Culinary Stone makes kitchen the gathering place

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Bob Black, meat and cheese sales employee, talks to customer Jan Olsen about available salamis Tuesday at The Culinary Stone, a new kitchen store at Riverstone in Coeur d’Alene.

Sandra Gunn knows something about hospitality. As the owner of the Coeur d'Alene Olive Oil Company, she's familiar with what her community wants and is confident that her new store, The Culinary Stone, will meet those needs.

"I don't want to be that stuffy gourmet food store," Gunn says. "I want to change the culture of cooking. Our goal is to have fun."

The 5,500-square-foot store opened earlier this month in Riverstone in what was originally designed as a Barnes & Noble outlet. Gunn and her partner, Sandy Volker, believe in offering their customers the best products they can find, but not at outrageous prices.

Their salami, for example, is from a company in St. Louis and isn't found anywhere else in the western states. It was voted the best salami in the country by Forbes magazine and is hormone-free, organically raised and made by hand. The cheeses they carry are also artisan, many made locally.

Whether it's beautifully decorated plastic plates, a pig-shaped whisk, or a rack that roasts turkeys "the right way," you'll find a wide variety of whimsical yet practical, reasonably priced kitchen gadgets. There is an extensive collection of cookbooks, many from the Northwest, wines, cutlery, specialty foods, dinnerware, pots and pans - if it belongs in your kitchen or dining room, you'll find it here.

Prices start at less than a dollar; they want all of their customers to be able to take something home with them.

They will be offering oil tastings, since Gunn has clients who would rather not go downtown to visit her other store. There's even a salt-tasting bar for Himalayan salts, which are unique and extremely flavorful.

"Her taste and vision is exciting," Janie Bodnan, the woman responsible for creating the store's beautiful displays, says of Gunn. "She has a talent for bringing people together.

"The store is a blend of sophisticated architecture with a warm and cozy feeling."

They believe in supporting grassroots companies, and are proud that they were able to give local contractors work as they remodeled the space in preparation for the store's opening.

Gunn's family is Italian, and she wants to share her heritage with the community. So, one corner of the store houses a variety of Italian foods and sweets. If the items are unfamiliar, the staff can teach customers about them.

"The food is the heartbeat of the whole store," Gunn said.

Top-notch customer service is imperative. All of the staff have either worked for Gunn in the past, or are friends or family.

"The secret sauce of any retail business is the people who are talking to your customers," she says.

They want to make sure that children, as well as adults, feel comfortable in the store.

"We drove to Seattle and back in a day for the kids' kitchen, since IKEA couldn't ship it," Gunn said. "We want to get children interacting in the kitchen. It's healthy for a family to sit down together for a meal. It boosts the community in ways that are not pretentious and stuffy."

There's a story behind every fixture in the store. Gunn believes in repurposing: taking something old and making it useful and beautiful again. The stools in the display kitchen, for example, are from an ice cream parlor in Spokane.

"My grandfather had a restaurant, and I remember spinning on his stools. So I had to make sure these stools could spin!" she says.

Their point of sale was created by Backcountry Steel of Spokane, which specializes in reclaimed industrial relics. A set of shelves was originally a freezer rack in an orphanage in Montana. There's also an antique wheel that Gunn found in a Spokane warehouse.

"I didn't realize we'd have to reinforce the wall and build a special bracket for it; I just pictured a wheel with aprons and napkins hanging from it, and wanted it."

They will offer Kiss The Cook cooking classes in their display kitchen. Anyone with a passion for cooking is welcome to teach a class, be it a grandmother who makes great sauces or a neighbor who specializes in pastries.

"We want the community to share their trades, so they have a platform." Gunn says.

Visions for the store include wine tastings and pairings, and private dinner parties for 8-12 people. In warmer weather the outdoor patio will be open, with tables and chairs clustered around the fireplace.

Gunn believes that the camaraderie of friends and family over food nourishes the soul.

"We want to bring people back to the dinner table," she says. "It's a lost piece of our culture; families don't gather at the table to share a meal any more. I want to help them get their passion for that back."

The Culinary Stone, at 2129 Main St. in Riverstone, is open from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Contact them at (208) 277-4116 or www.culinarystone.com. Follow it on Facebook at www.facebook.com/culinarystone.

How does it differ from other kitchen stores? "You go in those stores to shop," says Sandy Volker. "You come into our store to experience."

The Culinary Stone offers cooking classes, gadgets and supplies, wines, meats and cheeses, and many other items.

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