A passion for cooking, entertaining and all things kitchen is the driving force behind a new retail venture in Iowa City’s Northside Marketplace.
Nearing retirement from her position in the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, Susan Felker was hungry for more creativity and deeper engagement in her life. She and her family, husband Kevin and son Alex, began fantasizing what their next endeavor might look like. This next chapter, as it turns out, circled back to a shared family passion.
“The love of cooking and all things kitchen; we’ve always had that in our family,” Susan said. “We talked about that as we were thinking about businesses and what Iowa City was missing and what we would love doing. We love being in the kitchen, it’s where we end up all the time.”
Together as a family, they decided to pursue the idea of a community hub centered around food and the connection it fosters.
“We wanted something we could all work on together and that we were all passionate about. We looked at several different ideas but we settled on the kitchen store,” Alex chimed in.
“I love entertaining and having people around,” explained Susan as we stood in the construction zone of their new store. “The idea was, ‘How could we make that a business?’ ‘How can you be in your kitchen, have fun with your friends and family, cook, entertain and have that be your business?’ This idea really fit the bill.”
With Susan and Kevin’s business backgrounds (Kevin is a professor at Tippie’s Department of Business Analytics) and Alex’s experience in marketing and strategy, the family was keenly aware of what it would take to create a viable venture. They embarked on an extensive investigation to make sure the business side was sound.
“It can’t just be fun; it has to be successful. We felt good about it,” Susan said. “You can never be 100 percent sure, but if you’re 90 percent sure and 10 percent terrified, you’re good. That’s where we’re at right now,” she laughs.
Now, after nearly two years of scheming, the new retail outlet and demo kitchen, named Prairie Kitchen Store, is set to open in mid-2020. In February, Kevin guided me through the remodeled space that was previously the Motley Cow Cafe, pointing out areas for product display and plans for the former bar. The store will feature all manner of kitchenware, from table ceramics to high-quality knives, linens to pots and pans. Soon, a wall of kitchen tools––think can openers, serving spoons and spatulas––will flank what used to be the restaurant’s dining room, and a cozy nook dubbed “The Dram Shop” will be stocked with glassware, bitters and other mixology musts.
Where other kitchen supplies stores seek to provide shoppers a plethora of options for any given item, the team at Prairie Kitchen Store views the product mix they plan to offer as an exercise in restraint and curation.
“If someone wants the best cheese grater, we want to have the best cheese grater. We don’t need 15 cheese graters. You need some choice, but you want just the best few types you can get,” Susan explained.
The Felkers feel that too often, kitchen goods are plasticky gadgets that can quickly lead to a cluttered kitchen. To offset that tendency, the products for sale at PKS will be chosen based on a few guiding principles, which they hope will set their store apart from others in the market. Choosing items that are not only durable, but useful and beautifully designed, will be of the utmost importance. Shoppers can expect to find trusted big-name brands like All-Clad and Wusthof alongside smaller artisan lines sourced both locally and across the country.
Beyond just creating a retail haven for local foodies, the Felkers hope the educational component of their business will flourish, and plan to lead regular sessions in their kitchen-turned-classroom. The open kitchen of the former restaurant has morphed into a demo kitchen with unobstructed views of the action from a close distance.
As they conducted their market research, they repeatedly heard requests for classes that instructed participants how to prepare healthy, weeknight dinners for families and skill-building classes.
“We’ve found listening to the community is pretty important,” Susan said. “You don’t want to set up your schedule like, ‘This is what we think is great.’ Most of our ideas will be spot-on, but you need to leave room to go in the direction of what customers want and need.”
They plan to deliver what their customers want, with weekly sessions ranging from noodle bowls to sheet pan dinners and more. Basic technique classes, like a knife skills course, are also part of the planned curriculum. And while the Felkers all fancy themselves avid home cooks, the courses will mostly be instructed by a handful of outside teachers.
“It’s a mix of people who are just members of the community and are passionate about cooking and have something really good that they want to share, but also professional chefs,” Alex said.
As for the former bar? It’s been envisioned as a small coffee bar that will serve caffeinated drinks and treats baked in-house as well as craft beer and wine. Intended to transform what would otherwise be a standard retail experience into something more, the Felkers hope it adds something of a destination element to the space. The outdoor sidewalk patio further encourages this idea, inviting patrons to linger over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee as they soak up the sights and sounds of the neighborhood.
“We hope it’s a place people want to be. That it’s more than just buying product and leaving. We’ll see what it morphs into,” Susan mused.