Over 50 Years of Women at Sur La Table
Back in 1972, there wasn’t a place in Seattle where aspiring chefs, bakers and home cooks could go to buy cooking equipment. As our founder, Shirley Collins, puts it: “If you wanted a pastry bag or a piece of cheesecloth, you really had to go to San Francisco to get it.”
So, Shirley took matters into her own hands.
She applied for a bank loan (and made history by being the first woman in the state of Washington to do so) and our first store opened its doors on September 7, 1972, just outside the entrance to Pike Place Market.
Then, in 1996, came our culinary program founded by Renee Behnke. More than 30 years later, over 393,000 people take our cooking classes each year! Yeah, color us impressed.
From those first days, women have always remained at the forefront of Sur La Table’s success. In fact, 67.8% of Sur La Table employees are women and 11 hold positions at the director-level and above.
So, in celebration of Women’s History Month, we reminisced with Shirley about some of her favorite memories—and even her favorite meal.
What are some of your fondest memories of Sur La Table?
It’s always been about the people; they gave me the support I needed. There’s also the day that Danny Kaye came in for stainless steel mixing bowls. He grabbed a wok and danced around the store with it on his head. He ended up saying, “I think I want to buy a new knife.” Then of course Jacques Pépin and Julia.
What is the best thing that anyone has ever cooked for you?
It was from Joël Robuchon. He was famous for his mashed potatoes, and he only used Princess La Ratte potatoes.
How did growing up in South Texas influence your cooking?
My mother hated to cook, so I had the kitchen to myself. And we were so far south, we were close to the border with Mexico. My family went there because they had a huge market. It was wonderful.
What is your most treasured kitchen possession?
I have a pot that’s five quarts. It’s deep and has a rounded shape and domed lid, and I use it to make everything. It’s All-Clad, and just wonderful.
If you could invite five guests to a dinner party, who would they be?
Bridget Charters, Kim Smith, Molly Caseburn, Cathy Conner, Sally McArthur. All these women worked hard to make a place at the table for women in the food industry. And I would ask Julia and Jacques because everybody would like that.
If you could have only one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
As a woman starting a business 51 years ago, what obstacles did you face and how did you address them?
I was the first female in the state of Washington to apply for a bank loan on my own. Women didn’t apply for them in those days because they didn’t see it as something they could do. But I did. Women were made to feel like they were not valued, but we are. We need to recognize that and honor it in everything we do.
What do you think sets Sur La Table apart?
The heart of the store was the food around us. The community, our friends, the people that lived in the market that didn’t have enough to eat. We raised money for those people.
Where do you hope to see Sur La Table in five or 10 years?
Stay the course. Make sure you’re connected to food. Grow carefully. Be genuine and make a difference.
What is your #MakeMore?
My make more would be for each of you to find a way in your community to help people that need it. Do it for yourself. Do it for me. Do it for them. That’s my make more.
To learn more about Shirley, the history of Sur La Table and the important role women play in our success, head over to our Women’s History Month page.