Carol Bromel opened her kitchen store in Laurelhurst in 1976 and moved to University Village a few years later. ‘People always need to cook and eat,’ she says of her success.
PEOPLE ALWAYS ask Carol Bromel whether she has a passion for cooking.
Not exactly. It’s a passion for cookware.
The utility and beauty of a ceramic pie plate, the balanced heft of a chef’s knife, the retro designs of a new casserole dish, the infinite variety of metal cookie-cutters — all have contributed to her long-lived business.
Her University Village store, Mrs. Cook’s, celebrated its 40th anniversary in October, thriving despite competition from massively discounted online sellers, big-box stores and high-end chains whose aprons hold far deeper pockets.
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Cooking “wasn’t fashion-driven” when Bromel opened her doors, back when French and Italian foods were considered Seattle’s most exotic cuisines. Tools exist now that no one could have imagined in 1976, with gadgets following trends (recent addition: a kale stripper to remove the thick central rib from kale leaves). The fundamentals of her shelves are still the same, though, from wineglasses to cake stands. The stovetop coffee percolator is about the only item she can think of from the 1970s that’s no longer around.
“Fondue pots — they were hot when I got married, then they kind of went out of fashion, now they’re back.”
What helped the 3,000-square-foot shop survive, when others with equally dazzling rainbows of Le Creuset cookware and shelves of saute pans and almost as many cookie-cutters did not?
In some ways, it’s the fact that independence has its advantages, too.
Bromel has retained a loyal staff that’s well-educated on the details of every item it stocks; old-timers include a manager hired in 1983, now selling kitchen tools to the children of her original customers.
“I really stress that whoever is on the floor helping customers has the power to make decisions about whatever it is they need to make a decision about.” The policy staffers rely on is: “We want the people to be happy.” This plays out in features like the shop’s lending library for customers to test-drive pricey tools like Vitamix blenders.
Changes in direction are nimbler for her too, she says. She’s free to stock items that can’t be scaled up to supply a national audience, like the glazed ceramic pizza stones hand-thrown by Seattle artist Margi Beyers. She was one of the first retailers to stock whole coffee beans from a small local company called Starbucks. Yet she says Mrs. Cook’s is also the nation’s top independent non-chain outlet for high-end Emile Henry cookware, a global brand based in France.
It’s a long way in some respects from the original Mrs. Cook’s, named for her husband’s grandmother, opened in a tiny Laurelhurst storefront. “We built our own shelves; we wallpapered the walls.”
A move to University Village in 1981 (an “unequaled” location, she says) and later expansion helped make it a local landmark, and it’s managed to embrace the modern age of email newsletters and online registries.
And, though online retailers offer hundreds of thousands more options than she can, “You don’t have to have a thousand gadgets to be a good cook,” she says. There’s value in the careful choices she makes to fill her limited space.
Her own personal favorites in the world of cookware? The “phenomenal” pleasures of Le Creuset, including a cerise saucepan in her own home kitchen that is “the best rice cooker on the planet.” The microplane grater. A wooden lemon reamer that she prefers to any fancy juicing device. High on her new items list is a razor-sharp Kyocera slicer that can cut vegetables paper-thin — just another one of the discoveries that have fueled her passions from the days when the last person to leave Seattle was supposed to turn out the pilot light.
“It’s always been a fun industry to be in,” she says. “It’s colorful, it’s entertaining, it brings people together. And it’s been a really steady economic force, because people always need to cook and eat.”