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Originally published September 20, 2011 at 6:36 AM | Page modified September 21, 2011 at 6:28 AM

Sale of Sur La Table may be recipe for growth

Sur La Table, the Seattle-based kitchenware retailer, has been acquired by Investcorp, a Bahrain-based investment bank and holding company whose past investments include luxury brands Tiffany and Gucci.

Seattle Times business reporter

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quotes Another local business swallowed up. Happy for the family, sad for the rest of us. Read more
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The sluggish economy may be causing people to cut back in most areas of their life, but the kitchen is not one of them.

Seattle-based Sur La Table, a growing kitchenware chain that got its start nearly 40 years ago in Pike Place Market, has been bought by global investment bank Investcorp — a sign that it sees more growth ahead.

Bahrain-based Investcorp said Tuesday that it acquired the kitchenware retailer from the local Behnke family and Los Angeles-based investment firm Freeman Spogli & Co., both of whom will retain a stake in the company.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

"Private-equity firms typically only buy retailers that they know they can grow, and this is definitely a chain that can grow," said Jeff Green, a Phoenix-based retail consultant who has worked in the past for Sur La Table. "I'm sure you'll see its expansion continue, and maybe even increase."

Sur La Table, with 86 stores, benefits from a growing number of people who are eating more meals at home rather than in restaurants — a trend that Chief Executive Officer Jack Schwefel attributes not only to recessionary belt-tightening, but also to America's foodie movement.

"There's just a huge, huge emphasis in our culture today on cooking and food. It's more important that it's ever been," Schwefel said. "If you look at pop culture, you can't go a single night of the week without a prime-time show about cooking and food."

Schwefel called the Investcorp acquisition "really exciting," saying it gives Sur La Table additional capital and "a brighter horizon."

"The sale is something we all worked on, and we love the outcome," he said.

After slowing its expansion in 2009, Sur La Table opened eight new stores in 2010, an 11 percent increase. For 2011, it plans nine additional stores, including one at the Hearst Tower in New York.

Most new stores offer cooking classes, which are a way to attract new customers and keep old customers coming back, Green said.

"This is the era of food enthusiasts, and Sur La Table speaks to them," he said.

Shirley Collins, a longtime advocate for Pike Place Market, opened Sur La Table in 1972, around the time that Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" made gourmet cooking a mainstream concept. The Market store remained its only location until Collins sold the company in 1995 to the Behnke family, who soon opened a second store in Berkeley, Calif.

Today, Sur La Table (French for "on the table") also has a catalog, website and gift registry. Its top rival, San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma, operates nearly 270 stores.

Kevin Nickelberry, a managing director at Investcorp, said in a statement that Sur La Table "has multiple opportunities for growth including new store expansion and e-commerce." He could not be reached for additional comment Tuesday.

Sur La Table spokeswoman Susanna Linse said the acquisition is not expected to result in any layoffs or other major staffing changes. The company employs about 150 at its headquarters in the Georgetown neighborhood.

"All the management team is staying on," Linse said. "We're basically running exactly as we were before."

Investcorp, whose past investments include luxury brands Gucci and Tiffany, recently reported a 37 percent increase in its annual profit, boosted by strong performance at its corporate and real-estate investment businesses. It also cited profitable exits from some investments.

For the fiscal year ended June 30, Investcorp posted a profit of $140.3 million, up from $102.2 million.

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

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