Great Barrington — Like any good entrepreneur, Rob Navarino loves what he does and does not mind taking a plunge. Owner of The Chef’s Shop on Railroad Street in Great Barrington, Navarino “always knew” that he wanted to have his own business. In 1991, after “paying his dues” in the corporate world, he snatched an opportunity to fulfill his dream, and started a little store he originally called Berkshire Cottage. Though at first Navarino intended to supply goods for the whole home, he found that what customers really wanted was a good supplier of kitchen equipment. Since he has always enjoyed cooking, that suited his tastes. Once he found that niche, he says, “it just clicked.” Twenty-four years later, Navarino is still a proud part of the economic fabric of the Berkshires.
Navarino has no trouble explaining what sets The Chef’s Shop apart from normal kitchen retailers. “People are interested in the things that really works the best, not just the things with national brand names or huge advertising budgets. We have a very utilitarian assortment of products; it’s not a frivolous store. Our customers can rely on us for guidance and competitive prices. We carefully edit the many products out there, consistently carrying only the products of the highest quality, at the best price. We even guarantee that, for any product in the store, we will meet or beat the lowest price anywhere.” Right now, he adds, prices are even better than usual because the Shop is holding its annual March Madness clearance event.
Assistant manager Clea Fowler is careful to note that products and prices matter, but people matter more. The mastermind behind the many demonstrations that take place at the Shop, Fowler takes pride in the savoir-faire that she and the staff can offer to their customers. “In a locally owned store like ours you’ll find employees who know you, can anticipate your needs, answer your questions, and who will extend themselves to help you. We’re not only going to sell you that mandolin,” she says, “we’ll take it right out of the box and show you how to work it.” After all, she explains, “a cooking store should be welcoming, like you’re inviting someone into your home.”
And oh, to have a home filled with all that The Chef’s Shop sells! The Shop is like a candy store for anyone who likes spending time in the kitchen, filled with Le Creuset cookware, American-made Lodge cast iron skillets, Nespresso and SodaStream machines, Lamson Sharp knives from Shelburne Falls, Mass., and (Berkshire-designed) Brod & Taylor knife sharpeners. Navarino and Fowler agree that more and more people seem to be catching the “do-it-yourself” cooking bug, which is leading people to try new tools and discover the virtues of locally grown ingredients.
Navarino is quick to connect what he sees in his own store to larger economic trends. “In many places, things are getting homogenized, which is a real loss for our economy and our culture. I see the Berkshires as one of the final bastions of independent, unique entrepreneurs. What really makes our entire economy go is local people supporting each other.” This perspective is one reason that The Chef’s Shop was an early adopter of BerkShares. Navarino observes that ten years ago shopping locally wasn’t even on many people’s radar screen. “It’s really an idea that BerkShares was out in front of and helped to facilitate. To me,” he says, “BerkShares are what our community is all about.”