45 years is a long time! As we start our anniversary celebration, we take a look back to where it all began with Sur La Table’s founder, Shirley Collins. From a table that’s hosted Julia Child to a unique solution to heating the store (hint: it involves rolling pins), she gives us the inside scoop on Sur La Table’s humble beginnings.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m Shirley Collins, and I started a store in the Pike Place Market that I named Sur La Table. I now live on Whidbey Island with my husband (and chickens, and donkeys, and friends and dogs and so forth).
Have you always lived here?
No, I grew up in South Texas until my early twenties. I moved to the northwest because I fell in love—with the ferries and raspberries. I’d never seen a raspberry until I moved here.
Shortly after the man that I eventually married started wooing me, he asked me to meet his family in Seattle. So I did, and his aunt served me a bowl of fresh raspberries with cream. It was just transcendent. I mean, I was just really shocked that anything could be that good. Then he took me on a ferry ride, and I said, “Okay, where do I sign?” He was very convincing.
That’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard. So everything happened because of raspberries?
Raspberries got me here. I grow them, I make raspberry liqueur… delicious.
What happened next?
I bought a printing press with a dear friend. We did invitations, gallery openings and events for about 10 years. Eventually, I decided I wanted my own business. I loved to cook, and I was working my way through Julia Child’s first book, so I thought… why not?
There wasn’t a place in Seattle at the time to buy any kind of cooking equipment—nothing. If you wanted a pastry bag or a piece of cheesecloth, you really had to go to San Francisco to get it.
You find the need first. There was no one selling Le Creuset. There were no wooden spoons. There were no French knives. There were no knives in Seattle.
Luck took me to the Market. In France, they always have a little store or booth set up near the markets that sells cooking equipment. So I got a bank loan—the first time a woman had done that on her own in Washington—and found a run-down, wretched old heap in the Market—an old speakeasy.
I hired a carpenter, my husband took two weeks off, and we pulled the rafters down—just completely redid the store. We opened on September 7, and it was so packed with stuff. I mean, it’s packed now, but it was just—you could hardly move, and everybody loved it that way. We didn’t have lights until December, which was pretty hard, but we got through.
What was it like when those doors opened?
That’s a good story. The morning I opened, the local paper wrote a story about the store. The Market (Pike Place Market) had just been saved by Friends of the Market—I was a big part of that movement—and it was just a really sweet article. This reporter was basically saying, “We need to support this woman because she’s doing a really great thing here. Everybody who loves food has to go here.” People just flocked in.
I don’t think everyone read the fine print on that, though, because I had a whole bunch of people arriving for lunch. They thought Sur La Table was a restaurant! That was okay. We all had a big laugh.
What was it like in the early days of the store?
I had such great customers. They were so wonderful. The floors were worn out within three months. People were so excited to see it, because it was unusual. It was unusual for someone in my position to do these things, and I had I wonderful, supportive husband who helped me do it. I couldn’t have done it by myself.
It was so thrilling. We started going to trade shows in Europe, first in Germany. I only spoke Spanish, and it was a real shock. No one could understand what I wanted. One company made these wooden spoons and so forth—I got the words for “hundreds” and “thousands” mixed up, and I accidentally ordered a 1,000 rolling pins of one size and 1,000 of another size, and 1,000 of a certain spoon, etc. It was huge. It was $10,000 worth of stuff. There was so much wood, you wouldn’t believe it.
The only heat was from a little stove, one of those washtub stoves. I ended up burning rolling pins in it, because I was sitting there by myself for most of the time. I was very, very concerned about being right there at nine o’clock to open the doors.
You mentioned people not being able to get cooking tools before Sur La Table. How did you decide what to bring in?
It started with the garlic press. I used to go to showrooms and order two or three of everything. You could tell that they didn’t want to take my order because it was so small. Well, we sold those presses within two hours of opening, so I got on the phone and ordered six more, and then the next day I did the same, and the same, and the same.
I once got on the ferry, looked around and said, “All these people need garlic presses.” So I started ordering them by the gross, and they became my measure of sales. Whenever we got a new employee, the first thing we did was tell her about the garlic press, how to use it, etc. We gave her a garlic press. We had them right at the register, and we sold so many. It was amazing. That really influenced how we did business.
People really respond to different things. When I first opened, women would come in during the day and they’d look at the whisks. I had these jugs of whisks everywhere—jars of whisks. And they’d ask “Are those French?” and I’d say “Yeah, French whisks,” and they’d sort of make a face and leave. They didn’t trust them at all. I thought that was so remarkable.
We sold an inordinate amount of fish poachers, because that was the way that people thought they had to cook salmon in those days. They didn’t really grill it, or put it on the fire at all; they poached it. They all wanted fish poachers, so we sold a lot of fish poachers.
We had a few customers, usually men, who could afford to buy anything they wanted. They’d taken up cooking. “Copper pot? Fine, great, I’ll take two.” I even sold copper cookware that was lined with silver—expensive—and these guys would just buy a whole bunch. That was a mainstay of our income until Cuisinart came along.
Tell us more about Cuisinart.
I found this guy in the basement of a trade show, he was an engineer, and he was selling this little machine that he had invented. I was fascinated by it because of all that it could do, so I talked to him forever, and we sort of became pals. I bought them from him, and he used to call me every day to find out if I’d sold one. “How did you sell it? Did you slice mushrooms?”
It was such a smashing success, and it was from the first day we got them. Julia Child came to do some cooking lessons as a fundraising event for one of the churches in Seattle and demonstrated the Cuisinart. I was already selling a few, but having Julia talk about it was a real game changer.
A couple of months later, an article ran in a cooking magazine and it became one of those things almost like the garlic press. We were just selling them right and left. People would buy one for themselves and one for their friends. It was $160 at the time, and I know that doesn’t seem like a lot now, but my gosh, in 1972 it was a lot of money to spend on a little thing that nobody had ever heard of before.
That was really the game changer for Sur La Table, because suddenly I was selling a lot of stuff. People bought other things when they came to buy the Cuisinart. It was just a magnet.
Let’s back up a bit. You said you were cooking your way through Julia’s book. Can you talk about your interest in food?
Well, my mom didn’t like to cook, so I started from the time I was a teenager on. There was very little to do in the small border town that I was born in, but we’d go across the border into Mexico to the big market there. We’d go every Saturday and buy whatever was there—lots of beans, rice, vegetables, coffee. There was a coffee roaster there, so when I moved to Seattle I knew how to roast my own beans, and I did. We couldn’t get really great coffee in those days. (Editor’s Note: A lot has changed!)
So when I moved here I came with a huge bag of masa harina to make my tortillas, and I cooked for friends and so forth. I just loved entertaining. This table was where I did that. (Editor’s Note: Shirley’s beautiful table is the same one that was used as a display table in our first store.) We had great dinner parties. I cooked everything in sight. I’d go to the Market and come home with bags of groceries. I was so thrilled by all the produce that was around, that was now available to me—things I didn’t know about.
A friend had given me Julia’s book, and I just started cooking. I still cook every day, and I love it. I get excited about it, when I see beautiful produce and I think about how it could taste and how one flavor goes with another flavor—what would happen if I did this? I’m fairly creative in the kitchen, so it’s a joy for me. It’s a real joy.
I was really fortunate, because I had the time to really cook. I had the time to explore the flavors. I had the time to explore the produce and the proteins and so forth, and I had the Market. I could go to the Market, with the vendors, and the great fishmongers, and the people there taught you how to cook.
Can you tell us more about the Market?
I’d graze my way through the market, and I was just so excited to be there. You had all of these vendors, and you talked to them about food, and they had their ideas. They’d just hand you something to eat.
And I was so excited about my store, and the people who were coming in. We had this big table of books, and customers came in every week. Even if they didn’t buy anything, they’d check the cookbooks and we’d talk about what they were going to cook, and what was in season and so forth.
It was really the focus of my life, food was—and still is. I still love it. I still love an excuse to do it.
We’ll ask you to cook for us later.
Speaking of Julia, can you tell us about some of the people who came through your doors?
I got to cook for Julia. We sat at this table. She was always very kind about the store, and about me, too. I considered her my friend, and the same with Jacques. He was the world’s most charming man, and he also came to the store. You have to remember, I’m still in 750 square feet. It was a really big deal. They were very gracious with their time, and very helpful and kind to me.
Earlier, you mentioned Friends of the Market. I don’t think most people realize how close the Pike Place Market was to disappearing forever.
It was falling to pieces. It was prime real estate—still is, because it sits on a bluff above the Sound, and it has incredible views. A cabal of businessmen got a HUD grant to renovate it. They weren’t bad, they were just businessmen, but they were going to tear the Market down and build hotels and so forth along there. Where Sur La Table is now was destined to be a hotel.
Anyway, we all decided that we could stop them if we put our minds to it. So we formed Friends of the Market. We met every Sunday and planned strategy. We wrote outrageous broadsheets, gathered signatures for petitions on the street corners for six months. And then we had an initiative, and the people voted to keep it.
As part of the initiative, it was redeveloped under the supervision of a historic commission. There were very strict guidelines, and still are.
That’s a real accomplishment. You should be proud, not just of the Market, but of the store.
It was my baby, and I’m very proud. So many people do things in their lives, and when they’re gone, those things no longer live. Mine has. It’s wonderful. It’s alive and thriving. It’s getting bigger. And I’m very proud of it. I’m proud to have been part of it. I’m happy that I was where I needed to be to help that happen.
We’re happy too, Shirley. Happy Anniversary.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.