Home Cooks Find Bargains at the Restaurant Supply Store

These warehouses equip professionals with kitchen tools and food, but they’re also open to the public.

Restaurant supply stores, warehouses filled with kitchen tools, have been attracting more home cooks since the pandemic began three years ago.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

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By Christina Morales

Somewhere in every major city in America, there’s a nondescript warehouse filled with enough sheet pans, bowls, knives, pots and pans to arm the kitchen brigade of the next new restaurant.

Chefs and restaurateurs have long relied on restaurant supply stores for their needs. But in recent years another customer has been browsing the aisles with them: the home cook.

As stores like Bed Bath & Beyond shutter and other brick-and-mortar retailers move away from selling home goods, there are fewer places where home cooks can find specialty kitchen tools. Those implements are available from online wholesalers like WebstaurantStore, but they can come with hefty shipping fees.

Many shoppers, looking for bargains at a time when inflation remains high, are turning to wholesale restaurant supply stores, which are often open to the public and don’t require memberships.

An avid home cook and vegetable gardener, Aaron Aiken of Pasadena, Calif., visited his first restaurant supply store two years ago. “It was kind of like Candy Land,” said Mr. Aiken, 29, who bought plastic food storage containers for proofing pizza dough and making sauces, and insulated boxes that kept last year’s Thanksgiving turkey hot for six hours. (For Christmas, his father-in-law asked him for one of the boxes.)

“You get to have the experience and flair of the restaurant industry,” Mr. Aiken said, explaining that he can cook like a chef at home without having to deal with the challenges of working in a restaurant.

Since the start of the pandemic, restaurant supply stores have reported a substantial increase in sales to home cooks. The Restaurant Store, which has 11 locations in the Northeast, said those shoppers now account for 14 percent of its sales. Cresco-Resco, a retailer with five locations in California, Nevada and Colorado, said home cooks were 40 percent of its clientele at the height of the pandemic, but it has since gone down slightly to about 30 percent. Social media has contributed to the growth, as influencers share their finds with the public, but places like the Restaurant Store have also leaned into it with their TikTok account.

The stores are filling a gap in inventory. When retailers are in a pinch, they focus on items, like clothing, that will generate the highest profits quickly, said Michael Lisicky, a retail historian and author of several books on department stores. Running a home-goods department requires stocking a wide variety of equipment, which may not sell swiftly, leading customers to turn elsewhere for these items.

Shoppers at restaurant supply stores are interested in items like stainless steel bowls, knives and ramekins, Mr. Lisicky said, but they are also buying bulk supplies like flavored syrups for drinks, disposable plates and silverware, and paper towels and trash bags. Many home cooks are looking for specialized kitchen tools, like candy thermometers, that other retailers don’t stock.

Elizabeth Tierney visited a restaurant supply store near her home in Charlotte, N.C., for the first time last month to buy fruit-flavored syrups for her tea after she saw a TikTok post about saving money by buying larger amounts. She bought mango, raspberry, peach and peppermint syrups in 24-ounce bottles for $6 to $8 each — instead of the $4.99 she typically pays Walmart or Target for half the size.

“Anything that can save us a few dollars is worth a look,” said Ms. Tierney, 32.

Another draw for home cooks is equipment designed to take a beating at a wholesale price.

Dan Barnette’s kitchen in North Providence, R.I., is stocked with sheet pans, knives, bowls, pots, pans and spices from a nearby restaurant supply store. He has been shopping there for a decade, after he picked up some things for a friend’s restaurant.

“The quality of cookware that’s sold at most department stores to me is trash compared to what you can get at a restaurant supply store,” said Mr. Barnette, 38. “I don’t need anything fancy to cook at home. Nobody is looking at my pans when I’m serving a meal.”

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