Cooks Corner specializes in kitchenware

He has a pleasant and disarming way of hawking his merchandise. Today, it is porcelain dinnerware – 22,000 pieces that are being sold for a pittance because of someone else’s warehouse fire.

“Look at this — $3.99,” Pete Burback says, lifting one attractive platter after another from a 3-foot-tall box. “What a deal. It’s killing me.”

He laughs, a tad manically and then moves to a different storage crate. “There’s more – see? Can you believe this?”

Within a half-hour, Pete will have talked up the porcelain with a dozen customers, greeted his kids’ doctor with a hug, fetched a 10-foot ladder and hooted about his newest challenge: finding bone marrow spoons, to fill a customer’s request.

The owner of Cooks Corner, 836 S. Eighth St., Manitowoc, seems to be having the time of his life. He describes his business as the nation’s largest kitchen store and the city’s biggest tourist draw, attracting 170,000 visitors per year.

“We get busloads,” Pete says. Who decided this place is the nation’s largest? There is a shrug, then this: “Nobody’s called me to say ‘you’re full of it.’ “

With that comes another laugh. The Manitowoc store has been 20,000 square feet since 1998. For four years before that, it took up 3,000 square feet in the 1849 Schuette Brothers department store building, as a place to buy parts and seconds for Mirro, West Bend and NESCO cookware.

Today there are more than 15,000 kitchen products for sale, 49-cent orange peelers to $799 kitchen work centers. If you want something and can’t find it, ask.

“We get mountains of requests,” Pete says, and – for now – he does all the product buying.

“Our store is a destination, versus a specialty shopping stop. For me, it’s just fun – we’re trying to be the best.”

Much of the inventory is online, too, so employees typically wheel carts around the retail area in early morning, to fill orders that need to be mailed. Order more than $99 in merchandise, and the shipping is free.

It has been a challenging venture for Pete and Cathy Burback, his wife since 1985. They know what it’s like to dip into their own savings to meet the payroll.

“I think I’m in the right place, at the right time,” Pete says. His competition, to some extent, is Williams-Sonoma, Crate&Barrel, Sur La Table, Bed Bath & Beyond – but Pete will argue that they cater to a more upscale clientele.

He works hard to make Cooks Corner look and feel less intimidating, with deep-discount warehouse shopping as well as more conventional retail space.

Example: There is a 157-foot wall of just kitchen gadgets.

“Since 9-11, there has been more cocooning, investments in making kitchens more cozy,” Pete says. “And when the economy is poor, people tend to stay home and cook more.

“Everybody eats and cooks, or at least will have to use a pot or dish at some point. Anybody can find something of use here.”

The empire expanded in 2005, with the opening of a 12,000-square-foot Cooks Corner as an anchor at Trasino Centre in Appleton. There is a demonstration kitchen as well as retail/warehouse sales space.

A few months before the Appleton store opened, Pete’s back went out, requiring surgery. He kept on working through that fuzzy time and “waited for the lingerie and tires to come in” instead of pots, pans and kitchen appliances.

That didn’t happen, and Pete instead has been pleasantly surprised because “I had high expectations and I’m surpassing them.”

He wants Cooks Corner to be known as a kitchen resource, the place to go for advice about food preparation, even if it means sending a customer to a competitor.

Employees tend to have a solid background in cooking, or at least a genuine interest in it that can be supplemented by “comprehensive product training.”

The store has developed its own signature fudge and sells other gourmet foods, too. Product sampling is commonplace.

“We’ve been on the verge of bankruptcy,” Pete says of the past. “We’ve always been undercapitalized, but that will change” because of an investment group that is being gathered together.

In his office is worksheet after worksheet, taped to the wall, outlining strategy, challenges, promotional possibilities.

Next up: stores in Madison and Milwaukee, which Pete intends to open this year. He has not announced the locations.

The goal is to have six Cooks Corner stores by 2007, but the plan is for Manitowoc’s to remain the biggest.

For more: www.cookscorner.com, 800-236-2433.