By Soula Jones
Let’s face it: Seattle is not regarded as a restaurant capitol of the world. At least not among gourmets. One of the Food & Wine editors was out here not long ago, trying to find “best new chefs.” And she gave up. Evidently, there were no Cinderella chefs in the Sound to be found.
But that doesn’t mean we Seattleites are a bunch of bumpkins who can’t tell a chukar from a canard. Attesting to that is ChefShop.com, which launched last September. ChefShop’s goal is to bring us (and New Yorkers alike) non-perishable items used by the world’s best restaurants. “The unique character and intense flavors of these ingredients will make all the difference in the world, even in your simplest recipe.”
Unlike many other snob-food sites (such as Tavolo.com and Deananddeluca.com), ChefShop has a practical, down-to-earth feel. Its bright orange and green colors are a turnoff to some, but we found them refreshing. With a left sidebar listing food-item categories, and a header with all the major columns, ChefShop is easy to cruise.
What makes the site worth visiting, however, is its personality–actually two personalities, both of which are classically trained chefs: Jeff Bergman was at Larry’s Markets for 10 years and started their Specialty Foods Division; Mauny Kaseburg does the FoodBite tips on KUOW and has orchestrated dozens of high-profile events for foodies. Bergman and Kasenberg say they’re distinguished by their copy, content and community. So we used these factors as our gauge.
Content: We didn’t fully appreciate ChefShop.com, until we compared it to competitors. Go to www.tavolo.com, for instance, and type in “Vinegar Saba.” You’ll get your basic marketing pitch. Over at ChefShop.com, however, Jeff Bergman will tell you about the company that runs the Saba business, where production is located, and he’ll give you a pretty good idea of the taste and consistency of this exceptional balsamic. After all, if you’re going to fork out $30 for a small bottle of this stuff, you want to know what you’re getting.
Bergman writes a weekly “TableNotes” column, often on foreign and/or exotic topics, like “Treasures from Morocco” or “The Saga of Saffron.” This past week, the column was on the world’s largest loganberry farm, right here on Whidbey Island. There’s a heavy merchandising emphasis in Bergman’s columns–enticing you, for example, to try longberry jam and syrup produced by Greebank Farm. But the overt sales pitches are nicely counter-balanced with informative, insightful copy.
Bergman is an olive-oil aficionado and enthusiast, with emphasis on artisanal oils from Italy. He writes extensively about the producers, the region’s climate and soil condition, how the oil is made and gives entertaining notes and suggestions.
Kaseburg’s writing has a more practical bent. She posts “Mauny’s Kitchen Table,” which contains recipes and cooking tips, as well as tips for upcoming “Holidays.” She’ll also tell you what’s a must in “Mauny’s Perfect Pantry.”
While ChefShop.com content overall is very good, the presentation is somewhat lacking. In general, we found the product photos too small, sometimes making it impossible to read the labels or even make out the logo. Also, nutritional information is not provided separately, so you don’t know how much fat those chocolates contain (not that you care). And the search engine is frustrating. You can search by product and recipe, but not really by topic. For instance, it would be great to access Bergman’s tips on olive-oil buying. Also, the weekly columns of Bergman and Kaseburg are stored for only three months or so, even though many remain timely.
Commerce: ChefShop.com’s motto is: “Eat Simply, Live Well!” But it could also easily be: “Pricey Packaged Foods.” Although ChefShop products are things many of us consume daily–olive oil, vinegars–many of us would go broke if we actually bought these particular items in bulk. Expect to pay $5 to $10 for a jar of jam (before delivery charges), for instance, and $30 for 500 ml of olive oil.
But the ChefShop clientele is used to paying up. The site, after all, advertises in Saveur and Fine Cooking. And customers are getting discerning pre-selection. Also, ChefShop inspects every product in its warehouse before it ships.
Seattleites can check out the goods at ChefShop’s warehouse store on Elliott Ave, which opened last October and also hosts periodic tastings and other food events. Seattle residents can order online and then pickup at the “Will Call” window at the store. There’s no tax on the food items. The only things not stored at the warehouse store are the really expensive stuff–$200 vinegars, for instance.
One downside, at least for us, is that the ChefShop.com products are mostly U.S. or European, even though other categories are featured. The “Southeast Asian,” “Japanese” and “Pacific Rim Fusion” sections are very limited. Perhaps the Asia sections should be consolidated, and “Foods of South Africa” merged into their respective categories.
Community: ChefShop.com’s Bulletin Board can be very informative, but it’s not dynamic. If you need an answer right away, don’t post here, although questions get answered eventually, often by one of the ChefShop staffers. We noticed at least two posts that were outright self-promotions: one by the Café Anatolia and the other by The National Rail Historic Society, which were distracting.
Still, ChefShop.com overall seems to be quite service-oriented. When we called, we got an immediate response. Also, they’re willing to special order if you contact buyer@ChefShop.com. Jeff Bergman claims to have added numerous products upon customer request, such as the June Taylor Organic Blood Orange Marmalade (($9 for 8 oz). Pricey but precious.
1435 Elliott Ave., West
Seattle, WA 98119
(just past the grain elevators).
This is also where their
store is located.
Site Cynic Rating
Overall rating: Bright (3.6 out of 5 Lanterns)
Physical store hours:
M-F 9:30 to 5:30; Sat. 9 to5
Site launch: Sept. 6, 1999
62% e-commerce; 38% of brick-and-mortar
Funding: “friends and family;” seeking outside investors
Business-plan goal: “to be profitable in 2002
Staff: 13 full-time/2 part-time