolee Nebert, 22, a student of industrial design at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Last year, she packed a fully functioning kitchen into a 6-foot-long unit and won a design competition held at General Electric’s experimental factory in Louisville, Ky.
“People are willing to shrink the square footage of their kitchen for more versatility and more open space to entertain guests,” Nebert said. “It’s about packing more into less space.”
To be sure, apartment dwellers in big cities like New York, Paris and Tokyo have coped for ages with tiny kitchens as a matter of necessity, not choice. But these microkitchens are now being embraced by a group of early adopters who could easily afford much larger ones, and whose culinary preferences could shape kitchen design for years to come.
The transformation is playing out most vividly in the technology corridors of several American cities, where developers and real-estate agents say condominiums and apartments designed with well-equipped minikitchens are being sought by young people whose food expenditures are surpassed only by their rent.
A year ago, Danny Rodichok, 31, and Christina Bruce, 28, moved into an 860-square-foot apartment with a kitchen not much bigger than a king-size bed, on the 23rd floor of the Via6 apartment building in downtown Seattle. Amazon is building its world headquarters across the street. They pay $3,379 a month in rent.
He works on his energy startup, called Green Kite, from home and she commutes to a sales job for Procter & Gamble. They eat at a coffee table in the living room.
There is a large pot of homemade soup in the refrigerator and pork chops in the freezer, but they make daily trips to the juice and coffee bar on the ground floor of their building, which also has a Japanese restaurant and a small grocery store called Home Remedy. It sells ecologically friendly laundry soap, Asian condiments, eight styles of salt and frozen lamb potpies alongside fresh pizza and a salad bar. Rodichok calls it “an overpriced hipster 7-Eleven.”
This was their first Thanksgiving together at home, and they wanted to cook for friends, so they hauled their food and some cooking equipment to the building’s large communal kitchen, designed by Tom Douglas, a chef who also runs the restaurants on the ground floor. It comes equipped with gas burners powerful enough to accommodate woks, and Internet-ready cameras so the whole meal can be recorded and shared.
“The kitchen table at my grandmother’s house was the center of the universe,” Rodichok said. “To be honest, I really miss that. But when I get in the elevator and go down to the first floor, I have that ‘going into the family kitchen’ kind of feeling in a very urban, Seattle way.”
The building was designed for a Zipcar generation that embraces a sharing economy, said Matt Griffin, the Seattle developer who came up with the concept for Via6. “Life becomes having access to it but not necessarily owning it,” he said. “If your kitchen is efficient, it doesn’t need to be that big. Bigger just wears you out.”
In Chicago, Sam Jenkins, a real-estate consultant, is selling condominiums in Logan Square for $300,000 to $600,000 with kitchens that have been squeezed down to make more space for entertaining and for the bigger bedrooms that many millennials prefer.
“Where is my dining table going to go is a nonissue because no one wants one anymore,” he said. “There’s less of a focus on ‘Look at my triple-wide Sub-Zero.’ ”
Appliance makers like General Electric, Miele and Bosch report rising demand for stoves that have been shaved by 6 inches, dishwashers a mere 18 inches wide and refrigerators that are set inside drawers. Sales of Miele’s 24-inch speed ovens, designed to cook food more quickly than standard ovens, have risen 37 percent since 2012. Sales of smaller convection ovens jumped 65 percent in that time, said Kathrin Pfeifer, the product manager for the company’s cooking appliances.
Although older buyers accounted for about three-quarters of the $6.2 billion spent last year on steamers, espresso makers and other small appliances, millennials were the only demographic group who bought more of them than they did a year earlier, according to the NPD Group, which studies consumer spending.
“If you look at the purchases among millennials, you see a picture of people trying to get more freshness out of these small kitchens quicker,” said Darren Cypher, a food and beverage industry analyst at NPD.
Among America’s millennial generation, classified generally as the 60 million people ages 18-34, cooking is not viewed as a daily chore but as one of several ways to eat on any given day, said Laurie Demeritt, the chief executive of the Hartman Group, which studies trends for the food industry.
They like their meals to be healthful and authentic, but they cook only when the mood strikes. “I wouldn’t underestimate how engaged this generation is in food and cooking,” Demeritt said. “They are approaching cooking as a choice, which makes it more fun and whimsical and desirable.”
Granted, the tiny-kitchen movement is getting an assist from baby boomers who are selling the large suburban homes where their children were raised and buying places in cities, but they are a different kind of customer.
“A lot of the empty nesters still want the kitchen and an island,” said Alan Mark, who helps develop and sell condominiums in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Seattle. For certain well-paid younger buyers, he and others said, it’s all about quality with a small footprint. “It’s almost like a glorified dorm room,” he said, “but they have amenities.”
Lou Lenzi, the design director for GE’s appliance business, agreed. “Higher-density living is coming on pretty strongly among knowledge workers,” he said. New, smaller kitchens make old-fashioned big ones look as if they need to “go on a diet.”
Jimmy Douglas, 30, who manages digital marketing for Smarsh, a financial-services company in San Francisco, hopes to move into his new $600,000 condominium in the Hayes Valley neighborhood in March. It has a tiny kitchen, which will suit him and his girlfriend perfectly.
“Eating is our favorite activity, but it’s not like we’re the couple going to Costco and stocking up on weeks’ worth of food,” he said.
Instead, they buy fresh ingredients in small quantities several times a week. It allows them to be more spontaneous about what they might have for dinner, whether they eat in or go out. “I put a lot of value in having a low-maintenance lifestyle,” he said.
The novelty of a small kitchen may well change once the millennials start families, although the group is delaying that longer than previous generations, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“In the future I could see myself in the market for a place with a larger kitchen,” Douglas said. “But now my priority is to spend the majority of my time enjoying myself when I’m not working or traveling, which is a lot of the time.”