A slice of Upper East Side Manhattan charm has made its way to Dubai, as Williams Sonoma opened its first store in the emirate this month. If you have any interest in high-end home food and cooking, this is the mothership calling you home.
The bricks-and-mortar outpost in The Dubai Mall comes as a (pleasant) surprise, given that about 50 stores are slated to close, up from the 30 closures planned even before the pandemic. However, the company is thriving online with a 22 per cent increase in revenue in 2020, proving that even in tough times it's a brand people have an emotional attachment with.
Full of lovely food-related things – from bakeware, cookware and cookbooks to gorgeously packed jars of sweets, tins of biscuits, pancake mixes and maple syrup – Williams Sonoma is something of a byword for fancy, somewhat expensive, cooking accessories. It's even been referenced in Sex and the City and Frasier, which is a 1990s nod of approval from the types of shoppers you'd expect to find there.
The brand's founder, Chuck Williams, first moved to Sonoma, California, in 1947, where he began working as a contractor and fell in with a group of friends who shared his love of cooking. A trip to Europe in 1953 was the catalyst that transformed his passion into a vocation. During his travels, Williams was introduced to classic French cooking equipment unlike anything he had seen back in the US. A year later, he purchased a hardware store in downtown Sonoma, with an aim to transform it into a shop specialising in French cookware.
The first Williams Sonoma store opened in 1956, as a cosy paean to 1950s America, themed around Thanksgiving and Christmas, eggnog and candy canes, muffins and pancakes, as well as high-end cooking appliances.
“Our store was located just down the block from Elizabeth Arden, and many of our early customers were women who just happened to be walking by on their way to get their hair done. The lesson of having a good location wasn't lost on us,” Williams has said. “In the 1970s, they were using things like woks and drinking good wines out of real wine glasses. They were even starting to invest in appliances like Kitchen Aid blenders. We were one of the few places you could find any of this stuff."
In recent years, the brand has become famous for its peppermint bark. The nostalgic minty-chocolate confection made its debut 19 years ago, and it's become something of a cult phenomenon. Handcrafted using custom-blended Guittard chocolate and triple-distilled oil of peppermint, it makes its once-a-year appearance in November.
Strangely, there’s not really an equivalent in any other country. In the UK, some of the food items from M&S and Waitrose come close, mixed with cooking equipment from John Lewis, but those are notably different.
In many ways, Williams Sonoma is to American food what Eataly is to Italian – it may not be wholly authentic to specific regions of the country, but it's a good snapshot as an overall celebration of key ingredients. Williams Sonoma also owns Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and West Elm, and it's no coincidence that West Elm stores carry a big range of Mid-century modern design items, from furniture to glassware, in keeping with the retro tone.
But Williams Sonoma has its own distinct aesthetic – fancy and full of desirable items. It underscores the fact that at some places presentation is everything and packaging dominates price. From the pre-packaged bread flours to fancy coffeemakers and tempting-looking treats, it’s a store of indulgences. And perhaps you don’t need to spend Dh958 on a Cangshan bread knife from the Thomas Keller Signature Collection, but it’s nice to know that it’s there.