What’s In Store: Chef for a Day

Early on a Wednesday evening at the Fretz Corporation’s Northeast Philadelphia headquarters, cheese and crackers are set out on platters and waiters circulate with trays of hors d’oeuvres. The scene could easily be mistaken for an office cocktail party except for the bright overhead lights, the multitude of kitchen appliances and the lack of mingling. Couples stick together and gawk at monstrous Sub-Zero refrigerators and deluxe ranges sporting 16,000 BTU burners. Soon they’ll head upstairs for a two-hour demonstration — including a five-course meal cooked on Wolf ranges and in Wolf ovens — that Fretz, a distributor of Sub-Zero, Wolf and Asko in the mid-Atlantic region, hosts each month.

Once everyone’s followed the scent of a roasting turkey up the stairs and into the Fretz Kitchen, the lights dim, and district sales manager Jack Betzal starts talking about how professional equipment differs from home equipment. Two chefs in white jackets with “Everly Catering” patches (Bensalem-based Everly is the in-house caterer for Fretz) throw onions on a griddle, and they sizzle in close-up on two flat-screen TVs on either side of the kitchen.

The busy chefs and their assistants continue to prepare, plate and serve for the next hour and a half as Betzal and two more Fretz reps explain the importance of ventilation, the difference between gas and electric ranges, and the highlights of their ranges, ovens, refrigerators and dishwashers. The food lulls the crowd and provides object lessons. The first course, braised shrimp scampi, is heated in the same oven as the dinner rolls. “Do the rolls taste like shrimp? Do they taste like garlic?” asks Betzal. “There’s no
transference in there.”

Why does Fretz go to the trouble? “People go out and test-drive cars,” says Tom Dolan, president of the Fretz Corporation. “These are expensive appliances — it’s much more comforting when you understand what you’re buying and when you’ve seen what it can do.”


When the Fretz Kitchen (2001 Woodhaven Road, Philadelphia 866-657-4444) opened its studio in 1998, it was the first in the area to offer appliance “test-drives.” Four years later, the Viking Culinary Arts Center (One Town Place, Bryn Mawr 610-526-9020), housing the Viking HomeChef Cooking School, Gourmet Store and Cooking Theater, opened. Like Fretz, Viking wants to familiarize people with a pricey brand that can seem intimidating. “More than anything, we’re interested in getting people comfortable with the equipment,” says Terry Park, the center’s general manager.

The cooking classes take place in one large, light-filled room separated from the gourmet store by a glass wall. Five cooking stations each have a Viking stove and cooktop. Cutting boards, knives, pasta-rolling machines, chiffoniers, dough cutters, garlic presses and every other gadget used during the jam-packed roster of classes are available for purchase.

Customers who like the feel of the ranges can walk across a hallway and into the Carl Schaedel and Co. Appliance Resource Showroom (One Town Place, Bryn Mawr 610-526-9400). Schaedel’s array of infrared broilers, granite-topped islands and satin-simmer burners is fun to browse. Along with luxury brands including U-Line and Blanco, Schaedel displays all the Viking equipment that’s in use next door, plus some that’s not, including the mint-julep finish that Viking offers for many of its gas ranges. (In the Philadelphia area, where tastes run to the traditional, top sellers are stainless steel, black and burgundy.)

Like Fretz, the Appliance Resource Showroom is a distributor, a “non-retail environment” that sells only to dealers, but is open to the public. Local dealers often send their customers to Fretz and Schaedel to see the models they don’t have the space to display.


One of those dealers is Airs Appliance in Center City (1115 Chestnut St., Philadelphia 215-568-1010). Airs’ current location is much roomier than the Jeweler’s Row storefront it inhabited for 40 years.

Owner Marvin Rideout remembers it well. He started at Airs as a stockboy more than 30 years ago, and he’s become practiced at fitting unwieldy appliances into snug city spaces. He and his staff have developed a reputation for hoisting ranges through trinity windows and dropping refrigerators through holes in the floor when they won’t fit up stairs or into an elevator. “We get a lot of Home Depot business,” says Rideout, “when they can’t do the installation.”

There are no classes or demos at Airs, but Rideout trusts the goodwill of his mom-and-pop shop and its devoted service to bring in repeat customers. Generations have shopped at Airs. “People will call up and say, ‘My mom bought her refrigerator from you,’” he says. But while Grandmom might have been happy with Maytag, her granddaughter wants the Wolf range she saw on the Food Network. Airs can comply — it carries all the domestic brands, plus luxury producers.


In the 5,000-square-foot show-room of Reico Kitchen and Bath (3602 Horizon Dr., King of Prussia 610-382-1137), an employee bakes up fresh batches of cookies in one of the showroom’s working kitchens every day. Customers wash them down with Starbucks coffee as they meander through a maze of kitchen vignettes, trying on styles from urban minimalist to homey Provençal. Reico has kitchen designers on hand to help customers figure out whether they’re city, country or something in between.

Reico also offers demos, says branch manager Thomas McMullen. “It’s hard to know what this does,” he says, waving at a Miele electric cooktop, “without us showing you.”

The cookie strategy is a popular one. Gerhard’s Appliances (290 Keswick Ave., Glenside 215-884-8650) opened the Living Kitchen at its Glenside location in 2002. “I would walk into distributors’ showrooms and see their working appliances and get jealous,” says Gerry Gerhard, a third-generation owner of the company. “I knew we could do it better.” He stages cooking demos every Saturday, most Sundays, and at least one other evening a month.

The working kitchen has also provided the means to put the fourth generation of Gerhards to work, even earlier than expected. Most Saturdays, Gerhard’s 12-year-old niece and some of her friends bake cookies in one of the convection ovens and then cruise the store with trays of the treats.

“Customers can be intimidated by convection ovens,” he says, “but when they see a 12-year-old come in and turn out 200-300 cookies in an hour’s time, it makes them reconsider.”