– Words by Sandra Jones Photographs by Don Denton
If your mother ever told you TV was a waste of time, talk to Julia House, owner of Maison Cookware + Bakeware in Nanaimo.
“The Food Network started in my early twenties and I started watching Alton Brown’s show Good food. He had a scientific perspective on cooking and baking that I loved and the nerd in me was like, ‘I can do this!’ Julia jokes.
Suddenly she started doing everything from scratch.
“This show flipped a switch in my brain. I started by buying a pasta machine and went from there. As my skills increased, so did my need for the proper tools.
But these tools were not always easy to find.
Julia turned to reliable sources such as Illustrated cooks magazine when she needed to find a specific kitchen tool, but then got frustrated when she couldn’t buy it locally.
“I decided I wanted a carbon steel skillet and could order it online, but shipping was costing a fortune. Or I had just taken a tool locally and it didn’t work as it should. I wondered why kitchen stores didn’t do the research for me. That’s when I said to myself: “One day, I will have my own kitchen store”.
This dream seeped into the back of her consciousness as she worked multiple retail jobs, started a food blog, and moved from Edmonton to Nanaimo. But it wasn’t until her then-husband quit his job overseas, which allowed her to pursue her dream, that she took the plunge.
“I knew exactly what kind of store I wanted to create because I had been thinking about it for so many years. I had a list of products that I wanted to carry because I had spent hours on the internet researching and then testing the products in my own kitchen.
Two months after signing a lease on her retail space, she opened the doors.
“We opened in mid-October and were open seven days a week. We didn’t take a single day off until Christmas,” Julia recalls. “By then the store was stripped and we had no more stock.”
The news quickly spread via social media and word of mouth.
Julia believes in a singularly simple basic philosophy: “Everything we stock absolutely has to follow one rule: if I didn’t have it in my own kitchen, I wouldn’t have it in my store,” she says.
This point of differentiation results in an exceptionally low return rate for purchased goods and an equally high return rate for repeat customers.
“Our customers tell us they love seeing this kind of quality in Nanaimo and come to us for our knowledge and passion. Our staff have incredible knowledge of produce and cooking and we love to share what we know. We were able to build great relationships because of that.
Strong relationships have also been established with over 60 manufacturers from which Maison Cookware + Bakeware sources goods.
“We’ve been lucky that our store is often selected to offer pre-launch items and we like to get the cool toys months before everyone else.”
One such item was a bread box used to score bread before baking.
“The supplier said he had turned down other businesses, but knew we were picky about what we were bringing. We were the first store in the world he agreed to sell his product to.”
The store’s products run the gamut, from unique items like a Japanese-made hand-carved dumpling tool to a Smart Oven air fryer.
“We cannot keep this brand of air fryer in stock. I use mine every day and have cooked everything from pies to chicken in it. It’s faster and more efficient than my full-size oven.
Julia, who closely follows the world of gastronomy, quickly anticipates the needs of her customers, but even she cannot anticipate everything.
“The influence of social media is huge and global trends can take off in a day. Two days after I started seeing hot chocolate bombs on the internet, I tried to buy the hemispherical molds needed to make them. The supplier was already sold out and has been for nine months.
Of course, a global pandemic was also included in the category of “unforeseen circumstances”.
“By a weird stroke of luck, we always wanted to have an online store,” says Julia. “We had delayed it for years because it takes a long time to fill all the items we sell, but we were able to launch it six months before the pandemic hit.”
As a result, the store never fully closed and instead relied on online sales, curbside pickup and shipping across Canada to fill its orders.
And then a funny thing happened: “A few people decided to learn how to bake bread,” jokes Julia. Indeed, the lockdown sparked widespread interest in cooking and as people experimented with everything from sourdough-making to Japanese soufflé pancakes, they turned to Maison Cookware + Bakeware.
“There has definitely been a shift in the clients I’ve seen during the pandemic. People wanted to support local businesses and were more conscientious about where they spent their money. There are so many small businesses in Nanaimo and we need to keep that momentum going.
Although a lot has changed over the past six years, Julia’s passion for her business has never wavered. “Having this store is more than I ever dreamed of and it is without a doubt the best thing I have ever done.”
Q&A with Julia House
Boulevard: What is your most used kitchen tool?
Julia House: Ultimate ladle by GIR. It’s made of silicone, so it’s flexible enough to squeeze every drop of soup or sauce out of the pot. It doubles as a measuring cup – I use it all the time.
B: What is your signature dessert?
JH: Lemon cream pie.
B: And your favorite dinner?
JH: I often have people over for pizza night because I have a Breville pizza oven.
B: Who is your favorite cookbook author?
JH: Dorie Greenspan, who has co-authored books with Julia Child. I’m glad she started following us on Instagram.
B: Who are your dream guests?
JH: Dorie Greenspan, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively (she loves to cook and I think they are fun) and Zoë François, who is a baker and cookbook author with her own show on Magnolia Network.
Story reprinted with kind permission from Boulevard Magazine, a publication of Black Press Media
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