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Chuck Williams, Williams-Sonoma Founder, Dies

The founder of San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma (NYSE: WSM) Charles E. “Chuck” Williams has died. He was 100.

Williams’ love of cooking and entertaining, coupled with his belief that professional and home cooks should have access to high-quality cookware and tools, inspired him to open his first Williams-Sonoma store in 1956 in Sonoma, Calif. From his stores, and the catalog and cookbooks that followed, he fueled a national interest in culinary exploration that became a staple of American culture. Williams often said that his deep appreciation for products and relationships served as his compass at Williams-Sonoma. His commitment to superior customer service and innovative merchandising continues today at the multi-billion dollar corporation that bears his name.

Williams was best known as the merchant who introduced America to French kitchen products such as the soufflé dish, the Madeleine mold, the sauté pan and balsamic vinegar, but his impact on American life was more profound. He introduced American cooks to the tastes and tools of new cultures, inspired curiosity around exotic flavors and preparations, and enriched American home and family life by bringing people together around food. Williams was equally respected outside of the kitchen as a generous benefactor of culinary education, healthcare and youth services.

“Chuck taught us that when we open our doors to a customer, we welcome a friend into our home,” said Laura Alber, president and CEO of Williams-Sonoma, Inc. “He had impeccable taste, unique insight for selecting the right products at the right time, and the highest standard of customer service. Most of all, Chuck was our mentor and our friend. We will miss him dearly.”

Born Oct. 2, 1915, in northern Florida, Williams’ earliest memories were of hand-mixing egg whites for divinity fudge and lemon meringue pies with his grandmother, who once owned her own restaurant. “This was before electric mixers, so I had to use a big oval platter and a fork. It took forever, but I didn’t mind. Being in the kitchen with her made me happy,” he told Fortune in 2003.

Impacted by the Great Depression, Williams’ family relocated to Palm Springs, Calif., where he worked in carpentry and customer service at the roadside stand of a family-owned date ranch. Just before World War II, Williams moved to Los Angeles, where he honed his visual merchandise skills in window-dressing positions at I.Magnin and Bullocks.

During the war, Williams was a volunteer for Lockheed’s traveling maintenance crews and used his time while stationed in India and Africa to explore the regions’ food, drinks, and cooking techniques and tools. Shortly after returning home, he visited the northern California community of Sonoma on a golf trip. His affection for the town was immediate, and he soon relocated from southern California to start a home construction business.

A two-week trip to Paris in 1953 changed his life, and ultimately the cooking habits of the nation.

"I couldn't get over seeing so many great things for cooking, the heavy pots and pans, white porcelain ovenware, country earthenware, great tools and professional knives," Williams told The Washington Post in 2005. The trip inspired him to open the first Williams-Sonoma store in the fall of 1956. Located off of Sonoma’s town square, Williams refurbished the location by hand. He covered the floor with black and white checkerboard tiles, painted the walls a bright yellow that he’d seen in pictures, and built custom shelving to display individual pots and pans. He crafted a simple logo with the words “Williams” and “Sonoma” in block letters over a woodcut illustration of a pineapple—a symbol of hospitality.

Williams’ first store was an enormous success. In 1958, he relocated to a 3,000-square foot store on Sutter Street in San Francisco, adjacent to the city’s Union Square shopping district. The popularity of Julia Child’s landmark cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and her cooking show on television drove additional interest and customers to Williams-Sonoma. Commitment to the notion of “the customer as a friend” remained strong at the Sutter Street store, where Williams was known to look after the dogs of San Francisco’s most fervent shoppers while they visited a nearby salon. Shoppers picked up kitchen necessities, along with their pups, after appointments.

The first Williams-Sonoma catalog was published in 1958. It was black and white, fit into a business-sized envelope and had an initial printing of 10,000. By 1972, Williams’ store on Sutter Street had expanded to twice its original size and the catalog was flourishing. With the help of business partners, Williams-Sonoma became Williams-Sonoma, Inc. and expanded to Beverly Hills and then Palo Alto, Calif. In 1978, Williams sold the company to Howard Lester, who became the chairman and CEO of Williams-Sonoma, Inc., and one of Williams’ closest friends. In 1983, Williams-Sonoma, Inc. became a public company, trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Williams remained closely involved with the company, and in 1986 he published his first cookbook, “The Williams-Sonoma Cookbook with a Guide to Kitchenware.” Since then, he has written or edited more than 200 cookbooks, including the best-selling Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library series, which has collectively sold more than 20 million copies. Williams never retired from the company he founded, continuing to edit cookbooks, provide input on merchandise strategies, and make public appearances well into his nineties.

“I don’t think of us as a huge company, though, but as one store,” he told Fortune in 2003. “I still recommend what appeals to me, and what I think represents good design. I think people will always respond to that.”

During his career, Williams was honored numerous times with industry awards, and was inducted into the Halls of Fame for both the Culinary Institute of America and the Direct Marketing Association. Williams was a philanthropist, providing support to the Culinary Institute of America, California Pacific Medical Center, Food Runners, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and the Boys and Girls Club of Sonoma County.

In lieu of flowers, Williams-Sonoma, Inc. asks that donations be made in Williams’ name to Food Runners  or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital


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