Sur La Table’s Anniversary: Over 5 Decades of Making More

Sep 18, 2023

Before it was a white, brick-and-mortar building emblazoned with the words Sur La Table, our Pike Place store was simply a glimmer of a vision for our founder, Shirley Collins.

“There wasn’t a place in Seattle at the time to buy any kind of cooking equipment—nothing. If you wanted a pastry bag or a piece of cheesecloth, you really had to go to San Francisco to get it.” At the time, Collins was gripped by Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (as was most of the country).

But before Sur La Table’s Pike Place store could open its doors, Shirley would play an important role in the history of the marketplace for which the store was named.

Pike Place Market—before the fish throwing and colorful flower arrangements and revitalized waterfront—first opened as a public farmers market back in 1907. It grew with the city, amidst all the highs and the lows that the 20th century brought, including a fire that nearly destroyed the Sanitary Market building in 1941 and stalls that fell quiet during the unlawful incarceration of Japanese Americans (the majority of the marketplace’s farmers, at the time) at the height of World War II.

The loss of the Japanese farmers, post-war suburban expansion, and the rise of supermarkets all led to physical and economic decline in the Market’s post-war years.

But few of these hardships hold as much significance to the Market’s history as the fight to save it.

During the early ‘60s and propelled by the national trend of urban renewal, the Pike Plaza Project was proposed with support of the mayor, calling for a “rejuvenation” of the marketplace that would result in skyscrapers and luxury hotels replacing most, if not all, of the Market buildings.

This, as Shirley explained, would be devastating to the local community that both frequented and relied on the Market: “All these old people who lived down there, that was their life…,” she says, in an interview with the Seattle Times; “it just seemed wrong to come in and close down their community for the sake of a big hotel.”

Shirley would become one of the founding members of the Friends of the Market, alongside such luminaries as Victor Steinbrueck and Peggy Golberg. The Friends would work fervently—holding fundraisers, gathering signatures, canvassing, protesting and writing letters—to save it. And their hard work paid off.

The “Let’s Keep the Market” initiative passed with a 59% margin, preserving Pike Place and its role as a gathering place for the farmers, small independent businesses and senior residents that held it so close to their hearts.

And that’s where Shirley’s story takes off.

After the Market was saved, she set up shop in an old speakeasy, receiving the now historic district’s first certificate of occupancy and launching the Sur La Table we know and love today. The Pike Place store would go on to become a destination for tourists, home cooks and culinary aficionados and host famous chefs like Julia Child and Jacques Pepin.

Even now, more than 50 years later, Shirley’s legacy and Sur La Table’s connection to the Market holds strong. As the folks at the Pike Place Market Foundation put it:

“Sur La Table has been an important part of our history from the very beginning, as Shirley Collins helped found the Market Foundation and developed the concept for Rachel the Piggy Bank. We are grateful that Shirley’s unwavering commitment to the Market community continues to be felt today, and we look forward to many more years of partnership at Pike Place Market!”

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