The Pandemic Prompts A Pivot For A Pair Of Much-Loved Kitchen Shops

The owners of Coutelier, a pair of kitchen shops in New Orleans and Nashville, thought they’d have a lot to celebrate in 2020.

Their New Orleans store was about to turn five years old, a milestone that four out of five small businesses fail to achieve. Their store in East Nashville was building its customer base after two years in business.

Jacqueline Blanchard and Brandt Cox, the chefs who co-own Coutelier, were excited to serve people who’d drive from as far away as Florida or Indiana to purchase knives, browse through gadgets and just have long conversations.

The small stores got their share of national attention — Bon Appetit called it “the cutlery shop of our dreams” — fueled by a loyal fanbase of cooking professionals and dedicated home cooks.

Then came a one-two punch that nearly knocked both stores flat.

Overnight on March 2 and 3, a tornado swept through Nashville and blew the roof off the store. Then, weeks later, both had to close because of COVID-19.

“It wasn’t a great start to the year for us,” Blanchard says, in something of an understatement.

Like many others in retail, as well as the restaurant industry where they learned their craft, Blanchard and Cox had to pivot, and fast.

As I wrote in my weekly CulinaryWoman Newsletter, simply offering curbside service wasn’t the solution. Coutelier prided itself on personal service.

Blanchard and Cox could spend hours showing customers their different lines of knives, many of which come from artisans they know in Japan.

With that practice off limits during the pandemic, Jacqueline says she and Brandt doubled down on being available to customers.

On their social media, they stressed that shoppers should call if they had any questions. They spent hours simply chatting with shoppers, who were as grateful for a personal connection as they were.

The conversations allowed them to think about grouping some of their products together, like kits of tools and equipment for bread baking, or the gadgets people wanted to prepare their own pasta.

“People get bored. They’re cooking the same things over and over again, myself included. It was an awesome opportunity to showcase some ideas: if you’re stuck at home, try this.”

Meanwhile, they scoured their lineup to see what other products might be marketable on its website, which was now Coutelier’s primary source of commerce.

The solutions: cookbooks and a pantry section.

Coutelier has always sold a limited number of books and some upscale culinary magazines, but now, many more joined their lineup. Their timing was sadly fortunate.

In 2019, Kitchen Witch, a perennial favorite among cookbook lovers, closed its doors. It was long a first stop in New Orleans by shoppers looking for a new or vintage cookbook. But with Kitchen Witch gone, Coutelier had an opening.

Jacqueline began to stock more vintage cookbooks, including titles by Edna Lewis, and the Dooky Chase Cookbook from New Orleans icon Leah Chase. There are also many cookbooks on Japanese specialties, matching their deep interest in the country’s cuisine.

Beyond that, they featured more interesting food items, like the cane syrup produced by Charles Poirier, or sugar cubes meant to be used in sazaracs, a favorite local cocktail.

Now, Coutelier’s website abounds with fascinating titles, and intriguing food stuffs such as condiments and snacks.

Their web business has been so strong that it’s like the Christmas season every day. Before COVID-19, about a dozen mail order packages went out the door on a daily basis.

Once customers jumped on the mail order bandwagon, Blanchard estimates her shipments spiked to 30 to 50 boxes a day. At times, she had some trouble finding shipping supplies.

Things have calmed down a little, but Coutelier had to institute some restrictions on knife sharpening, one of the store’s specialties.

Blanchard says she’s learned one key lesson: “You have to separate yourself from Amazon and the way Amazon does things,” she says.

Consumers have gotten used to the e-commerce giant’s promise of two-day delivery, and Coutelier simply can’t match that speed.

“Hey, we’re under a global pandemic, it’s going to take a couple more days,” she says.

As a result of their new focus, Blanchard says business in New Orleans actually rose 10% in June 2020 versus June 2019. However, Nashville is off by about 50% from 2019, although it is breaking even, she says.

With both shops back open, Blanchard says the immediate focus is on making sure all her customers feel as welcome — and to manage both the web and in-person shopping.

“We know there’s a lot to navigate,” she says. “It’s a massive way to say that brick and mortar hasn’t died.”

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