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The Clay Gourmet: A Special Place

By Lori Thielen

The Clay Gourmet is located at 432 Lincoln Street in downtown Clay Center. For more information, call 785-632-5534.

If it is used on the Food Network, it can probably be purchased in Clay Center, Kansas.

Jason and Annette Smith opened The Clay Gourmet in October 2001 to carry cookware, bakeware, cookbooks, cutlery, tabletop items, seasonal items and more kitchen gadgets than one could ever imagine. Clay Center, population 4,564, may seem an unlikely location for such a specialized store, but the store’s customer base continues to grow. They also receive plenty of advice from Jason’s family. His mother has operated a successful gourmet kitchen shop in McPherson, Kansas, called The Cook’s Nook for the past 19 years. Customers who have been to the McPherson store will notice many similarities including the products carried, the checkerboard logo, and the attention to customer service.

Opening a specialty store was not originally in the couple’s plans, but rather evolved as a result of circumstances. Jason worked at the DeBruce Elevator in Clay Center and Annette commuted to Manhattan every day to work at Kansas State University.

“When we became pregnant with our first child I realized I didn’t want to have to make that drive every day,” Annette says. “Jason started thinking about a change from the elevator and we began exploring other options. When Jason’s mom mentioned opening a store like The Cook’s Nook it just developed from there.”

The couple, who now has three daughters ranging in age from 10 months to 5 years, typically takes turns working at the store every other day so someone is always home with the kids. They have one other part-time employee.

“I never imagined I’d be doing this,” Annette, who is originally from Clay Center, says. “But it gives us the chance to do something we enjoy and stay home with our kids and that’s priceless.”

Jason admits that opening the store has been a learning experience.

“We quickly found that what works in McPherson doesn’t necessarily work here,” Jason explains. “But it is nice to have that connection because sometimes we can split orders with the McPherson store so that we can try some stuff without having to make a large order.”

Each year the couple travels to the International Home and Housewares Show in Chicago to select their product lines. While it may be hard to predict what will sell, some of their best advertising happens when products are used on a cooking channel on television.

“Even if something has been around awhile people seem to get a better understanding of the product after seeing it on television,” Jason says. “We carried the Butter Bell© Crock, which keeps butter at a consistency for spreading, for several years and sold some in the beginning but hadn’t sold any for two years. After it was shown on the Food Network we started selling them like crazy.”

Fiesta® Dinnerware is the store’s biggest seller because it is well known and collectible. Foods, coffees and teas are all popular in the fall during tailgating season and in the winter during the holidays. Cake decorating products also sell well consistently.

The couple is sometimes surprised at the upper end items that sell, but then again sometimes customers are surprised at what they can find in the store.

“We had a customer here from California who had been looking all over for a shrimp deveiner and was thrilled to find it here,” Annette says. “It’s all about trying to find the unique items that can’t be found at the larger discount stores.”

It is also all about customer service at The Clay Gourmet.

“All the little things add up that we do such as the free gift wrap, gift delivery to weddings locally, and the fact that we’ll help refer people to other stores if they come in looking for something we don’t have,” Annette says.

An extensive bridal and gift registry helps draw customers from a wide geographic range.

“We get couples from Clay Center, Clyde, Linn, Washington and beyond,” Jason explains. “We also offer a registry of sorts for all of our customers where people can come in before a birthday or holiday and make a list of items they like. Husbands usually find this helpful.”

The customer base continues to grow each year. They currently have a mailing list of more than 2,000 customers to whom they send a newsletter before their Annual Holiday Open House. The newsletter typically includes store updates, recipes and new product information.

“It’s interesting because we have people who will come in with their newsletter in hand and ask about a certain product that was described,” Jason says. “The newsletter at least targets people who have been into our store and enjoy it.”

The couple has seen several changes take place since opening their store in 2001. One change is that Clay Center as a whole is experiencing growth due to the expansion of Fort Riley.

“The community has a really neat Welcome Home committee where businesses can advertise and donate items so that is good exposure,” Jason says. “The downtown square is really pretty active too.”

The store also continues to make changes to attract a wider range of customers. One example is that The Clay Gourmet currently carries bulk coffees and teas and will expand into bulk spices after Christmas 2006.

“We know we can’t rely solely on a community of our size, but we draw from a wide variety of people and our customer base is pretty broad in both age and income,” Jason says.

 

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Last Updated April 6, 2009
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