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Thursday, August 14, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Retailer Sur La Table heads for major expansion

Seattle Times Eastside business reporter

Renée Behnke, co-owner and president of Sur La Table, typically returns from a trip with suitcases full of treasures for her stores.

But after one trip to Mexico, she came back empty-handed. As usual, she rented a house with a full wait staff — a resource she uses to learn local techniques and tools — but when she entered the kitchen this time, she was stunned by what she found.

"There were only three pans and two wooden spoons," Behnke said. "It was eye-opening. I thought I was going to learn all this great stuff."

In her world — one of lemon zesters, pizza cutters and tomato knives — this could be considered a tragedy. And although she'll admit that someone really only needs 10 essentials to cook (she even wrote an article about that in the Los Angeles Times), that is not what her store is all about.

Sur La Table, French for "on the table," is trying to make it on the table of every household in America. With recent cash infusions — a $12 million investment and a $25 million line of credit from Wells Fargo Bank — the company plans a major-league expansion: seven stores this year and 15 a year for the next several years after that.

Sur La Table was founded in the Pike Place Market in 1972 by Shirley Collins of Seattle, mainly offering kitchen gadgets and wares from France. It also had a small catalog business.

In 1995, Behnke and her husband, Carl, and other investors bought the store and had big plans. Eight years later, there are 31 stores nationwide, half of which offer cooking classes. Seven million catalogs will be mailed out this year, and a Web site allows people to shop online.

Investors have poured $46 million into the company in the past three years for expansion. The most recent infusion came in May, when Sur La Table raised $12 million in venture capital. Investors include Renée Behnke's family; Northwest Venture Associates and Fluke Capital Management, local investors; and Freeman Spogli, a national firm that invests in retail and catalog companies. The line of credit added to the pot.

The store offers something for everyone. From Behnke's travels, she's added cone-shaped terra-cotta casserole dishes from Morocco and a butterfly-hinged copper pan from Portugal used for cooking shellfish.

Racks display cutting boards, bowls, ceramic pots and stainless-steel pans. Everything is spread out. Colors don't match. Textures overlap. It's this culinary conglomeration that sets Sur La Table apart from other kitchen stores.

"In some cases you do need a special pan, and sometimes you don't," Behnke said as she walked around the Pine Street store, reorganizing spatulas and whisks. "It's about the romance."

Nate Buller, who was shopping Tuesday at the Kirkland store, became familiar with the store through its catalog. Then he started coming to the store to get his knives sharpened. On his most recent visit, he was looking for new pots.

After spending more than 15 minutes with a saleswoman figuring out the difference between the three-ply and five-ply pans and the seven- and nine-piece sets, Buller left. He said he'd return later, after he thought about the choices a bit more.

"I think it has everything as far as my needs go," Buller said.

The company has benefited from an overall trend in the U.S. to stay home and cook, Behnke said. While it has expanded, cooking publications and TV shows — from Martha Stewart to the Food Network — have, too.

"Food is a essential part of getting together with family and friends," said Jon Ralph, a board member and general partner at Freeman Spogli.

His investment company typically doesn't invest in such early-stage companies as Sur La Table, but it did this time because of the reputation Behnke built for the company on a very small marketing budget.

"She's well-connected to chefs and authors of cookbooks," Ralph said.

"On a very small budget, she's done a great job of developing brand awareness. We hope to benefit from that."

For Gloria Shirley and Carolin Cady, vacationing from Salt Lake City, it was the reputation that brought them into the store — Oprah Winfrey had said it was one of the best stores. The two thought the prices were a little high, but they bought an ergonomic apple slicer.

Behnke connects with chefs, such as Tom Douglas, owner of Dahlia Lounge, Etta's Seafood and the Palace Kitchen.

"We aren't just selling things to (the customers)," Behnke said. "We are letting them meet the chefs."

This past weekend, Behnke invited Douglas to her house to help cook for nine friends visiting from Italy. They served salmon, corn and spareribs.

In the fall, Douglas and his new cookbook will go on tour at some Sur La Table locations, said Eric Tanaka, the executive chef for Douglas' restaurants.

Tanaka said he recently bought an $85 pan for steaming mussels. He said in the end, it was too expensive and heavy to use on a restaurant-wide basis, but that it was fun to try.

"As a chef it's exciting to go there," Tanaka said. "They have everything and generally at the quality level that's the best."

Going forward, the company will grow carefully, executives and investors agree.

Since making his investment three years ago, Ralph said, the company has focused on building a base. That included hiring Tim Hopkins, the company's chief executive, two years ago.

Hopkins had worked at department and specialty stores, serving as president and CEO of the specialty retailer Le Gourmet Chef, an East Coast-based kitchenware chain.

Part of Sur La Table's strategy is carefully selecting new locations — placing its stores near other stores with similar demographics, like Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn.

"We are looking for the right location, rather than filling in the market with stores," Hopkins said.

The expansion eventually will lead to a public stock offering, Ralph said.

"They have all the markings of a company that's well-received by public investors," he said.

Sheryl Wolfe of Woodinville, who was shopping for a new espresso maker Tuesday at the Kirkland store, sipped an espresso a salesperson made from a test machine and said she was impressed with the experience. The store, she said, probably will do well.

"They'll put some people out of business," Wolfe said.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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