– Words by Sandra Jones Photography by Don Denton
If your mother ever told you that watching television was a waste of time, talk to Julia House, owner of Maison Cookware + Bakeware in Nanaimo.
“The Food Network launched when I was in my early 20s and I started watching Alton Brown’s show Good Eats. He had a scientific perspective on cooking and baking that I loved and the nerd in me thought: ‘I can do that!’,” laughs Julia.
Suddenly she began making everything from scratch.
“That show flipped a switch in my brain. I started by buying a pasta maker and went from there. As my skills grew, so did my need for the right tools.”
But those tools weren’t always easy to find.
Julia turned to trusted sources such as Cooks Illustrated magazine when she needed to find a specific kitchen tool, but would then be frustrated when she couldn’t buy it locally.
“I’d decide I wanted a carbon steel skillet and could order it online, but shipping cost a fortune. Or I’d just pick up a tool locally and it didn’t work the way it should. I wondered why kitchen stores were not doing the research for me. That was when I thought: ‘One day I’m going to have my own kitchen store’.”
That dream percolated in the back of her consciousness as she worked at several retail jobs, created a food blog and moved from Edmonton to Nanaimo. But it wasn’t until her then-husband quit his overseas job—allowing her to follow her dream—that she made the leap.
“I knew exactly the kind of store I wanted to create because I had been thinking about it for so many years. I had a list of products I wanted to carry because I had spent hours on the internet doing the research and then testing the products in my own kitchen.”
Two months after signing a lease on her retail space, she opened the doors.
“We opened in mid-October and were open seven days a week. We didn’t take a single day off until Christmas,” Julia recalls. “By that time the store was stripped bare and we had no stock left.”
Word spread quickly through social media and word-of-mouth.
Julia believes in a singularly simple core philosophy: “Anything we stock has to absolutely follow one rule: If I wouldn’t have it in my own kitchen, I won’t have it in my store,” she says.
That point of differentiation results in an exceptionally low return rate of merchandise purchased and an equally high return rate for repeat customers.
“Our customers tell us that they love to see this kind of quality in Nanaimo and that they come to us for our knowledge and our passion. Our staff has incredible product and cooking knowledge and we love to share what we know. We’ve been able to build great relationships because of that.”
Strong relationships have also been built with the more than 60 manufacturers from which Maison Cookware + Bakeware purchases merchandise.
“We’ve been fortunate in that our store is often selected to carry pre-launch items and we love getting the cool toys months before anyone else.”
One of those items was a bread lame used for scoring bread before baking.
“The supplier said he’d turned down other companies but knew we were choosy about what we bring in. We were the first store in the world he agreed to sell his product to.”
Store products run the gamut from one-of-a-kind items like a hand-carved ravioli tool made in Japan to a Smart Oven air fryer.
“We can’t keep this brand of air fryer in stock. I use mine every single day and I’ve cooked everything from pies to chicken in it. It’s faster and more efficient than my full-size oven.”
Julia, who follows the foodie world closely, is quick to anticipate the needs of her customers, but even she can’t anticipate everything.
“The influence of social media is huge and global trends can take off in a day. Two days after we started seeing hot cocoa bombs on the internet, I tried to buy the hemisphere moulds needed to make them. The supplier was already sold out and has still been sold out for nine months.”
Of course, also in the category of “unforeseen circumstances” was a global pandemic.
“By some bizarre stroke of luck we had always wanted to have an online store,” says Julia. “We had delayed it for years because it takes a long time to populate all of the items we sell, but we were able to launch it six months before the pandemic.”
As a result, the store never completely shut down and instead relied on online sales, curbside pick-up and cross-Canada shipping to fill its orders.
And then a funny thing happened: “A few people decided to learn how to make bread,” jokes Julia. Indeed, the lockdown prompted a widespread interest in cooking and as people experimented with everything from making sourdough to Japanese souffle pancakes, they turned to Maison Cookware + Bakeware.
“There was definitely a shift in the customers I saw during the pandemic. People wanted to support local businesses and were more conscientious about where they were spending their dollars. There are so many small businesses in Nanaimo and we need to keep that vibrancy.”
While much has changed over the past six years, Julia’s passion for her business has never waned. “Having this store is more than I ever dreamed and there is no doubt that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Q&A with Julia House
Boulevard: What’s your most-used kitchen tool?
Julia House: Ultimate ladle by GIR. It’s made of silicone so it’s flexible enough to scoop every drop of soup or sauce out of the pot. It also doubles as a measuring cup—I use it all the time.
B: What’s your signature dessert?
JH: Lemon cream tart.
B: And your dinner party go-to?
JH: I often have people over for pizza night because I have a Breville pizza oven.
B: Who is your favourite cookbook author?
JH: Dorie Greenspan, who has co-written books with Julia Child. I’m thrilled she’s started following us on Instagram.
B: Who are your dream dinner guests?
JH: Dorie Greenspan, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively (she loves to bake and I think they’re fun) and Zoë François, who is a baker and cookbook author with her own show on Magnolia Network.