I’d say 99% of people have never set foot in a restaurant supply store, even though it’s the very best place to buy cheap cookware that’s built to meet commercial quality standards. (Here’s a post on exactly what you can buy at a restaurant supply store — it’s pretty crazy.) What exactly is commercial quality? Basically, it means the equipment is built to withstand the rigors of restaurant life, which is HARD on cookware.
In other words, you can beat the holy crap out of your commercial pots and pans and they’ll take it, unlike consumer cookware which is usually built with relatively cheap parts and even cheaper manufacturing processes. What you buy at a restaurant supply store is built to last, while the cheap cookware you buy at Target (and even middle-tier cookware from stores like Williams-Sonoma) often falls apart within a year or two.
Have you ever looked at the reviews of a nonstick pan on Amazon? 95% of the reviews are from shiny new buyers who just bought it, or else they don’t use it frequently so it has the appearance of lasting a long time. “It works great!” They sing. “I’ve used it twice and the eggs slide right off. Cleans up like a dream!”
But… there’s a catch. If you click the one- and two-star link in the reviews section, you’ll see all the people who gave the item a bad review. These are often the people who used something quite a bit over an extended period of time, the ones who really test the quality of their cheap cookware. You’ll notice some similar complaints:
- Disappointing pans, finish wears off and food sticks!
- Sticks after 5 months with good care and not-too-frequent use
- Got all scratched..
- Cheap cookware!!
- Poor quality control inspection
- Lousy warranty services. Disappointing.
That last one is the worst. You buy a pan, use it for a year, and then try to replace it once it falls apart. Only the warranty has either just expired or you get a lackluster response from the support department, who gives you the runaround or tells you that the damage is your fault. No bueno. The real issue is that regular old cookware is not generally built to last.
To be fair, we are talking about nonstick pans here, which are basically the frail, sickly child of the cooking world. Some would say they’re not an accurate gauge of durability, since the coating is pretty much guaranteed to scratch off. I would argue otherwise. Nonstick pans and other cheap cookware are the canary in the coal mine. Since this is the type of cooking equipment most people use, they serve as a base measurement of what the majority of our society will experience when they purchase cooking equipment.
What’s wrong with regular cookware?
I have many nonstick pans, some cheap ones from Target or wherever, and a few nicer ones I bought from Sur la Table. The cheap T-Fal pans didn’t even make it a year before the coating scratched off and the handles loosened to the point that the pans were unsafe to use (and I baby my cookware). My Sur la Table-brand pans, which are good middle of the line construction, have lasted two years with some wear and tear but are generally champs. My Scanpan has proven to be the most bulletproof, clocking in at six years with minimal damage, beyond the one bonehead who tried to cut a steak in it. (MADE ME STABBY!!!!)
So clearly you can buy decent cookware at regular consumer outlets, but here’s the catch:
- Sur la Table branded frying pans — decent quality — I paid $100 for two of them, and they didn’t come with lids
- Scanpan frying pans — solid construction and durability — $175 for one pan with lid
You get what you pay for in the world of consumer-based cookware, whether it’s cheap or expensive. You’d better be willing to shell out some cash if you want equipment that lasts.
That is not the case in the restaurant world. Commercial equipment is put through the ringer every single day, 7-days a week in many cases. Pans in restaurant kitchens are set over commercial 30,000 BTU burners (which are six times hotter than your ~5,000 BTU home range) 10 to 50 times a night, then sent through a high-heat commercial dishwasher with industrial soap. These pots and pans are dropped, kicked, thrown at other cooks… you get the idea. Restaurant equipment needs to stand up to abuse.
Commercial pots and pans take a lifetime of beating that would make your home pans cry uncle after one use.
Do you think restaurant owners spend a ton of money at restaurant supply stores, shelling out $120 per pan, knowing full well their cooks are going to beat the holy shit out of it? Nope. The overhead costs of running a restaurant are already insane — with the soaring cost of labor, ingredients, insurance, utilities, appliances, rent (especially if your restaurant is in a well-trafficked area). There’s no way restaurant owners can afford to pay the same prices for quality cookware that home cooks are expected to pay.
What about caterers? They have an entirely different set of needs, and often even lower budgets than restaurateurs. They have the same need for durable cookware but are not likely able to spend a ton of money on equipment either.
Where can busy chefs and caterers, with high expectations and an intense need for quality, buy great cookware without spending a fortune? Enter the restaurant supply store.
Restaurant supply stores — your key to cheap cookware
When it comes to buying kitchen equipment, I shop almost exclusively at my local restaurant supply store because that’s where I was told to shop when I was in culinary school. Then that idea was reinforced when I worked in restaurants. It doesn’t matter what I’m looking for: pots, pans, knives, mixing bowls, spatulas, grill flippers, bread boxes, cake pans, pastry rings, storage containers. I even buy some of my glassware there, where pint glasses are half the cost of my local Target.
You may not find all your favorite brands there — no Calphalon, Circulon, Farberware, KitchenAid, Cuisinart, or T-Fal. I’ve seen some fancy brands like Le Creuset and All-Clad at some restaurant supply stores, but they’re generally not much cheaper than you’d find at Sur la Table.
What a restaurant supply store does sell is a selection of commercial brands you may have never heard of, without fancy logos or pretty packaging. Their goods may have some dust on them from sitting in a drafty warehouse-type building without flashy brand-name boxes to keep them covered. None of this says anythings about the quality of the equipment.
Now, it’s important to mention that you can still buy cheap cookware — like the crappy kind I warned you about above — at a restaurant supply store. Some restaurant owners shop for this type of cheap cookware, and restaurant suppliers are more than happy to sell it to them. So just like when you’re shopping for anything else, you need to be smart about making your purchase. What do you need to do to make sure you’re getting the most durable equipment a restaurant supply shop has to order? On to my next point.
Ask the staff.
The sales staff folks at restaurant supply stores are usually SUPER knowledgeable about the capabilities of what they sell, because they sell cooking equipment for a full-time living to buyers who have incredibly high expectations. If they don’t know their stuff, they get angry, stressed out chefs pounding on their door demanding a refund. Stressed out chefs are no fun. (Trust me on this. ?)
So if you’re looking for something super durable, ask the staff at the restaurant supply store and let them know what your budget is and that you are looking for an item that will last you for years to come. The staff will usually be able to give you a range of items at varying prices and qualities, and be able to explain the difference between them all so you can make an educated decision about what is the best choice for your needs.
Contrast this with the friendly staff at my local Williams-Sonoma, who can answer basic questions about their equipment, but watch their eyes glaze over when you ask them a more intense question like, “Will this pot handle withstand temperatures of more than 400°F?” Not to knock the staff at my local mall cooking store, because I like those folks quite a bit. But they always end up referring to the website for more info and often leave me with unanswered questions, because they don’t know key information off the top of their heads or have an understanding of the practical science behind what they’re selling.
Where do I find a restaurant supply store nearby?
Every major city has a handful of restaurant supply stores, and even smaller town-type areas have one or two within the general vicinity. (Basically, if you have more than three or four restaurants within 20 minutes of your home, you likely have a restaurant supply shop within an hour’s driving time.) They’re usually unassuming places located in industrial areas, where warehouse space is cheap to help keep costs down. Click here to find one near you.
Restaurant supply stores don’t have a fancy-pants setup like Williams-Sonoma. Not even close. These places are setup in a no-nonsense way, allowing chefs to get in, get what they need, and get out. Once inside you’ll usually find endless rows of metal shelves, stacked floor to ceiling with every type of cooking tool you could ever imagine.
You’ll find pizza pans, muffin tins, mountains of mixing bowls, a selection of ladles in different sizes, spatulas, ice cream scoops, serving spoons, and chef’s knives. There will usually be a large selection of frying pans, lidded pots, heavy duty cutting boards, all sizes of baking sheets, and an entire row dedicated to Cambros (plastic storage boxes with pop-on lids). If your local restaurant supply store has a good baking section, you’ll see a variety of pastry rings, silicon baking molds, stacks of different-sized cake pans, and enough piping tips to frost thousands of cakes. If you head over to the appliance side of the shop, you’ll see propane torches, commercial fryers, restaurant-grade food processors, and enormous steam kettles.
Now, not all restaurant supply stores are made equal. Like any other type of store, some places are cheaper than others. Some have a better variety of equipment, and of course one shop have a different selection from another. For example, one place may have a great selection of pastry and baking equipment, while another might concentrate more on the savory market with a better selection of knives, pots, pans, and dishware.
It’s smart to call ahead to see if the restaurant supply store near you has what you need, and they will usually answer honestly if you want to know how diverse their selection is for a certain type of equipment. (I.e., “Do you carry a wide selection of cake pans?”)
Now, go get on it!
I hope I’ve shared my enthusiasm for restaurant supply stores and convinced you to at least go check your local supplier. Even if you’re not 100% convinced, at least stop in and browse around. Consider it a culinary field trip. If your area has more than one supplier, you’ll probably find that one fits your needs more than the others. In my area one supplier has a better selection of pastry equipment than the others, so I end up going there more often. But also regularly drop in to the others from time to time, just to browse and see what they’ve got.
I’ve gotten some incredible deals by shopping around at my local restaurant supply stores, such as my favorite spatula, which has lasted me five years and cost me $4. There’s also my awesome mixing bowls, which literally cost $12 for three. A few weeks ago I found a nice marble slab for ruling out pastry ($30) and a clearance sale on chef-quality Mercer knives. ($40 for a $80 knife!)
Here’s a quick search that will show you any restaurant supply shops near you. Now go and have fun!