It was the spring of 1994. We were in San Francisco at the IACP conference(International Association of Culinary Professionals) We entered the dining room the first morning of the conference for the "networking" breakfast. The room was set up for a breakfast buffet. We went to the buffet first for coffee and toast and then looked for a place to sit. We found a table for 8 with only three seated. We properly asked if we could sit in case anyone was saving a seat for a friend. When told to "have a seat," I sat next to a man in proper business attire. The other two at the table were females in chef garb. So there we were, 2 farmers in various degrees of denim seated with 2 chefs and 1 businessman. It seemed to be a diverse table that may not have much discussion at that early hour.
I introduced myself to the businessman on my right. As it was somewhat noisy, I heard his first name was "Chuck" but didn't catch his last name. He asked me where I was from and what I did for a living. As is my normal response, especially at a "networking" breakfast, I gave him probably only a 5 minute nonstop about our farm. It could have been my usual 15 minute diatribe but I was being polite. Surprisingly, he seemed interested. He asked me how we raised the lambs. So I went on a bit longer about raising lambs on grass. He said something about "Sonoma Lamb" which was prized in that part of the country. We had flown to SF the day before and hadn't seen a blade of grass so I was lost at the big deal about Sonoma Lamb.
I then spent another non-stop five to ten minutes going on about the incredible quality of the grass in our area on the Chestnut Ridge of the Allegheny Mountains. I was so stirred up that I forgot to eat. Either trying to be polite or just to change the subject, Chuck asked me how I sold the lambs. Now I was on a roll. I started by telling him that there was no market for high quality lamb in Western PA so we started a mail order business so we could ship all over the country. I told him that we had a huge mailing list of over a thousand names.
Finally I took a breath. Just at that pause, when I was about to launch into another story of my mail order genius, Chuck said, "We have a mail order business too."
I said, "Really, do you send out a catalog?"
He answered, "Yes" just as the two chefs across the table looked over and started to snicker.
Between sips of coffee I asked, "What is the name of the catalog?"
I managed not to spit out my coffee, but I did encounter some heartburn as I nodded, "Oh, you're Chuck Williams."
So the "Chuck" I was talking to was the founder of Williams-Sonoma. Rather than being offended by my overenthusiastic and hyperbolic evaluation of our then fledgling business, Chuck asked a few more questions, told me what the circulation of their catalog was and then asked me then and there if we would be interested in selling our product in his catalog.
We started with Williams-Sonoma that holiday season, terrified that we would not be able to support the huge increase in business. Glossy photos in a big beautiful catalog gave us credibility. We learned how to efficiently ship that kind of volume. We stayed with them for three years. Even after all these years, we still have customers who started buying from us during that time. That exposure was the defining moment of our mail order business.
Chuck Williams was a great friend to the food industry and helped bring many companies like ours to a national presence during the holiday season. Thanks to him and Merry Christmas to you!