'You Just Have to Have It!'

Article excerpt

Byline: Megan McArdle

$2,000 to make coffee? $800 to boil rice? In any color you'd like! Inside the American housewares craze.

The Kenwood Cooking Chef looks sort of like a cross between a stand mixer and a movie robot. It can chop, slice, shred, mix, and even cook your food--a gadget surprisingly close to one of those household helpers the Jetsons schooled us all to expect in the future. At the International Housewares Show in Chicago last week, the little fella had an exhibit space to itself, prime real estate in the center of the kitchen electrics pavilion where a chef imported from New York whipped up flawless risotto almost hands-free. "This is perfect," said the attendee next to me, a local cooking instructor. "Just perfect." And so it was. The only thing standing between us and equally perfect, effortless risotto was the $2,000 we'd need to bring the Kenwood Cooking Chef home.

Is America really ready to drop that kind of cash on a cooking appliance? The Thursday before the show, the Bureau of Economic Analysis announced that they'd revised their estimates of fourth-quarter GDP growth upward ... to a sluglike annual pace of 0.1 percent. The Friday after the show, America woke to the news that unemployment was now only 7.7 percent, which amounts to a four-year low, but is still 5 million more people than reported being out of work in January 2008. In the area of Chicago's South Side where the housewares expo is held, the rate is closer to a recession-level 11 percent. Not exactly, you'd think, Ken-the-brushed-stainless-Chef's shining moment. Shouldn't we be tightening our belts, getting back to basics?

Even in flusher times, Americans seemed largely uninterested in these massively expensive "kitchen machines," which have been popular in Europe for years; Thermomix, Kenwood's main competitor, pulled out of the U.S. market in 2004, and Kenwood only started selling the Cooking Chef through Williams-Sonoma last October. The kind of from-scratch cooking that these machines are meant to enable has been in decline over here. During the decades when this country's economic growth was the envy of the world, Americans' spending on home cooking plummeted even while restaurant spending went up. Kitchen machines, says Jack Schwefel, the CEO of Sur La Table, "offered a convenience the American consumer wasn't looking for."

The irony, however, is that with the recession, Kenwood's moment may have come. We might be holding onto the old car for a few more years and booking a staycation instead of a week at the shore. Between 2007 and 2012, personal-consumption expenditures rose a scant 3.5 percent. (For comparison, during a comparable five-year period around the 2001 recession, the same numbers rose more than 15 percent.) But we are still spending a lot of money on flashy kitchen equipment.

Pricey "kitchen machines" like the Cooking Chef are still new to the market, of course, but dozens of other upmarket, automatic-everything, newer-than-next- week gadgets I saw scattered throughout the show are making their way into more and more American kitchens. Stand mixers, coffee makers, juicers, blenders, and, increasingly, machines that do more than one thing. According to Debra Mednick of market research firm NPD, sales of kitchen electrics were up 10 percent last year, following a 9 percent increase the year before. Mednick's ability to gather data stops at the cash register, so she can't say whether we're cooking from scratch. But the growth in our gadget purchases seems to indicate that if we aren't cooking from scratch more than we recently did, we're certainly preparing to.

Chicago's McCormick Place, where the housewares expo is held, is the size of six football fields, and during the four-day event, virtually every yard is crammed with ... well, the same stuff that crams your cabinets. Except more of it, in every style and color and price you can imagine.

I don't need more kitchen gadgets. …