With Christmas just days away, the packing room at Kitchen Kapers' Cherry Hill warehouse was loaded last week with wares workers wrapped for online holiday orders: Cuisinart hand mixers; oil decanters; ice cream scoops; All-Clad saucepans with lids.
In a nook a few feet away, a family of brothers and sons named Kratchman dug into cardboard boxes of newly arrived merchandise. Steeled against an icy draft with coats and jeans, they removed Shantoku knives, one by one, and priced them.
This housewares company has been through a lot of Christmases in 35 years, since it began as a single store opened by the father, now deceased, whom the Kratchman brothers recall fondly with tears.
Bigger chains have come and gone, or even stayed. Considerable kitchen commerce has moved online, and competitors have threatened to knock the Kratchmans out time and again.
But in spite of a recession that spawned many retail bankruptcies, and big corporate players all around (Williams-Sonoma, Macy's, Bed Bath and Beyond), Kitchen Kapers is still cooking. Its recipe for survival seems built around the same ingredient introduced when Harold Kratchman opened a single shop in 1975 by taking out a loan against his house:
"We didn't lay anybody off. We didn't close any stores when the market crashed," said Rick Kratchman, who is a vice president of Kitchen Kapers Inc. "We tightened our belt, but we wanted to make sure our family of employees were OK."
The independent retailer has about 150 employees, including those at its 14 area stores and at its headquarters, on Marlkress Road near Route 70 in Cherry Hill.
Rick, 53, is the middle son, sharing the vice president's title with younger brother Ron, 42. Their older brother, Bob, 56, is president.
Rick's son, Brett, 26, and Bob's son, Brian, 23, now work for Kitchen Kapers, too. Ron's children (6, 10, 13) are too young to work, but hang at headquarters with Dad: "They like to come and test out the new cash registers."
Harold Kratchman had spent years working for toy-store chains, after closing an unsuccessful general store on Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia when he was young. He was a merchant at heart, his sons said, and he couldn't help but notice while he was running mall toy stores that long lines formed at the few housewares stores he saw.
So when when he turned 50, Harold opened the first Kitchen Kapers at Echelon Mall in Voorhees - "just as Cuisinart came out," said Bob Kratchman, who was in college and worked the first stores with his dad.
Today, the Echelon store is gone. And in recent years, the business has slowed its new-store openings, sticking with 14 locations for now. The company is focusing on the ever-changing online market, whose comparison-shoppers live across the country.
Making it this far has not been as easy as stirring soup. Retailing is a harsh mistress that requires a lot of work, because disaster is always just around the corner.
"Last year, when it snowed the Saturday before Christmas," Ron Kratchman said, "it was a day when you woke and your heart just fell."
Just like that, all three brothers were stranded at home with their wives for, in Rick's case, the first time since their wedding. A meteorological meteor strike had knocked them offline at the most important time. But sales rebounded enough the next few days to keep everyone from curling into a ball and crying.
Ron also remembered how, a few years ago, Kitchen Kapers had just signed a lease for a store in North Wales, only to learn that a housewares chain from out of state was opening a store a mile away. It opened, but eventually it closed, and Kitchen Kapers kept going.
Even about 25 years ago, Rick Kratchman recalled, a huge national chain plunked a store in Cherry Hill Mall, home to one of the only two Kitchen Kapers stores open at the time. That retailer, Lechters Inc., soon was a fixture at many malls.
But by 2001, even Lechters had declared bankruptcy and gone out of business, while Kitchen Kapers lived on.
"It's not an easy business to be in," said Rick Kratchman. "We work very hard."
Before the global economic crisis put an end to binge expansions in retailing, Kitchen Kapers was approached by competing chains to merge with them.
If not, one chain reportedly threatened about five years ago, they'd put Kitchen Kapers out of business by opening stores in this market.
The Kratchmans said no to an offer they described as heavy on stock, light on cash.
But accepting stock would have been risky, especially since control of the business would have resided with others, Rick said: "We wouldn't have been in control."
The Kratchmans refused the offer - fortunately, they said, because that chain, too, has gone out of business.
On Thursday, the warehouse that supplies all 14 stores, as well as Web orders, was packed with merchandise. Thirty-five percent of the company's business comes in the final two months of the year, Rick said.
"If you came back here a week from now, you'd be amazed how much is not here," he said, walking past rows of towering palettes loaded with popcorn, shot glasses, towel holders, you name it.
Employee Chris Knight pulled a palette jack piled high with nearly a hundred pizza stones.
"Are you kidding?" said Knight, 37, of Port Richmond. "They'll all be gone by next week."
Not on hand that day was the Kratchmans' mother, Pearl, who was feeling under the weather and stayed home. Usually, she helps with payroll and bookkeeping.
According to Rick Kratchman, the key to the family business is work.
"There's no rest for the weary is all I can tell you."