Williams-Sonoma Founder Marks 90th B-Day

Chuck Williams, founder and co-chairman of Williams-Sonoma, turns 90 on Sunday. He's spent nearly half a century building a kitchen-equipment empire. Williams tells Michele Norris how it all came about.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Back in the 1950s, when Americans were obsessed with TV dinners, boxed brownie mixes and convenience foods, Chuck Williams had a dream, a dream that American women might one day master the fine art of French souffles, that the breakfast palate of American children might one day reach beyond pancakes to include the occasional fresh, hot crepe. Yes, back in the 1950s, Chuck Williams had a dream, that every American kitchen might include French copper pots, exquisitely sharp German knives and restaurant-quality standing bread mixers. Problem was, you'd never find those things at JCPenneys or Montgomery Wards.

Mr. CHUCK WILLIAMS (Founder and Co-chair, Williams-Sonoma): What was available for home cooks was completely different: much thinner aluminum pots and pans. In fact, you had to be careful with them because they would get out of shape and dented up.

NORRIS: So Williams bravely opened a unique hardware store combining his last name with the town that he lived in. Over the next five decades, Williams-Sonoma grew into an empire that changed the way Americans adorned their kitchens. Chuck Williams is turning 90 years old this Sunday, and he spoke to us from our San Francisco studios. He said it was a two-week vacation in Paris in 1953 that changed everything.

Mr. WILLIAMS: And to see heavy pots and tools that were, you know, much more professional. And the more I thought about it, why shouldn't we have these things? Why shouldn't we have souffle dishes and this sort of thing?

NORRIS: So his stores carried souffle dishes and KitchenAid mixers, carbon steel knives, graphite spatulas and $300 toasters. Americans now have all those things, and Williams has, well, a lot of money. He launched a $3 billion business with 36,000 employees and more than 300 stores, including Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, Pottery Barn Teen and probably Pottery Barn Pets at some point. Although Williams has stepped back from the business, he still edits Williams-Sonoma cookbooks. And, yes, Williams still cooks for himself. His favorite pan?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I have a small saucepan that happens to be cast aluminum. It absorbs heat very fast, and also it transfers the heat into the ingredients inside. It's just the one little pan that I always reach for when I start cooking.

NORRIS: It's interesting. I thought...

Mr. WILLIAMS: And I think...

NORRIS: I was, I guess, expecting something more elaborate. But...

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think everybody sort of gets attached to one pan or one utensil.

NORRIS: And speaking of getting attached, since Chuck Williams is an expert, we were wondering if he has a can't-miss wedding gift.

Mr. WILLIAMS: The one that I always picked out was a good, well-designed glass salad bowl. Salad looks wonderful in glass.

NORRIS: As I think about it, you always have one of those in your catalog, so now I understand why.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Well, I'm on to you.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

NORRIS: All right. It's been great taking to you. Happy birthday.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Chuck Williams is the founder and co-chairman of Williams-Sonoma. He turns 90 on Sunday. I can only imagine the birthday cake at that celebration.

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