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‘You Just Have To Have It!’

by Megan McArdle


$2,000 to make coffee? $800 to boil rice? In any color you’d like! Inside the American housewares craze.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Kenwood Cooking Chef looks sort of like a cross between a stand mixer and a movie robot. It can chop, slice, shred, mix, and even cook your food—a gadget surprisingly close to one of those household helpers the Jetsons schooled us all to expect in the future. At the International Housewares Show in Chicago earlier this month, the little fella had an exhibit space to itself, prime real estate in the center of the kitchen electrics pavilion, where a chef imported from New York whipped up flawless risotto almost hands-free. “This is perfect,” said the attendee next to me, a local cooking instructor. “Just perfect.” And so it was. The only thing standing between us and equally perfect, effortless risotto was the $2,000 we’d need to bring the Kenwood Cooking Chef home.

Is America really ready to drop that kind of cash on a cooking appliance? The Thursday before the show, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis announced that they’d revised their estimates of fourth-quarter GDP growth upward … to a slug-like annual pace of 0.1 percent. The Friday after the show, America woke to the news that unemployment was now only 7.7 percent, which amounts to a four-year low, but is still 5 million more people than reported being out of work in January 2008. In the area of Chicago’s South Side where the housewares expo is held, the rate is closer to a recession-level 11 percent. Not exactly, you’d think, Ken-the-brushed-stainless-Chef’s shining moment. Shouldn’t we be tightening our belts, getting back to basics?

Even in flusher times, Americans seemed largely uninterested in these massively expensive “kitchen machines,” which have been popular in Europe for years; Thermomix, Kenwood’s main competitor, pulled out of the U.S. market in 2004, and Kenwood only started selling the Cooking Chef through Williams-Sonoma last October. The kind of from-scratch cooking that these machines are meant to enable has been in decline over here. During the decades when this country’s economic growth was the envy of the world, Americans’ spending on home cooking plummeted even while restaurant spending went up. Kitchen machines, says Jack Schwefel, the CEO of Sur La Table, “offered a convenience the American consumer wasn’t looking for.”

The irony, however, is that with the recession, Kenwood’s moment may have come. We might be holding onto the old car for a few more years and booking a staycation instead of a week at the shore. Between 2007 and 2012, personal-consumption expenditures rose a scant 3.5 percent. (For comparison, during a comparable five-year period around the 2001 recession, the same numbers rose more than 15 percent.) But we are still spending a lot of money on flashy kitchen equipment.

Pricey “kitchen machines” like the Cooking Chef are still new to the market, of course, but dozens of other upmarket, automatic-everything, newer-than-next-week gadgets I saw scattered throughout the show are making their way into more and more American kitchens. Stand mixers, coffeemakers, juicers, blenders, and, increasingly, machines that do more than one thing. According to Debra Mednick of market research firm NPD, sales of kitchen electrics were up 10 percent last year, following a 9 percent increase the year before. Mednick’s ability to gather data stops at the cash register, so she can’t say whether we’re cooking from scratch. But the growth in our gadget purchases seems to indicate that if we aren’t cooking from scratch more than we recently did, we’re certainly preparing to.

Chicago’s McCormick Place, where the housewares expo is held, is the size of six football fields, and during the four-day event, virtually every yard is crammed with … well, the same stuff that crams your cabinets. Except more of it, in every style and color and price you can imagine.

I don’t need more kitchen gadgets. More to the point, like many of you, I don’t have room for more kitchen gadgets. My counter currently holds a pressure cooker, a stand mixer, a Thermomix food processor, a sous-vide machine, a vacuum sealer, a rice cooker, and a toaster oven. And the area under the cabinets—well, better left unsaid. The excess has colonized the basement, overrun the hallway, and is now setting up beachheads in our dining room.

Sur La Table’s Schwefel says that if it weren’t for the storage problem, customers would be spending even more in his stores. And in Chicago we could ogle every gadget, tablecloth, and appliance that manufacturers had invented to try to meet that demand. There were the twee areas where Provençal tablecloths snuggled up to copper cookware, and serious areas where Rosle saucepans and Mauviel stockpots displayed themselves with understated dignity. There was a sort of game reserve for celebrity cookware endorsed by Rachael Ray, Paula Deen, and Guy Fieri. A Nova Scotia company called Larch Wood showcased the most beautiful cutting boards I’ve ever seen, with the grain cut into intricate patterns that looked like little works of art—and to my great sadness, turned out to be priced like them, too. Elsewhere, cunning tools from the likes of Kuhn Rikon, OXO, and Progressive called out in neon colors that they could make my life easier if only I would take them home.

Given that the basic concept of cooking—applying heat to food—hasn’t changed much over the millennia, it was almost surprising to see how much inventiveness was on display. Individually, the progress might be small—like Progressive’s new spatula specially for cooking ground beef (an S-shape, so that the bits don’t slide off when you try to turn them over). But collectively, they seemed to promise an easier, better life. There were electric pressure cookers and microwave cookware to make meals in minutes, and slow cookers and sous-vide machines to make meals in days. Salad tongs that snapped apart into separate spoons, and salad spinners that would dry your salad with a single push of a button—no more tiresome pumping or cranking. There were gadgets that kept drinks hot and ones that kept them cold (no simple thermoses these) and of course an endless variety of machines to make the drinks themselves. Everyone I talked to said that drinks, from home soda makers to juicers to high-end coffee, are among the fastest-growing categories in kitchenware.

I sampled an impossibly smooth cup of coffee from Remington’s new iCoffee, which uses steam to heat the grounds so that the bitter compounds don’t end up in your cup. “I spent $15 million of my own money to develop it,” the inventor told me. We already have three or four very good coffee devices at home, but I couldn’t resist calling my husband to tell him about this one, despite the parting invocation he’d delivered as I left for the airport: “Don’t come home with a list.” This was a pretty tall order. “They want you to yearn for it,” I heard a KitchenAid representative say as I walked past a multi-tiered display that showcased stand mixers in every color from pink to pistachio.

[quote]The pricier machines give you the option not just of staying at home but of getting the restaurant experience at home.[/quote]

Not everything was quite so appealing, of course. I tried the product of a Rollie Eggmaster, a device advertised as the fast, easy, pan-free way to make perfect eggs every time. The Eggmaster looks sort of like a travel mug, except that instead of a place for coffee, there’s a narrow, deep hole in the top a little longer and wider than your finger. You can put a sausage into the Rollie, and then crack in an egg, and then in just five minutes you’ll have … something with the approximate taste and texture of an egg and a sausage cooked in a travel mug. But who was I, who owns both a Rotato and an electric egg cooker, to argue that the American public is not ready for the Eggmaster? If you believe NPD’s data, we’re spending money on everything else.

Somewhat to my surprise, however, Mednick told me that the increase in our spending doesn’t come from buying more equipment; it comes from buying better equipment. Households are trading up, spending more money on high-end goods like stand mixers and coffeemakers.

“There are two reasons why revenues can go up: the prices can go up, or people are buying more expensive products, she told me. “It’s the latter. Dollars spent are up 10 percent, but unit volumes are flat.”

“If you walk the floor and ask about price point,” she pointed out, “you’ll see products that sell at 5 times, 10 times, 20 times the normal price.” According to Consumer Reports, heavy, pricey KitchenAid mixers now account for about half of the stand-mixer market. Coffee offers even more opportunities to move up. At the entrance to the electrics pavilion, Jura Capresso was handing out free coffee from its line of $2,000 automatic espresso makers.

Another super-fancy $2,000 machine? It’s as if no one at the show had heard of the Great Recession. Is this just a slip back into the profligacy that brought us into the Great Recession—the 0 percent personal savings rate, the maxed-out credit cards, the overspending on our homes? To some extent, it may be our way of tapering off the excess: almost everyone I spoke to thought that consumers were using higher-end appliances as a substitute for expensive renovations they could no longer afford. And, Schwefel, who sells quite a few of those ultra-high-end machines, suggests that this all isn’t quite as extravagant as it might sound. “If the person who spends $2,000 on a coffeemaker saves $5 or $10 a day at Starbucks, that machine pays for itself pretty quick.”

Of course, most people will never own a $2,000 coffee machine. But they are upgrading, often spending hundreds of dollars when they could get a coffee machine at the drugstore for $14.99. The pricier machines give you the option not just of staying at home but of getting the restaurant experience at home: delicious, made to order, and practically automatic.

All over the show, the priciest gadgets were the ones that took the work—and a lot of the skill—out of the cook’s hands. T-fal was selling an indoor grill with buttons for fish, meat, vegetables, sandwiches—and a light that told you when they’d reached the desired level of doneness. Sous-vide water baths that make it literally impossible to overcook meat were proliferating. Zojirushi, which makes the world’s best rice cookers, was launching a new $800 machine that can cook rice dozens of ways, including a scorch function for those who like a crunchy bottom. And of course, there were machines like the Kenwood (and a new Australian entrant, the KAIO) that allow you to throw in all the ingredients for a sauce or a risotto, walk away, and come back to find it’s been cooked for you, and perfectly. Pair this all with the proliferation of high-end supermarkets and ingredients, Schwefel points out, and “now you can do something fabulous with food every day.”

Then there are the people who are increasingly bypassing the supermarket altogether—not just for the farmers’ market, but for their own backyard. “Do-it-yourself is huge,” says Schwefel. A few years ago, Schwefel walked into his SoHo store and noticed that the canning section was basically empty. Four years later, an area they kept stocked mostly for a few diehards had suddenly experienced explosive demand. Williams-Sonoma has taken the home production even further, with the spring 2012 launch of its Agrarian Line. For $500 you can buy a starter beehive kit, including protective clothing and a “custom-designed beehive” with a copper-anodized roof. For a few dollars more, just $895, you can acquire a handmade chicken coop made from reclaimed redwood.

What’s interesting is that these two trends—exquisite artisanal chicken coops and high-end kitchen robots—are growing at the same time. What’s even more interesting is that they may not be opposed. After all, if you’ve got perfectly fresh eggs, shouldn’t you also get the top-notch equipment to turn them into perfect hollandaise? And now that women are in the workforce instead of the farm kitchen, shouldn’t that equipment save time as well as labor? Which is to say, shouldn’t it let you walk away and do something else?

In fact many of these proliferating appliances do let us walk away and still expect perfect results—“set it and forget it,” in the words of TV pitchman Ron Popeil. They may even, over the long run, lower the cost of “doing something fabulous with food every day.” I may own several thousand dollars’ worth of kitchen equipment … but all my appliances enable me and my husband to cook at least 80 percent of our meals from scratch, which is a whole lot cheaper and better for us than the restaurant food or salty, sugary supermarket specials that we’d otherwise be consuming.

Of course, one could argue that it’s possible to do all that without an appliance, or a special spatula for turning ground beef. And so it is. I knew how to make good risotto and creamy hollandaise before I got a Thermomix. Virtually everything I do in my Thermomix, or my slow cooker, or my pressure cooker, or my sous-vide machine, could be done with my good old-fashioned range. But with the help of these handy gadgets, I can turn out better food, and faster, than ever before. Despite our ongoing love affair with pricey kitchen equipment, over the past five years, and especially since the financial crisis, Americans really have been getting back to basics. But basics, it turns out, are a lot more complicated than they used to be.

From our March 29, 2013, issue; ‘You Just Have To Have It!’

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