Tim Littleton is happiest when he’s in the kitchen — slicing asparagus, putting lamb chops on the grill or perhaps preparing 25 pounds of pulled pork.
So, though he’s not a chef, buying Chefs Catalog was a natural fit for him.
Also, Littleton had been in the catalog business here — he owned a company called Walter Drake, which sold all manner of household items — before he got into the Chefs Catalog deal, so he knew the ropes.
Littleton, along with two partners and private equity group JH Partners, bought Chefs Catalog from Dallas-based Neiman Marcus Group in 2004.
That was relatively easy. Not so simple was moving the operation from Texas to Colorado Springs, packing, transporting and unloading an entire warehouse of merchandise over one weekend.
“One day we were filling orders in Dallas and the next (business) day we filled orders in Colorado Springs,” Littleton said.
That wasn’t the last move for the company.
After beginning with 20 employees in 800 square feet of temporary space on the north side of town, the company moved to its current location in April 2005. Since then, it has grown to 105 full-time employees and about 75 seasonal employees.
Today, it operates a 75,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center at 5050 Centennial Blvd. and a 30,000 square-foot space next door that holds its corporate headquarters, call center and retail store.
The retail location is filled with bright and colorful culinary gadgets, pots, kabob skewers, condiments and spices. Anyone who can’t find what they want in the store can go online, where the company offers about 5,000 items.
Customers also can take on-site gourmet cooking classes, taught by local chefs.
With Williams-Sonoma and Crate and Barrel and innumerable others in the business, there’s plenty of competition, Littleton said, so Chefs Catalog tries to make sure it has the widest selection of premium items for the kitchen.
One of the most popular today: padded floor mats that help reduce back and leg stress for anyone who spends hours on their feet in the kitchen.
Chefs Catalog customers typically don’t pay shipping, because it’s free on orders of $99 or more. That’s a competitive edge, according to Littleton, because people tend to buy several items at a time and would face separate shipping charges from the individual manufacturers who fill the orders. Chefs Catalog, on the other hand, warehouses most of what it sells and ships directly.
The catalog is shot here, in a set at the company’s headquarters where food is prepared using some of the many items featured.
Each year, Chefs Catalog mails out 10 million catalogs. It has 13 different catalogs, featuring about 1,500 items. It tracks the return on investment for each catalog, and over the past several years, as its Web business has increased, it has cut costs by trimming back on the number of pages in each catalog.
“It’s a heavy data-driven business,” said Littleton, who has a bachelor’s in business administration and a minor in marketing from Ferris State University in Michigan.
Such data leads to innovation, new products and new ways to keep customers coming back.
On its website, the company has a five-star rating system, and 11,000 customer reviews. The average rating is 4.6.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he explained. “If we get bad reviews on a product, we’ll stop selling it, or we’ll talk to the manufacturer about what we can do to improve it.”
“Our biggest threat is our ability to keep up with changing technology,” he continued. “Years ago, catalogers who didn’t adapt to the Internet didn’t fare so well. “The Web continues to change. Some day catalogs will be delivered via a handheld device. I’m not sure when (that will be) but we’ll need to be ready for that.”
The slower economy hasn’t especially hurt business; in fact, it has had its upside, he said.
“People learn they can stay home and cook a meal and eat better than going out — and it’s a fun family activity,” Littleton said.
Nationally, the top 100 houseware merchandisers generate $86 billion in revenue.
Chefs Catalog ranked 84th out of the top 100, according to Homeworld Magazine’s January 2010 issue.
Homeworld also ranks the company as one of the top five “e-taliers” in the nation, among those who specialize in the kitchen market.
This year, the company launched its Facebook page, an active site with customers responding to posts and voting in contests. After starting with 300 “fans,” Chefs now has more than 11,500 fans.
Next on the company’s to-do list is making the website more mobile-phone friendly.
“It’s another investment,” Littleton said, “but one we need to stay ahead of the curve.”
And one which will allow customers to shop on smartphones from their own kitchens.