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Cooking Up Community

While COVID-19 is altering nearly every aspect of life, small businesses are being hit especially hard. This is forcing business owners to adjust, but their uplifting stories of perseverance and creativity are showing what Iowans are capable of in difficult times.

COVID-19 continues to be a looming presence as the calendar turns in 2020. Many small businesses are doing whatever they can to keep customers and employees safe while still being open to the public. 

If that wasn’t hard enough, the Midwest was dealt another blow as a derecho storm swept through several states in the region. Iowa was heavily impacted, with more than 240,000 Iowans losing power and as many as 14 million acres of farmland destroyed

One of the many businesses that experienced interruptions from both COVID-19 and the storm was Ames staple, Cooks’ Emporium

The kitchenware store, known for offering high quality equipment for at-home or professional chefs, has served Ames and its surrounding communities since 1979. Cooks’ Emporium was established by Margaret Junkhan after the rise in popularity of French cooking – she was an expert on the subject after teaching French cooking classes for several years. 

One of Margaret’s frequent customers at Cooks’ Emporium was Mindy Bergstrom, a Twin-Cities native who shopped regularly when visiting her husband’s family in Iowa. Mindy loved Cooks’ Emporium so much that she told her husband they should buy the store should it ever go on the market. Unbeknownst to Mindy, her husband Patrick was already working the phone to strike a deal with Marg. 

“My husband called Marg [who was 85 at the time] out of the blue and asked if she was ready to retire and she said yes,” Bergstrom said. “We drove back to the Twin Cities and decided we were going to sell everything and uproot everything to move there.” 

After 39 years of ownership, Marg turned the business over to Mindy following several months of showing her the ins and outs of the business. While still staying true to the values of Cooks’ Emporium, Mindy began updating the store to increase space for new products, including cookware, bakeware, glassware, coffee ware and gadgets. She expanded the teaching kitchen and remodeled the store, the first time it had been majorly renovated since the 1980s. 

“The [previous] cooking kitchen was very small, and customers couldn’t easily do anything hands-on, they just watched and learned,” said Mindy. “Now we have a huge island in the middle of the kitchen, and we’ve made the space much bigger.” 

Once COVID-19 began spreading across the country, many business owners were unsure of the best way to proceed. Mindy started by putting extra precautions into place, including additional sanitization stations. She got ahead of the curve and established a website connected to her inventory and began writing product descriptions and taking photos. 

“We closed the doors to Cooks’ Emporium a week later and I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders to be able to keep everyone safe,” said Mindy. 

But just because the doors were closed, business did not stop. Cooks’ Emporium started operating curbside pickup, while Mindy added more photos to the online shop and created signage and advertising. She spent three months getting the online store open and knows it’s not going away anytime soon.

The loyal customers have responded, and Mindy stayed in close communication with them through Facebook, Instagram and the website. The brick-and-mortar store has since reopened, but the digital aspect of customer service is still part of the plan. Cooks’ Emporium hosted weekly themed cooking classes before the pandemic and are now hosting Facebook Live cooking tutorials and wine pairings. Mindy is also planning short videos that explain some of the products the store sells and how to care for them, as well as recipe creations.

Though the experience may be more virtual than before, Cooks’ Emporium customers can purchase everything they need to pursue their culinary passions in the kitchen.

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