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In Business

Cookware a la Carte

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Two years ago, Kristin Doll was selling ads for Conde Nast. Then came 9/11, and suddenly the magazine group had lots of salespeople but not many buyers. "The advertising industry hit a big wall and I was laid off," she says. "But it was perfect timing. I had known for a long time I wanted to do something different. Losing my job was the push I needed."

Doll started playing with the idea of combining some of her longtime interests: flea markets, pottery, and cooking. While antiquing with her husband, Grant Drutchers, on a trip to France, a concept started to jell. "I decided I wanted to open an exotic, international store with flavor you can't find elsewhere," she says. "But I wanted my merchandise to be more about enjoying your home than just a French-influenced store. I had to have a theme, so I decided to work around the kitchen, the heart of the home. Next thing you know, I was sitting down with a shipping agent in France and planning to fill a 40-foot container with antiques. It was exciting and scary."

Doll and Drutchers's store, Porte Rouge, which opened last year on Division near Damen in Wicker Park, looks like a Parisian antiques shop without the dust. Their shelves are loaded with hand-painted tableware, specialty kitchenware, French and American antiques, gourmet foodstuffs, and cookbooks. Oriental rugs are scattered over the dark wood floors at the front of the store, where several antique tables with full place settings and linens demonstrate how the store's stock can move from shelf to tabletop. The back of the store is dominated by the kitchen, which, on weekends, turns out samples from the cookbook collection. Copper pots hang from a wrought-iron pot holder suspended on chains from the ceiling, and a big red door propped against the wall is hung with serving spoons, pastry brushes, potato mashers, and one of this year's hot holiday sellers, a long-handled grater/zester.

The store's had a good year so far. "The response from the community has been growing, and online orders are booming," says Doll. Inventory changes regularly in response to suggestions from customers--she's added new cookware to the store's antique copper collection and supplemented the vintage tools with Global knives, John Boos chopping blocks, Peugeot saltshakers and pepper grinders, and Spiegelau glassware. There are cheaper items too: Caldrea soaps, lotions, and candles; Cucina soaps and lotions; and gourmet jam, mustard, olive oil, vinegar, tea, and flavor-infused honey.

Doll also hosts special events like showers and engagement parties. "The store is really cute," she says, "and that's part of the draw. It's very cozy. Customers want to spend time here." Porte Rouge has branched out this year, building a Web site with a wedding registry (porterouge.biz). Cooking classes and wine tastings have been added too--per another customer request.

"My husband was worried when I signed the lease on Division," says Doll. "There are lots of restaurants in the neighborhood, but little walk-in retail. But I convinced him that I could make Porte Rouge a destination by having classes and parties in the store. My background in sales helped here: I began to make cold calls to local chefs to offer in-store classes and to Sam's for wine tastings."

Chefs from a number of nearby restaurants, including Cafe Matou, Fortunato, Mas, Settimana, and Bin 36, now teach classes there. Each class has 7 to 15 students, who, at the end of the lesson, get to sit at one of the store's dining tables and eat the results off Porte Rouge's tableware.

At this point Doll can't imagine going back to ad sales. "Owning your own business is like a labor of love," she says. "It's like having a child. When you're selling ads, bottom line, you're making numbers for a company that's not yours. The store comes from our own hearts and our own pockets. It's an amazing feeling." But it's not all so amazing: "Coming from a corporate background, you have the IT department. I don't know anything about computers. There are days when I'm under the table because I can't get something to work. That's the only thing I miss."

Porte Rouge is at 1911 W. Division, 773-269-2800.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.

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