Cuisinart: The Legacy Brand That Keeps On Innovating
The company that introduced America to the food processor continues to engineer novel solutions for at-home chefs.
Americans have come a long way since Swanson TV Dinners, Pillsbury Space Food Sticks, and Jell-O salads. Cuisinart founder Carl Sontheimer played a role in that transition. In 1973, he introduced the country to the food processor, and it drew praise from experts like Julia Child and James Beard. Within a decade, the gadget was a kitchen staple. Cuisinart continued innovating, expanding to offer a vast product catalog with such novelties as indoor grillers, a food dehydrator, and a snow cone maker. Forty-plus years—and one acquisition by Conair—later, Cuisinart is still committed to its original goal: arming at-home chefs with tools that make gourmet cooking accessible, fun, and rewarding. Quiddity spoke to Mary Rodgers, Director of Marketing and Communications at Cuisinart, about the brand’s approach to fulfilling unmet needs, marrying functionality and aesthetics, and the evolution of American cooking at home.
The late Cuisinart founder, Carl Sontheimer, introduced America to the food processor in 1973. How does this legacy of innovation inform your brand in 2018?
Carl Sontheimer was an MIT-educated engineer who had a great love for France, French cuisine, and cooking. In the seventies, that was the time when Americans were getting away from mass-produced, mass-manufactured convenience foods. You saw the rise of Julia Child and James Beard and more complex cuisines being introduced to US consumers. The thing about a food processor was that it enabled them to make very complicated dishes quickly, easily, and efficiently.
We continually bring new innovation to our products and our product categories.
One of the things that we pride ourselves on even all these years later is that we continually bring new innovation to our products and our product categories. We constantly work on that. It’s the foundation of the brand.
Can you speak to how Cuisinart has evolved since its origin to offer such an extensive product catalogue?
In 1971, the company introduced French-made cookware, and then in 1973, it introduced the food processor. After Conair acquired Cuisinart in the late eighties, it started to expand the offerings. For instance, it introduced a mini food processor meant to do small-batch processing. Beyond that, it layered on coffee makers and a few of the other large categories in the household durables area and that’s how the brand grew horizontally.
What distinguishes Cuisinart products from your competition?
Our core marketing tenets are around unique products that have points of difference. For example, we introduced an air fryer about a year ago, which was a category that we were not in, but we developed our air fryer so that it had a countertop oven, where other air fryers in the marketplace are round and tend to be plastic.
How are new products conceived of?
The appliance category is a high cost of entry category: R&D, tooling—you have a process that could take years to get something on the marketplace. Because our product development process is a long-term process, we are heavily organized around product categories. We have marketing people who work fully on coffee, for example. Their entire focus is on developing the line, developing new products and ideas. Once an idea is developed, we have our internal engineering department, we have our internal test kitchen, we have the marketing people; all of these people are heavily involved in the actual physical development of our products.
Julia Child and James Beard were early champions of the Cuisinart brand. What is your relationship to contemporary influencers? How do you forge partnerships with celebrity chefs and culinary experts?
We do several different things. We work with some well-known chefs like Hubert Keller and Eric Ripert, who each have cooking shows. This space has gotten complex because a lot of chefs also have their own products, so that makes it a little tenuous. Nowadays chefs feel like if they don’t have a cooking show, a line of products, a cookbook, and a social media following, then they’re not considered successful.
We’re also very passionate about supporting up-and-coming chefs in the space. We work with the Bocuse D’Or culinary competition in Europe, which supports young chefs. Last year was the first time we worked with them, and the US team ended up winning the competition.
Cuisinart has won numerous design awards. How important are aesthetics to the creation of new products?
Design awards are important to us, but at the end of the day it has to be a complete marriage of functionality, look and feel. If the product is not well-designed, consumers are not going to be happy with it. It’s something we think about all the time.
How do you balance rollouts of niche and specialty products with your more standard devices for everyday use?
We put a lot of effort into marketing these kinds of products because sometimes they won’t easily find a home in brick and mortar stores, which are worried about sales per square foot and holding inventory. Small, niche categories have to be supported in a different way. We focus our efforts for these categories very heavily online, on social, with influencers, and also with online retailers.
How do you conceive of your target demographic?
We look at it in a couple of different segments. Our main segment is adults 25-54, which is very broad. In the past, we focused on females aged 25-54, but as things have changed dramatically even in the last 5 to 10 years, men are much more involved in cooking. That has changed our segments.
Another segment that we focus on is consumers who are about to tie the knot. That’s a big area of business for us because many times these couples are making new choices when it comes to setting up their home kitchens together. But we also know that there’s a large population who are setting up homes without ever getting married to their partner or who might be single. So that’s all changed very dramatically and with that our efforts have also changed.
The last big category we look at is moms with children under the age of 2. We have a line of baby products such as a baby food maker and bottle warmer, so that category is much more focused with products that are very specific to that group.
Let’s turn to the coffee maker category, since the Cuisinart 14 Cup Programmable Coffeemaker is our #1 Quid Pick. You entered the coffeemaker business in 1994. How has the domestic coffee maker market evolved since then?
We introduced an automatic grind-and-brew maker in the mid 1990s and that was really what put us on the map in coffee. Now we have an extensive line of products: everything from auto drip, to grind-and-brews, to espresso makers, to single-serve pots—we are a top supplier in the category.
Sometimes you just want a cup and you need to consume it and be on your way, and then sometimes you have company or it’s the weekend and you want to linger and read the paper. It’s different choices at different times.
In the early 90s, that was really the point at which more niche coffee brands were becoming established, such as Starbucks and Peet’s. Consumers were getting exposed to espresso, cappuccino, and specialty drinks, and their knowledge and taste expectations increased tremendously. As all of these changes happened, we had to provide products that make the best possible coffee.
But then there’s single-serve, which serves the consumer that just wants one cup, right now. It’s opposite ends of the spectrum. Sometimes you just want a cup and you need to consume it and be on your way, and then sometimes you have company or it’s the weekend and you want to linger and read the paper. It’s different choices at different times.
Can you elaborate on the standout features of the Cuisinart 14 Cup Programmable Coffeemaker?
This product is streamlined, compact, and beautifully designed. It has a technology that ensures that the coffee temperature is hotter without sacrificing flavor or quality. Additionally, we’ve added Brew Strength control so the consumer can choose whether they want regular or bold coffee. It also comes with features like Brew Pause, programmability, a self-clean function, and a 1 to 4 cup setting. It looks great on any countertop in any style of kitchen that you may have.
Frances Thomas is a writer based in New York City. She recently graduated from NYU.