James Geneau

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Whatever Happened to Dean and Deluca?

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By James Geneau

It was 1995 and I was on one of my frequent trips to NYC when, as a late blooming foodie, I walked into New York’s grande-dame of gourmet food, Dean & Deluca.  The experience was overwhelming and I immediately fell in love with one item in particular, their fabulous spices.  I stocked up and went home to Montreal filled with this new found urge to cook.  The packaging was brilliant, the scent was amazing.  All I wanted to do was use every last spice until every morsel of chicken, beef and fish in a ten block radius of my flat was devoured.

When I moved to Toronto in 1998, I knew I was in Canada’s foodie capital when, while walking along Bloor Street, I found a shop with a window filled with Dean and Deluca spices.  The store eventually closed a few years later, but I was loyal to the spices and oils imported from New York until the shop finally closed.  Then, the other day, as I was cleaning out my pantry, I found an old tin of Dean & Deluca Greek Oregano.  It looked foreign to me for a moment before a flood of memories came back.  At the same time, I could not help but wonder...whatever happened to Dean & Deluca?

In 1977, Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca opened a shop in the heart of SoHo with the goal of bringing artisan-produced foods from around the world to the people of New York.  They wanted products that fired their imaginations, challenged their tastes, and turned dinner into a creative exercise.  Jack Ceglic, one of the founding partners, designed the original store to evoke a turn of the century food hall, with high ceiling fans spinning over a vast array of products that lined the high, white walls.   The design of the shop combined with the finest in artisan foods from around the world made Dean & Deluca an instant success.

My first visit to their shop in SoHo was wonderful.  Believe it or not, it was the first time I had actually stepped foot in a gourmet shop where I actually felt comfortable.  I was young and knew little about food.  I was impressed by how everything was presented and the friendly food specialists who guided me to find the right spices and oils.  It was as if they knew I was a newbie and their goal was to educate me.  I was in The Banana Republic of Spices and Oils and they had me at hello!  I think this was what made the biggest impression on me.  To this day, I have yet to walk into a shop where the staff wanted to take me on a journey to learn, not just make a sale.  Sure, if I go out shopping today I am bombarded with samples and delectable items to try.  But when I walked into Dean & Deluca I wasn’t asked to try something they thought I should buy.  Instead, I was asked...”What would you like to learn today?”

Throughout the 1980’s Dean & Deluca expanded to several locations within Manhattan and an additional location in Washington DC.  They were the toast of gourmet food in America.  Their coffee, spices, oils, and sauces became famous and in the 1990’s everyone wanted to have a bit of Dean & Deluca in their home.  It was cool, chic, and happening for every yuppie to have a Dean & Deluca spice rack in their kitchen, even up until 2000.  Then, something happened.  At least in my kitchen it did.

Accessibility was the biggest issue for myself and many others.  For most people outside of New York, access to their spices was limited to select gourmet shops carrying a modest supply in select markets.  Outside the US, Dean & Deluca was a phenomenon very few had the privilege of participating in.  Perhaps that was part of their success?  As the internet took over, they moved online allowing people to buy their products from anywhere within the 50 US states.  Alas, the internet was of no help to anyone outside of America.

So, with limited access the phenomenon fizzled, at least in Canada.  They are still running as strong as ever in America and their international shops include locations in Japan and Dubai, but none in Canada, the UK, or continental Europe.  A shame really when you think about it.  After all, they were pioneers in the development of the modern day gourmet shop.  They made artisan food exciting back in the 1970s and taught the world that yes, you can experience the best the world has to offer from the comfort of your home.  If anything, I guess we should be happy that their pioneering efforts lead to several copy-cat shops opening in local markets and that their globally recognized brand lead to a new appreciation for specialty food world-wide.  But still, it would be nice to experience the original Dean & Deluca without having to catch a flight into LaGuardia.  Oh well, perhaps they will read this and reconsider their domestic marketing strategy.  Until then, I will hang onto my tin of Oregano as a memento, but will probably refrain from using it given the expiry date.


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