Cheap cookware is not hard to find, and most consumers, particularly younger ones, have an awful lot of its floating around their kitchens. Sharpish knifes, vaguely un-level spatulas, whisks that don’t quite whisk for some reason – it’s all easy to find and easy to purchase at any number of big box locations nationwide.
The good stuff, of course, is out there too – gleaming, sharp, custom-colored and absolutely ready to go. It’s not hard to find good kitchenware, as there is plenty of it. But paying for it – that’s a different problem entirely. One with a desperate need for a very sharp knife, for example, can easily click over to Williams Sonoma and pick up a Wüsthof Ikon Damascus Chef’s Knife. It even comes in a collector’s box. It’s a very nice knife and probably will last much longer and work much better than the $20 version of a chef’s knife one can pick up at Walmart. But the price tag on it is a cool $2,000 (on sale), and so for whatever wonders it is capable of as cutlery, the market for it is fairly narrow.
And while that is a rather dramatic illustration of the gulf between lower-end consumer grade kitchenware and its higher-end luxury cousins, it’s not exaggerating the problem all that much. There is something of a hollow middle issue for customers who are trying to properly outfit their kitchen – particularly those who are just starting out – where it can be hard to match reasonable price to reasonable quality.
But Eunice Byun and Dave Nguyen are betting that their start up, Material, can do better, by creating a more reasonable shopping experience in terms of selection and desirability for younger customers.
Byun told Architectural Digest that when she and Nguyen first graduated college, they couldn’t find anything they really wanted to outfit their kitchen long term. That, she noted, was perhaps an expected problem for two recent college grads with new degrees and little money.
But the problem turned out to be incredibly persistent.
“A decade later, we still hadn’t found the perfectly curated selection of items for our kitchen, and were frustrated that when we went to go buy something new, it was either too expensive or too basic-looking,” Byun reported.
So how to get nice – but not so nice that nice becomes an unaffordable luxury? For most of us, it involves intensive internet scouring until we dig up the right compromise. For Byun and Nguyen, it meant designing their own line of affordable, high-quality kitchenware designed to fit into an up-and-coming consumer’s up-and-coming budget. For $75, customers can grab up an eight-inch chef’s knife, and for $175 they can grab the entire Material Fundamentals set.
“Our philosophy is that you don’t always need more; you just need what’s right,” Byun said.
What kills consumers in the kitchen and often saps their will to cook entirely, she noted, is clutter – too many tools that go underused and just make the space more chaotic and harder to control. What customers actually need, according to Byun, is fewer tools that do more jobs and work a lot better. Which means that Material focuses more on how their own products are built – the steel for their knives, for example, is sourced in Japan and fabricated by a South China firm that has been making cutlery “for well over 1,400 years,” she noted. “So we have a lot of history and rich knowledge to rely on.”
The price of that craftsmanship is balanced out by the cost savings associated with selling direct to customers online – there are no middlemen or retailers to pay or appease.
“We started Material because we were frustrated with how hard it can be to buy and build out your kitchenware collection,” Byun told Brit + Co. “Most people today are either buying one-and-done tools that last a year, or products that look like everything else on the market. We challenged ourselves to think about those irreplaceable staples you’ll reach for every day, for every meal. We looked to professional chefs, first-time cooks and everyone in between to help us determine which multi-functional tools most people should have, and how we could design items that you’d be inspired by in your kitchen.”