Saturday, April 1, 2006

Orange Tree Imports' very own Orange

Carol "Orange" Schroeder of Orange Tree Imports
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In ANEW Magazine
Column: Around the Table
April 2006

Related recipe: Orange's Roasted Veggies

In the mid-1970s a Jersey girl nicknamed "Orange" for her bright tresses, along with her husband, Dean, founded a foodie's paradise on Monroe Street. From cooking classes to gourmet cookware to exquisite serving accessories and gifts, Orange Tree Imports is one local treasure that just keeps getting better.

Though co-proprietor Carol “Orange” Schroeder has no formal business education, her shop has thrived for over 30 years, and her book, Specialty Shop Retailing: How to Run Your Own Store (John Wiley & Sons), has sold over 30,000 copies and been translated into Russian. Recently, I caught up with Orange to learn the story behind her success.

VVK: What attracted you to the Monroe Street neighborhood?

OS: I grew up in a very small town in New Jersey. When I first saw Monroe Street, it was like a village within the big city of Madison. Even today, it has its own bank, library, drug store, school and park - just like my hometown. We were lucky to buy a house a few blocks from the store when I was hired by Bord & Stol, so we feel very much part of the community.

VVK: What led to the unique configuration of your establishment?

OS: I had spent a year at the University of Copenhagen, with lots of free time to browse in Danish stores, and I wanted to bring some of their friendly feeling to Madison. I came in the early 1970s to get an M.A. in Danish literature, which was a wonderful experience but not necessarily a wise career move. A few months after receiving my degree, I was hired by a Madison-based Scandinavian furniture store called Bord & Stol to manage their new branch. I immediately fell in love with the antique bay window of the little shop.

When my husband Dean and I bought the branch six months later, we discontinued the furniture and concentrated on accessories. We changed the name of the store to Orange Tree Imports rather impetuously. It was a natural extension to expand into even more kitchenware when Dean joined the business full-time a year later.

VVK: How do you and your husband share the responsibilities at the store?

OS: Dean is in charge of merchandise relating to cooking and serving food, and I'm in charge of all the gift items. Orange Tree Imports is run as a participative democracy, with every one of our 30 staff members having real responsibility for some aspect of the store.

VVK: How about cooking duties at home?

OS: Dean is the creative cook. He’s known for his original version of Cape Breton oatcakes. But we split the daily cooking about evenly.

VVK: What’s your most popular kitchen item these days?

OS: The Santoku knife, which has been featured on several television cooking shows. It's a cross between a chef's knife and a cleaver. Dean gave me a ceramic one for Christmas. I was worried at first about it being breakable, I love using it -- it cuts incredibly well. We also sell lots of traditional forged metal ones.

The other big trend is silicone, a flexible, functional material that comes in whimsical colors not previously associated with cooking. There are reusable pink silicone food loops for tying together large fish or roasts, frosted silicone multi-function lids that can go in the microwave or oven, and heat-proof silicone spatulas. 

VVK: How about the most useless, outlandish kitchen item you’ve sold?

OS: The “square egger,” a mold that you could put a warm hard-boiled egg in so that it cooled in a cube shape.

VVK: What's your take on people's attitudes towards cookware?

OS: Customers, especially male shoppers, seem more willing to spend money on good knives than quality cookware. I think that is in part because men relate to knives as tools, and often want the best, even for kitchens where they aren't the primary cook. 

It's not quite as obvious why a high quality pan will enhance the cooking experience. Not everyone knows, for example, that food doesn't tend to stick in cookware that heats very evenly. Not everyone realizes that there are alternatives to traditional Teflon-like nonstick finishes, even though many customers express concern about the safety of nonstick cookware. As a specialty shop, it's our job to inform customers about the different options, and encourage them to try a piece or two to see what a difference a good pan can make.

VVK: When did the Cooking School begin? What role does it play?

OS: We started it back in 1980. Although we don't make money on it, we feel it helps establish our store as a reliable authority on cooking, and of course the instructors do demonstrate products that we sell. Students are offered a discount on the day of the class, and sometimes they are inspired to make rather extensive purchases.

VVK: What sort of impact have “big box” stores and Internet shopping had?

OS: We’re always looking for special products customers can't get at the big box stores. Fortunately for us, Madison has a strong interest in supporting locally owned businesses. We try to provide a pleasant shopping experience and competitive prices to reward that loyalty.

The Internet has not proven to be a big competition in our type of merchandise, because customers like to examine what they are buying, and compare it to other items. There’s also the serendipity of finding things you love while just browsing. The added shipping costs and delayed gratification of shipping time have also been deterrents to Internet sales in our field, although we know that a few people come and talk to us and then make the purchase elsewhere. That is probably true in every type of retailing today.

VVK: What’s in Orange Tree Imports’ future?

OS: In the fall Monroe Street will again have a grocery store, which will help restore a part of our "town" that’s been missing for four years. We anticipate that the Trader Joe's customer will in many cases also be an Orange Tree Imports customer, and hope to introduce our shop to a whole new market as a result.

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