When we talk about the people who made Maine’s food scene so remarkable, we often repeat the same names. Lots of chefs and restaurateurs, a few cookbook authors … You’ve heard of Sam Hayward, Melissa Kelly, David Turin, even Marjorie Standish. But what about Sonia and Jock Robertson?

Fifty years ago this month, two transplants from Washington, D.C., started a business that became the Whip and Spoon – a Portland kitchen shop that would flourish in tandem with the country’s growing interest in cooking and entertaining. During their nearly two-and-a-half decades in business, the couple’s store supplied Mainers with the means to upgrade their eating and drinking at home.

And boy, was the shop popular. At its peak in the early ’90s, the Whip and Spoon sold 8,000 products from its historic five-story storefront at 161 Commercial Street: pots, pans, garlic presses, knives and (literally) tons of coffee. The Robertsons employed a team of 10 full-timers and more than 20 part-timers. They hosted sold-out cooking classes taught by local chefs (The White Barn Inn, Café Roma, Street & Co.).

The Robertsons sold the business in the late 1990s, and its Commercial Street space was eventually occupied by the Massachusetts-based chain, LeRoux Kitchen, which still operates there today.

Among those who remember it, the Whip and Spoon remains legendary. A neighbor who introduced me to Sonia Robertson at a party last summer told me, “Both of my kids learned how to cook there, and at least half the stuff in my kitchen comes from them. You have to talk with Sonia; she’s seen it all.”

Never one to pass up a chance to learn more about Maine’s culinary history, I met up with Sonia Robertson on Zoom a few weeks ago. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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Andrew Ross: Tell me the story of how the Whip and Spoon came to be.

Sonia Robertson: My husband – his first name is John, but everybody calls him Jock – and I were married in 1969. We lived in Washington, D.C.  Jock was a stockbroker and investment advisor, and in about 1971, he came home one day and said, “I don’t think I want to do this anymore.” So we left and spent the summer up the coast. And in the middle of the summer we said, “Why are we going back to Washington?” So we bought a farm in West Gray and started looking for a small business to buy.

There was a restaurant supply firm by the name of E.J. Sullivan at 36-38 Exchange St., and so we bought the business in January of 1972 from a man who was going to go to Florida. He was supposed to come back and teach us about the business, only the poor man went to Florida and died. So that’s what you call our trial by fire.

AR: How did you cope with that?

SR: Well, thank god for Tony DiMillo. God bless him. He was so nice to us. He sent his chef up to educate us about sandwich units (restaurant prep stations) and said, “You go and teach these kids about this stuff.” I mean, he could not have been nicer. And there were a lot of people in Portland, to whom we owe a great debt of thanks.

So Jock was 31, and I was 25 or 26, and that’s how it started. Lots of OJT: on-the-job training!

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AR: At this point, you were still only selling restaurant equipment, correct?

SR: Exactly. For about two years, working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. I mean, people talk about the ’70s, but I can’t tell you anything that happened then. It’s a completely lost decade of my life. We were learning and working to survive.

So about two years later, in 1974, Jock and I thought that opening a gourmet cookware store, adding a retail division would make sense. So Paul Stevens of SMRT (architects and engineers) was a friend, and he designed the first space for what became the Whip and Spoon, in the front part of 38 Exchange Street. My gosh, it was tiny.

AR: A few years later (1979), you moved both businesses?

SR: Yes. We needed a more stable home base, because we thought the situation with our landlord wasn’t going to have a happy ending. So Jock went off and worked with a broker, and we bought 161 Commercial St., which at that point had a moving company there. And that became home.

By that time, Whip and Spoon was still a small part of our business, but we were also the second-largest restaurant supply firm in Portland. Gradually, it became apparent that the big food companies were getting into restaurant equipment, so we went to the biggest one and said, “So how about it, do you want to acquire me?” And we went strictly with the Whip and Spoon. It was the right choice, because ultimately, the Whip and Spoon grew to occupy five stories of that building.

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AR: You were really among the first cookware and kitchen suppliers in New England, and the Whip and Spoon predated many of its big, well-known competitors, companies people might know today (Sur La Table, LeRoux Kitchen). How did those early years go?

SR: For a while, you’re right, we were pretty much on our own. There was a store in Kennebunk called Keys to the Kitchen, and a store in Bath. But, well, we didn’t know much about retailing. That first day after Thanksgiving, which has always been a huge shopping day, if you know about retailing, I said to Jock, “You’re really tired, stay home, don’t worry about it.” So I went to the Whip and Spoon, and was just slammed. I mean, it was crazy. And people were so nice. I remember a man came and stood behind the counter and bagged packages for me. The kindness of people was really remarkable. I just I came home, and I was in shell shock. There were lots of times like that in the early days.

The famous potholder. You never knew where it might show up. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

AR: Tell me about the name “Whip and Spoon.”

SR: The term “whip” was the one used in our commercial utensil catalogs. Professional chefs would ask for a 14-inch balloon whip for example. Also, “whip” is more euphonious than “whisk.” That’s my former life in the publishing business coming out. No idea where the name came from, but I do remember we also considered “The Gourmet Shop” – boring!

The name gave rise to a trade show friend presenting me with a bumper sticker that said “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me!” I still have it!

The name also gave rise to the fabulous logo. That logo we had was done by a very well-known Maine designer named Joe Guertin. It was quite a spectacular logo, and people really remembered it. It helped get people to spread the word about us. We used to give away pot holders with that logo on them with every purchase. People loved them. We’d get people who would come in and say, “We were up in the North Woods up in Aroostook County, 50 miles into the woods, and we came across a cabin on a lake. And there on the refrigerator was a Whip and Spoon potholder!”

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A promotional paring knife belonging to Sonia Robertson, former proprietor of Whip & Spoon, a kitchenware store of several decades in Portland’s Old Port. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

AR: Can you talk about your perspective on the food scene when you opened, and how it changed during the nearly 25 years you were in business?

SR: Early on, when we first moved to Portland, there wasn’t much. DiMillo’s and Boone’s were pretty much the two restaurants to go to. And it was still a lot like it had been in the ’60s. You know, I think every newly married person taught themselves to cook out of Julia Child’s books, and so this period was sort of the end of that.

Things were changing. Right about when we started, we were next door to the new Gaslight restaurant. It was owned by Dick and Elizabeth DiFranco, and it is probably one of the best restaurants that’s ever been in Maine. I think anybody would agree with that. It was remarkable food – French. They were there for maybe eight years.

The food scene was beginning to pick up its pace in Portland. People were going out more, but they were looking for new things at home, too. People were beginning to have a real interest in Asian cooking, and Chinese cooking in particular. We sold a lot of woks in those early years. Woks and knives. Of course, knives were always a big thing, and we had people with incredible knowledge about them because of the restaurant supply shop. That was our special advantage. Our staff were some of the smartest people. I think at one point, we had two PhDs and a couple of master’s degrees. But the common denominator is that they were honest, nice people, almost without exception.

But there were certainly a lot of trends. Remember, the bread machine was on the cover of Time Magazine. So we sold a lot of bread makers, and then there’s the Vitamix, stand mixers like the KitchenAid K5-A. And of course, the Cuisinart. Carl Sontheimer changed everything with the introduction of the Cuisinart. People wanted them, even if they didn’t need them. One of my favorite stories was about an older woman who wanted a Cuisinart, and I asked her “Why?” Well, she told me she wanted to grate cheese. I told her, I have a Xyliss grater here that I think at that point cost $2.50, and she was just so delighted to leave with something that cost $2.50, as opposed to $200, not counting the blades and attachments!

A Whip and Spoon catalog. Even today, we’re impressed with the breadth of the offerings. Image courtesy of Sonia Robertson

AR: What about pasta machines?

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SR: Yes, a little later than the Cuisinart, but all through the ’80s. I remember stacks of pasta makers, pasta cooking pots, drying racks, all of it. It was everywhere all over the Whip and Spoon for a while. And now of course, you can still buy all of those things: woks, pasta makers … but it doesn’t have the urgency that it did back then. Plus now there’s too much good pasta to be had elsewhere, and that’s not a complaint!

AR: I understand you also expanded the range of goods you sold to follow trends outside of kitchen equipment, right?

SR: Yes. In the ’80s, we started coffee. That was our first foray beyond cookware. But we weren’t the ones who figured out that people were starting to take a real interest in good coffee. We had a very good friend whose name was Constantine Karvonides who was in advertising, but most of his clients were food clients. And one of his clients was White House Coffee. Con kept saying, “You got to start selling coffee.” And we’d just brush him off, but then he said, “No. I’m serious. You need to start selling coffee.” So we listened. When all was said and done, we began with four barrels and ended up with a whole wall of 40 different kinds of coffee. I think we sold over 14,000 pounds of coffee a year. We had a whole floor in our warehouse that was dedicated to coffee beans.

We also sold wine and had a wine cellar, but that was really more Jock’s thing. At that point, you could buy some really good, affordable wine for $10. Someone on our staff had tasted everything we sold, and we’d have wine tastings a few times a year.

Sonia Robertson gave these knives to her staff as Christmas presents in 1989. “We had people with incredible knowledge about (knives),” she said. “That was our special advantage. Our staff were some of the smartest people.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

AR: What about your cooking classes?

SR: There’s a Julia Child story about that. I was part of the Women’s Culinary Guild in Boston, and she, of course, was a charter member. And she had friends who lived out on Prouts Neck. So when she came to Portland, she would come to the Whip. She was such a gracious woman. Oh my god. And one time, she came when we were designing the cooking school in the back of the store, and she helped me figure out some angles that were important. She was just such a lovely woman. She would come to visit whenever she came into town.

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You know, maybe the most fun we had was with the cooking classes. Nina Simonds, who has written any number of cookbooks and who is quite well known in the culinary field, she and I became friends. She used to do fabulous Chinese cooking classes for us. There was a Chinese street food class I remember that was wonderful. And Chris Toy, who I think is still teaching, he did cooking classes for us.

We tried to involve the community as much as we could. We did a cooking class for the kids at the Baxter School for the Deaf, and we always had free cookie decorating on Valentine’s Day. That was always a really fun thing.

AR: So tell me why you and Jock decided to sell the business.

SR: At the end, we were actually thinking about expanding. We already had a small shop mall-side (at the Maine Mall), where the DSW is now, and we were thinking about going to cities similar in size to Portland that did not have cookware stores, like Worcester, Massachusetts. We were working with a business consultant, and we had ended a meeting, and Jock had his hand on the doorknob. And this man said “Jock, you do realize that if you decide to open four or five other stores, you are going to be on the road five days a week going from store to store.”

Well, Jock’s hand dropped from the doorknob. He turned around and said, “We’re done. We’re not doing this. I am not going to miss my daughter’s childhood for business. That is not a trade-off that is part of my life’s equation.” So there we were. It happened very quickly. We leased out the building to tenants, and sold it in 2021. But it was really good to get back to a more normal life after more than 20 years thinking about nothing but kitchens and cookware, coffee and wine. People are still cooking at home – now more than ever because of the pandemic. I’m just happy we got to be a part of people’s culinary adventures for so long.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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