My second job ever was as a food demonstrator at Williams-Sonoma, the California-based cookware store founded in the 1950s. Before I was allowed to serve samples of the shop’s popular pumpkin quick bread (made from a mix), I had to attend a two-week training session during which I learned everything about the store’s products, from chess piece-like pepper mills to hand-cut glassware to extremely pricey sets of cookware. That’s when it was drilled into a young, impressionable me that All-Clad — created by the same guy who patented the process of bonding copper onto nickel for U.S. pennies — was the best cookware money could buy.
All of the new recruits, myself included, were gifted a small stainless steel All-Clad butter warmer for our time, and I cherished this pot — which now retails for $69.95 — for years. But one day, in the process of hard-boiling an egg, I burned the pan badly. I scrubbed it and treated it with every remedy Google suggested. Nothing worked. When I finally called Williams-Sonoma, they told me that the All-Clad warranty did not cover a pan replacement “in the event of discoloration.”
I had to throw the pot away, and with that act, I suddenly wondered if All-Clad did, in fact, make the best pans — or if I had been fooled.
Around the same time, direct-to-consumer (DTC) retail — in the form of Warby Parker’s eyewear — entered my life. Though DTC retail has been around for more than half a century — think: JCPenney catalogues, Avon, and “Will it blend?” — it’s ballooned in the past decade. Buoyed by private equity, a new wave of brands pledge to solve seemingly every problem in millennial life by offering allegedly better quality products at ostensibly lower prices.
Warby Parker, one of the first modern DTC success stories on the American market, borrowed an idea at least one other company had before, but added an altruistic angle to its origin story (for every pair of glasses sold, it distributes another pair to someone in need) that helped it upend the eyewear market; it’s now worth $1.75 billion. I also own a T-shirt from Everlane (a clothing company that promises “modern basics” with “radical transparency”), and sleep on a mattress from Tuft & Needle (founded by people who report being “fed up with the lack of transparency and fairness in the mattress industry”).
That carefully targeted marketing language straddles a line between Marie Kondo — fewer, better things — and TED talks about transparency, access, and technology for good. And whether it’s a toothbrush or a handbag, the business model for these brands is the same: Cut out the middleman, eliminate the high cost of having a storefront (at least initially), centralize (and offer free) shipping (in addition to free returns and money-back guarantees), and sell quality goods, complete with a compelling story, at a lower price. So where, I wondered, was the Warby Parker of cookware?
It turns out that Sierra Tishgart, formerly an editor at New York magazine’s food vertical, Grub Street, was having the same thoughts. “I was at a point in my life where I didn’t just want to buy the cheapest things from Ikea,” she says. “I wanted to upgrade. I did a lot of research and I realized that if I didn’t get married and register for these items I probably wouldn’t be able to afford them.”
This November, Tishgart, along with her childhood friend, Maddy Moelis, founded Great Jones, a DTC cookware company. Familiar but striking, its color scheme and logo looks plucked out of the 1970s. Great Jones’s website links to facilities where consumers can recycle their old pots and pans in a nod to sustainable waste practices, a defining characteristic of many DTC 2.0 brands, and its product testimonials look more like recipe blog posts. Its marketing involves vintage cookbook covers on Instagram and paper flyers on New York City construction sites, which craft a cohesive message targeted to an audience primed with bedding from Parachute (which donates malaria-prevention bed nets to those in need) and shoes from Allbirds (which touts an “ongoing mantra to create better things in a better way”).
Great Jones is among a new breed of cookware that, to use the biggest cliche in the space, wants to disrupt how we cook — or more specifically, according to its founders, to make cooking more accessible. It’s not the only player in this fledgling space, but it is one of the most promising: Great Jones recently raised $2.75 million in a seed funding round, led by venture capitalist firm General Catalyst, according to Forbes, which named Tishgart and Moelis among their 2019 30 Under 30 in Food & Drink. Jen Rubio and Steph Korey, the founders of luggage startup Away are investors; Peter Boyce of General Catalyst, who was an investor in athletic apparel startup Outdoor Voices and Jet.com, joined Great Jones’ board as part of the deal.
After graduating from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, Moelis signed on to work with a then-unheard-of startup named Warby Parker. As it grew into a 350-person company, Moelis says she learned everything from “the importance of a style guide, and consistency and cohesiveness in branding” to “how to work with engineers” and “how important it is to put the customer first.” She’d leave to work at Zola, a DTC wedding registry service, that, coincidentally, helps sell a whole lot of cookware. (Great Jones products are not currently listed on Zola.)
Working on stories about the restaurant industry spurred Tishgart’s desire to cook more at home — “It gives you such a sense of accomplishment,” she says — which is how the idea for Great Jones was born. Named after prolific cookbook editor Judith Jones, with a nod to Jones Street in the West Village, the idea appealed to Moelis because there was a gap in the DTC market for quality cookware.
Like most DTC 2.0 brands, Great Jones isn’t cheap. “This is what someone might buy when they’re ready to invest in their kitchen a little bit, like when you’re done with your Ikea couch and want to buy a ‘real’ couch,” Tishgart says, making air quotes. A full Great Jones set costs $395 and includes a 6 ¾ quart oval Dutch oven (called the Dutchess, it retails for $145 on its own and comes in five colors: blueberry, broccoli, Earl gray, mustard, and macaron, a millennial-bait dusty pink), a stainless steel stock pot ($95), a stainless sauce pot ($85), a stainless deep saute pan ($75), and a ceramic nonstick skillet dubbed the Small Fry that’s ideal for a two-egg omelet ($45).
“There’s a range in quality of cookware,” Moelis says of where Great Jones fits into the market. “There is cookware that’s higher-end and cookware that will only last a year, and we like to think we’re nearer to the high-end lines.”
Great Jones does cost less than All-Clad, Staub, and Le Creuset, brands I grew up believing were key to good home cooking. I long resented the fact that I couldn’t afford them. A few years ago, when someone told me that the easiest way to acquire a flame-colored Le Creuset ($129 to $420) or gleaming copper-core All-Clad saute pan ($249) was to “just get married” — implying that a spouse and wealthy wedding guests were a more practical solution to acquiring nice cookware than earning it for myself — I nearly lost my shit. I had become one of the millennials that, in the process of trying to stay in the middle class post-2008 recession, discovered I couldn’t afford the quality goods I was led to believe I deserved.
Cookware is big business, propped up by the recent evolution of the celebrity chef and the proliferation of cookbooks and cooking shows. Total pots and pan sales in the U.S. hover around $2 billion annually and are expected to grow to over $4 billion by 2024.
To compete, the pricier pans needs an origin story. All-Clad has always had a great one: In 1967, a metallurgist named John Ulam invented a way to combine and layer different metals, eventually receiving 50 different U.S. patents for his work. He applied his process of bonding copper to nickel (for the aforementioned U.S. pennies) to aluminum, an excellent heat conductor, and stainless steel, known for its resistance to corrosion and durability. Ulam began selling the sheets of bonded metal to cookware companies before he started to manufacture his own line of pots and pans.
In 1975, Bloomingdale’s put in an order. “That’s how it all started,” Chris Ulam, Ulam’s son and Clad Metals’ general manager, told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. In the late 1980s, Pittsburgh Annealing Box Co. bought All-Clad and began marketing it in earnest — in part by taking out ads in magazines like Gourmet and Food & Wine. That eventually turned into sponsorships for test kitchens, events, and chef demonstrations. By aligning itself with chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Thomas Keller in the 1990s, All-Clad won over ambitious home cooks. In 2000, it hit $100 million in sales.
Today American cooks have hundreds of cookware options, from celebrity chef lines like Ayesha Curry’s to the Brazilian-born, American-made Walmart favorite Tramontina. Almost all modern, quality cookware is molded from layered sheets of metal: For slightly less money than the average All-Clad pan there’s Calphalon, an American competitor that, around the same time that Ulam was bonding metals, applied a technology developed for the aerospace industry — anodizing — to aluminum in order to make it more durable and less reactive to acidic foods. Cuisinart, which is better known for its food processor, also makes a line of stainless steel cookware, some of it bonded with aluminum. The Meyer Corporation is the largest cookware distributor in the country, and is best known for pans under the brands Anolon or Circulon; its products are produced in Hong Kong, often feature Teflon or other non-stick coatings, and are available at a wide range of retailers, from Target and Macy’s to Sur La Table.
For at least the past five decades, All-Clad and every other mass-produced metal product has been made mostly by machine. And yet All-Clad repeatedly emphasizes adjectives like “handcrafted” and “hand-forged” in its marketing materials. The old guard is still trying to sell an image of workers making everything by hand — but does anyone under 35 actually believe Rosie the Riveter is individually bolting handles to every pot and pan?
Like other DTC 2.0 companies, Great Jones is transparent about its manufacturing process, sharing videos from inside its factories on its Instagram page. The cookware is made by robots (operated by humans) in two factories outside of Hong Kong: one makes the enameled cast iron cocottes, and the other produces stainless steel pieces.
Machines not only mold each piece, but also test them for durability. “The robots pick up and slam down each pot and pan repeatedly to ensure it’s durable,” Moelis says, describing videos that were shared exclusively with Eater (but not permitted for publication). “It’s kind of wild.”
Finding those factories involved trips all over the world. Great Jones’ founders had been advised to consider manufacturers in Asia because that’s where some of the latest technology was in use, but there were other aspects Tishgart and Moelis wanted to vet first hand. “We were concerned with quality but also how the workers were treated. We had been told [by advisors], ‘Look to see if the workers are wearing uniforms, see if there’s a lunchroom, talk to them,’ which is how we could tell they were being paid a living wage and weren’t overworked,” Tishgart says. From end to end, it takes 60 days for a Great Jones pot to go from design to finished product in the company’s New Jersey warehouse, where it’s then available to ship nationwide.
Several factors determine quality in cookware. Professional chefs are looking for durability. Home cooks may look at color and shape, and want to feel for weight — too light and it might dent easily, too heavy and it will be hard to handle — as well as balance, temperature sensitivity, and resistance to warping, scratching, and corrosion.
French brands Staub and Le Creuset dominate the Dutch oven market, though Lodge, an American company, is also a best-seller. There are several differences between most Dutch ovens and Staub, including price; Staub tends to be the most expensive on average. Lodges and Le Creusets have pale, off-white glazes on the inside, which show caramelization but scratch easily, while Staub’s interior is glazed matte black, encouraging caramelization but making it harder to tell if food is burning. (Great Jones’ Dutch oven, which only comes in an oval shape, has a grey interior.) Then there’s the lid: While most cocottes come with a simple domed lid, which is easier to cast, Staub’s Dutch oven lids feature small, ladybug-sized bumps. As condensation builds up on the inside of the lid while a soup or stew is simmering, the divots encourage the moisture to fall back down evenly, which helps prevent scorching. Great Jones’ Dutch oven is designed more like Le Creuset’s and some Lodge models — and the Dutch oven startup Milo — with a domed lid.
“We looked at all of our competitors but still felt that our idea was unique,” says Moelis. Throughout the design process, Tishgart pushed for a product that would look “good out on your counter or on top of the stove, something that doesn’t need to be hidden in a cabinet” — resulting in matching rounded, tinted brass handles on the stainless steel and cast iron pieces. They’re elegant, but as some testers have pointed out, they get hot — especially the curved handle on the Dutchess’s lid, which, unlike handles on competitors’ lids, is a harder-to-grasp loop rather than a knob. “It’s true that the handles get hot,” Tishgart admits, referring to the Dutchess’s top loop. “That was a design decision.” Tishgart says the handles on the stainless pieces were specifically crafted to dissipate heat; Great Jones ships every order with a branded pot holder.
Early, pre-launch buzz has given Great Jones a push; since its launch, the company says it’s sold out of its $45 Small Fry skillet. Great Jones has already designed a sixth item set to debut next year.
Great Jones isn’t the only DTC cookware company to arrive amid great fanfare in the past year. Austin-based Made In launched in September 2017, founded by another pair of childhood friends, Jonathan “Jake” Kalick and Bradford “Chip” Malt. As the name suggests, this cookware is made in the United States: “Transparency was important to us,” Malt says. “America’s really well-known for great craftsmanship, great metalwork, and great quality stainless steel, so it’s a no-brainer for us to make Made In cookware in America where there’s deep roots.”
Kalick and Malt throw around words like “genesis” and “authentic” and “family-owned” a lot. Neither founder mentions politics or Trump’s trade talks with China, but they do emphasize their brand’s American heritage in marketing materials: “Family business is in our DNA... We source metal from Kentucky and Pennsylvania, non-stick coating from Illinois, and our cookware is molded, brushed, and finished in our third-generation family-owned factory in the South.”
Like Great Jones, Made In is meant to appeal to a younger, savvier demographic — albeit one that may be confused about how to pick out quality cookware. “There was too little education in the space,” Malt says. “No one was making an effort to help people through the buying process.” And then there was the issue of price. “Gone are the days you have to wait for your wedding registry to afford nice cookware and knives,” Made In’s website reads, echoing Tishgart’s original inspiration.
“We were thinking of what we were investing in, in our daily lives,” Malt says, “and it was Casper [the DTC mattress company, “free of harmful, ozone-depleting chemicals and emissions”] and Brooklinen [the DTC linen company, made “responsibly with top quality material”] and we thought, ‘Well, we’re buying everything else for the home online, why not in the kitchen space?’”
Malt’s background is in e-commerce; he was one of the first employees at the startup clothing company Rhone. Kalick, on the other hand, grew up in the food service equipment business; his grandfather’s company designed commercial kitchens and outfitted them with equipment and supplies, including cookware.
With a year’s head start, Made In has already made a splash with consumers. “We sold out of our initial runs in the first few weeks,” Malt says, noting that the company stockpiles aluminum and stainless steel to avoid commodity price fluctuations. The early buzz caught the attention of several chefs, including Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, who is an investor and advisor.
“As soon as I saw what these guys were doing, I knew it was a great idea,” Colicchio says. “They’re going into my new Long Island restaurant, and I’m using them at home. The quality is there, the design is there.” Following Colicchio’s investment, Made In started to secure other restaurant deals. “We launched for the home cook, and restaurant chefs kind of found us,” Malt says. “I would say the first 10 to 20 restaurant installations we did really were just people that cold called us and were like, ‘Hey, how do I get this into our restaurant?’” Those include Juniper and Intero in Austin, Boston Chops and Deuxave in Boston, Rock and Rye Oyster in Washington state, and Fiore’s Fine Foods, which is expected to open in 2019 in Philadelphia. “It was a no brainer for us,” Malt says.
Kalick and Malt also saw a marketing opportunity: Get chefs involved to help create content. “We said, ‘Yeah, absolutely, we’d love to have our cookware in your restaurant. Why don’t you come make a technique video with us, or could you do an Instagram takeover and we’ll be able to outfit your kitchen with stuff,’” Kalick says. The company signed a deal with the forthcoming Encore casino outside of Boston, too.
Misen, a competitor in the DTC 2.0 space, started on Kickstarter, as did Field, a maker of cast iron skillets. But most of the new class in cookware started with old-fashioned investment. To fund their company, Great Jones solicited an initial round of investment from friends and family — including chef David Chang, chef Clare de Boer of King restaurant, and restaurateur Nic Jammet of Sweetgreen — resulting in the $600,000 with which they paid for the research, design, and first order. “I have to say, we can’t afford really nice cookware at King, so cooking with Great Jones was actually really lovely,” de Boer says. “It’s beautiful stuff, it’s why I wanted to be an investor.”
An often-overlooked aspect of companies founded on venture capitalist cash is the pressure to grow — fast. Material, Brigade, and Potluck are other names in the space that started with one or five products but quickly ramped up their product lines. Made In has introduced several new pans in the past 10 months, and celebrated its one-year anniversary this past September by releasing a chef’s knife — made and designed in France.
When asked about the pressure to grow as a startup with VC backing, and whether that chips away at the original vision, Kalick notes that “we see Casper going into Nordstrom and Leesa mattress is going into West Elm and the DTCs playing with the wholesale approach… We’ve refrained from doing that at Made In, it’s not part of our brand story.” Instead, Made In’s approach will be to expand its line and continue to set up partnerships. Kalick insists that “restaurant [deals] are less about revenue for us and more about a stamp of approval.”
Though Kalick and Malt worked with industrial designers, and Kalick, with a background in cookware sales, had a lot of input in the final designs, it’s clear just by looking at the line that All-Clad was an inspiration. Malt admits that they “have a tremendous amount of respect for [All-Clad]... they pioneered the cladding process. When we did our research and spoke to cookware manufacturers all over the world, we kept coming back to the same combination of stainless steel and aluminum.” But Kalick and Malt point out that they’ve improved upon the All-Clad handles, which many complain are uncomfortable to hold. “We worked on creating an ergonomic handle that balances weight better so the cookware doesn’t feel as heavy in your hand,” Malt says.
“In terms of the actual look of it, it does look like All-Clad because we use the same types of metals as they might in their D5 line, we source our metals from America as well,” Kalick says. “With that said, we do things like brush the finish to give it an industrial look that we think is a little easier to care for and gives off a little more personality than your polished grandmother’s cookware.”
A spokesperson for All-Clad declined to comment on Made In or Great Jones’s products, though they did point out that All-Clad’s new D3 Compact Collection, which starts at $499, was “geared towards a younger audience.” Its marketing messaging now uses phrases like “fits how you cook and live,” “modern twist on the classic collection,” and “stainless steel, stackable, without compromise.” Staub, via a spokesperson, also noted that the company was “working on a new line, targeted at a younger audience” to launch next year.
Quality still sells, and the legacies of Le Creuset, All-Clad, and Staub are set to continue for generations to come — especially since these are the sorts of objects that get passed down as family heirlooms. But as marketers know all too well, millennials like to think for themselves and want to feel like they’re getting a good deal. Plus, they’re not afraid to hack away at the establishment. If these new names can scale efficiently, emphasize good design, and continue to sell quality products at a price lower than their competitors, they have a shot at edging out the biggest names in cookware. Great Jones, Made In, and their ilk are about to hit established American cookware brands and their consumers where it matters most: in the gut.
Daniela Galarza is Eater’s senior editor. Natalie Nelson is an Atlanta-based illustrator, picture book maker, and collage artist.
Editor: Erin DeJesus