The first time I had decent cookware was right after I got married, when my great-aunts and second cousins shelled out big bucks for the KitchenAid mixer, Le Creuset cast-iron skillets, and All-Clad pans from my wedding registry. My husband, who does most of the cooking, spent weeks carefully browsing websites to find the right pieces for our new house—shocked by the enormous price tags.
Since we tied the knot five years ago, a whole crop of direct-to-consumer kitchenware brands have entered the marketplace, offering high-quality cookware and cutlery for a fraction of the price Americans have been used to paying. One of the newest, six-month-old Made In, sells stainless steel pots and pans through its website. By cutting out middlemen retailers like Sur La Table and Williams Sonoma, the brand is able to sell skillets starting at $59 and stock pots for $99. And unlike many other brands that have taken their manufacturing overseas, Made In makes all its products in the United States.
While brands like Everlane and Oliver Cabell offer transparency into the cost of manufacturing clothes and accessories, helping to educate consumers about the markups in the fashion industry, the average home cook has no idea what makes one pot more expensive than another. Why spend $200 on an All-Clad skillet when you can get a perfectly usable one for $30 from Target?
Made In Cofounder Jake Kalick happens to be something of a cookware nerd, since his family has been in the business since 1929 with Harbor, a Boston company that outfitted commercial kitchens with everything from burners to pots and aprons. After graduating from Cornell University, Kalick joined Harbor: “I was wholesaling a lot for top cookware brands like All-Clad and Mauviel, so I had some pretty good insight into what the margins were like,” he says. “I was getting multiple phone calls a week from friends wanting to buy All-Clad at wholesale prices to buy for their friends as wedding gifts.”
Kalick started noticing more and more consolidation in the kitchenware business—most major brands on the market are now owned by massive conglomerates. The French umbrella company Groupe SEB owns All-Clad, Tefal, and WMF, for instance. Calphalon is owned by Newell Brands, which also owns Oster and Sunbeam.
Kalick says that this means that companies can use the same factories and manufacturing processes, making small adjustments to materials and design to create premium lines and entry-level lines. “They do a really good job of controlling and leveraging price points,” Kalick says.
Back in May 2016, he had the idea to create a line of higher-end cookware and market it to millennial consumers online. He cofounded Made In with Bradford Malt, who had previously run e-commerce businesses, and the pair spent more than a year learning the intricacies of the supply chain. “Everlane, and how transparent they were, was a huge inspiration for us,” Malt says. “The demographic we’re going after—millennials—care so much about what goes into their product, where it comes from, that it’s ethical. We wanted to nail that down even before we came up with a brand name.”
Kalick and Malt went on a head-spinning journey around the U.S. to learn about materials and manufacturing. The founders wanted to make the products locally because American factories are known for having very good craftsmanship, and they would be able to regularly check in to make sure their pieces met the highest quality. They also liked the idea of being able to iterate quickly and tweak products based on consumer demand, which is easier to do when they don’t have to place enormous orders overseas.
The result is the current Made In collection of pots and skillets. Each piece is made of components drawn from around the U.S. The raw metal comes from Pennsylvania and Kentucky. The non-stick coating is from Illinois. The cookware is molded, polished, and finished in a third-generation family-owned factory in Tennessee. Made In doesn’t outsource any part of this process to a third-party supplier. “We’re able to get an economy of scale on sourcing each one of these materials, without any middlemen at any point in the process,” Malt says.
All of this means that Made In can sell starter sets of three pieces of cookware for $249 or a more comprehensive set of seven pots and pans for $549. While this is a fraction of the price of a comparable set from a high-end brand, it might still seem a bit pricey for say, a recent college grad who might otherwise outfit his first kitchen with a three-piece pan set for $20.99 on Amazon.
Malt has experience selling premium versions of everyday products to consumers. Before launching Made In, he ran marketing at a premium men’s activewear company, Rhone Apparel, a kind of Lululemon just for dudes. “We found that we got a ton of price resistance pushback from people who were buying $40 Nike shorts and said, I do not need $80 pants to wear to the gym and sweat in,” Malt says. “We had to get people to try the stuff, so they could see there was a fundamental difference in fabric quality, composition, longevity of the product. The challenge and opportunity that Jake and I are facing here is converting the consumer who had basically bought that crappy, entry-level pan or pot for his entire life.”
Part of Kalick and Malt’s mission is to educate consumers about why it might be worth investing in better cookware. The brand’s website has a “myth buster” section that explains what makes well-made cookware better than the cheap kind. “We have this whole consumer base of people who shop at Whole Foods, go to the farmer’s market and spend $35 on a grass-fed steak, go to Serious Eats and find a recipe or get a meal delivery kit,” Kalick says. “But the last step of this process–actually executing the dish–they cook in this really junky pan.”
So, what justifies the higher price tag? Well, for one thing, high quality pans are made of one material, rather than attaching a plate to the bottom of the pan. This results in a more even distribution of heat, rather than creating hot spots that will cause food to burn. In Made In’s case, the brand makes each piece from a single piece of stainless steel. This is what you find in Mauviel’s copper cookware and in All-Clad’s stainless steel pans.
Kalick says that premium metals will not warp when exposed to high heats and won’t alter the flavor of the food. Metals with high nickel content, like steel, will also prevent corrosion and rusting. High quality non-stick surfaces are free from harmful chemicals and won’t wear away after use.
Then there’s the sheer ergonomics of the cooking. Well-designed pans have handles that don’t heat up with the rest of the pan, so that they don’t burn the chef. Pots and pans are often specifically designed for the item that is being cooked. The Made In’s new $85 saucier pan, for instance, is designed specifically for cooking sauces. The rounded bottom makes stirring easier and prevents ingredients from getting stuck in corners. “We’ve found that high raw material cost and a labor-intensive process separates good cookware from bad,” Malt says.
Since Made In’s launch, the brand has been working hard to convince millennials to not wait–like I did–to get married to start investing in good cookware. “What else are you saving ’til marriage?” a cheeky slogan on the brand’s website says. “Plus, if you’re not married, statistics say that the best way to court a potential partner is to cook for them!”