It was never Kimberly Thompson’s lifelong ambition to one day own a store.
It was only after she moved to Galena, Ill., and started working in a retail setting that she realized that was what she wanted to do.
More than 20 years later, the Grateful Gourmet continues to grow.
“I moved to Galena and was working at a local wine and cheese shop,” Thompson said. “After I started working there, I knew I wanted to start my own business. I just wasn’t sure what it would be. I was doing some catering and that was one option. And I had experience in retail. When a store location on Main Street became available, I knew I had to jump into it fast. I quickly wrote up a business plan and went into the bank for a loan. Amazingly, they gave it to me.”
The Grateful Gourmet would be the result of something she’d long had a passion for.
“I was really into cooking and I was catering,” Thompson said. “This was an avenue I had experience in. There also weren’t a lot of options in Galena for cooking products. So, I thought this was where I was going to go. I started going to trade shows and doing research and meeting with people. And through trial and error, I learned it. It was never something I had ever planned on.”
The store opened on North Main Street in 1998. She began stocking it with the products she loved. She also wanted to have items that wouldn’t be found at your typical cooking store. She admits not all of her choices worked, but the majority did.
“We carry the basics, but also a ton of unusual items,” Thompson said. “People are always saying we have really different things that they haven’t seen at typical kitchen shops. We’re always looking for kitschy things. I know kitchen things can sometimes be boring, but I try to mix it with stuff that is funky and not just your basic spatula. I’ve gone into too many kitchen stores that have seemed so sterile and boring. I try to brighten it up a bit.”
It wasn’t long after the store opened in 1998 that it began to outgrow its original space. Eventually, the back would be opened up, then the upstairs. When the store next door closed, she bought it and knocked down the adjoining wall. Thompson admits that even after all that, they could use more space.
If she had strong instincts about what products to offer, Thompson realized she was out of her element when it came to the business aspect.
“I knew the cooking part, but I knew the business part was going to be a little tricky for me,” she said. “I asked a lot of questions when I started and talked to a lot of business owners. I wasn’t ever afraid to ask something. I hadn’t majored in business, so there was a lot of trial and error for me. There are a couple cooking stores around the Midwest that I admire and sometimes I’ll call one of them up and ask questions. They’ve been really helpful.”
As with most businesses in Galena, much of the Grateful Gourmet’s success is the result of tourism.
“I have a good local following, but tourism is my bread and butter,” Thompson said. “I have repeat customers that come back every year. We try to give them good service so that they remember us. Our hours expand in the summer and we keep the doors wide open, literally. We feed them samples and show them demos. People come in and we try to make it fun for them. Make it interesting for them.”
This reliance on tourism means the winter months can be a struggle.
“You spend the whole year preparing for winter in Galena,” she said. “You know it’s coming and that everything will slow down. You get amazed at how quiet, quiet can be. We try to let the local customers know about different things going on through Facebook and Instagram. But that can’t compete with the tourist season.”
One thing she tries not to do is to cut back on her employee’s hours. She’s enabled them with additional responsibilities, such as setting up new displays, marketing and maintaining her website. In fact, in the beginning, Thompson wanted no part of a website.
“I didn’t want to do a website,” Thompson said. “I resisted it. But I knew I had to keep up. I wasn’t technically savvy, but I had so many tourists asking if I had a shopping cart online and so now we do. I don’t have every product that we carry online, but hope to eventually.”
As the business has evolved throughout the years. So has the market that it serves.
“The market has changed so much,” Thompson said. “The Food Network has changed things in a lot of ways. People are constantly coming i nand telling us about something they’ve seen on it. And who is cooking is changing. Women are still a big part of our customer base, but men have become great customers, as well. They’re really invested in cooking and grilling.”
Children also have become more involved in cooking and, as a result, Thompson has set up a section just for them.
For coffee-lovers, the shop has added in-hour coffee roasting to their assortment of offerings, which has become popular.
Another market she is looking to expand into, is the commercial market.
“We have a lot of restaurants in the area that rely on us for products,” Thompson said. “They might suddenly need some utensils. We sell of a lot of baking supplies and serving products. They’ll often come in at the last minute needing something. I give them a discount, because they’re a local business and I want to support them. And I’ll do special orders for them.”
One myth that she said can hurt a business such as hers is that Thompson can’t compete with the major chains. It’s simply not the case.
“The biggest misconception is that I’m a small town kitchen store and my prices are going to be out of sight,” she said. “That I can’t compete with the big box stores. That is simply not true at all. My prices are often lower than them and if someone points out to me that a price is lower with one of them, I’ll match it. I just don’t want that to be a thought. I hear it constantly that we’re really reasonable. I want people to stick with us.”
Scott Salwolke is a freelance writer from Dubuque.