Retail Pioneer, Age 100, Dies: Chuck Williams Leaves Behind A Cooking Legacy

Retail pioneer Chuck Williams is dead at the age of 100. The founder of the Williams-Sonoma brand was said to have remained a shopkeeper at heart. Williams is often credited with bringing high-quality French cookware and a new wave of specialized ingredients into American kitchens for decades. Retail tycoon Charles Williams died of natural causes in his sleep early Saturday, December 5.

Chuck Williams purchased an old hardware store in Sonoma in 1956, the New York Times reports. Not long after opening his new shop, Williams began filling the store with enamel and copper cookware that he had become enamored with during a trip through Europe. Williams was said to have influenced American cooks to become more willing to experiment in the kitchen and to become excited about the art of preparing food. Williams’ passion for cooking prompted the creation of both a successful mail-order business and the opening of 623 stores around the country. Pottery Barn and West Elm are among the Williams-Sonoma brand stores, NewsOxy reports.

“He just loved food and entertaining,” close friend and former Tante Marie’s Cooking School operator Mary Risley said. “The store put produce out front, but the better stuff was in the back. Chuck and I would meet going through the tomatoes in the back room. We knew all the tricks.”

She and Chuck Williams first met at a grocery store when they were a neighbor on Nob Hill.

Over the decades, Williams downplayed his success and said that he was “just at the right place at the right time,” Risley recalls.

Williams was born on October 2, 1915. He was raised in northern Florida and often baked alongside his grandmother as a young boy. His grandmother once owned a restaurant. The Williams family, like many Americans, suffered during the Great Depression. They traveled around the country looking for work. When Chuck was 16, the family settled in Palm Springs.

After settling in California, Chuck Williams started working at a roadside produce stand operated by a date ranching family. His parents reportedly left the teenager in Palm Springs and he finished high school under the guidance of the farmer who owned the roadside stand. Once he had his high school diploma, the Williams-Sonoma founder moved to Los Angeles and began working at I. Magnin & Co. as a window dresser. He later said the visual merchandising experience proved extremely valuable. Williams once positioned a massive vase of lilies on top of a giant pedestal in the glove department. The display was deemed a “bold move that shocked everyone,” he said of the newly minted store tradition.

During World War II, Chuck Williams was stationed in both African and India. While in the military, he said he also took the opportunity to learn about the culinary offerings and cooking techniques of the locals.

“I didn’t have many friends,” Williams once said when reflecting upon his childhood and teenage years. “So I wasn’t off playing, and I suppose watching and helping [my grandmother] did shape my cooking knowledge. There was no nonsense about what went on in the kitchen.”

The Williams-Sonoma business really took off in 1971, Biography reports. Chuck put together the company’s first catalog that year and it was welcomed into about 5,000 homes. In 1972, Williams-Sonoma became an incorporated enterprise and other stores soon began popping up across California and ultimately around the country.

Chuck Williams was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the James Beard Foundation, received the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame, and received a doctor of Humane Letters in Culinary Arts degree from the Culinary Institute of America.

[Photo by Eric Risberg/AP]