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How Instagrammy cookware got so popular

Many Americans have a newfound excess of free time to cook, nest, and decorate.

Colorful pots against a white background.
The popular Always Pan cookware from the startup Our Place.
Courtesy of Our Place

If you’ve spent any amount of time scrolling through Instagram lately, you’ve probably seen what many have dubbed the “Instagram Pan.” The pan, called the “Always Pan” and made by the cookware startup Our Place, has become notable because its ads are ubiquitous, following customers around on Instagram relentlessly, displaying noodles being cooked in a lavender-hued vessel. This holiday season, the pan, which is available in an array of muted tones called spice, sage, blue salt, lavender, and steam, has popped up on dozens of gift guides curating home and kitchen products — and it sold out for some time after Black Friday.

Or perhaps you’ve seen the dinnerware startup East Fork’s distinctive colorful ceramic plates in your Instagram feed, appearing in the background of photos of elaborate work-from-home lunches created by your favorite food writers and chefs. Or maybe you’ve seen electric blue sheet pans and deep green Dutch ovens from the startup Great Jones all over your feed, proudly standing out among the photos of tinier-than-usual Thanksgiving tablescapes.

In the past few years, there’s been a wave of direct-to-consumer kitchenware startups trying to disrupt the cookware and dinnerware categories: Our Place, Great Jones, Caraway, Made In, Milo, Misen, Material Kitchen, East Fork. They’re not exactly brand new — Great Jones launched in 2018, East Fork has been around since 2015; Eater wrote about the rise of a new class of DTC cookware brands in 2018. But in 2020, something new happened: The confluence of a pandemic that drove everyone indoors and shut down many restaurants, combined with many Americans having a newfound excess of free time to cook, nest, and decorate, has created a moment for these cookware brands to shine.

Why there are so many cookware startups now

People have been buying cookware from brands like Calphalon, Cuisinart, Hamilton Beach, and All-Clad for decades; they were typically sold through big-box retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Crate & Barrel, and Williams Sonoma.

So why are so many cookware startups suddenly launching in the last few years? I talked to the founders of a few of them, and each reported being dissatisfied with the options from big-box retailers — but for different reasons.

For Great Jones co-founder Sierra Tishgart, it was about being able to easily find high-quality products without having to go to multiple retailers and sift through dozens of options. “There was so much stuff to sift through,” Tishgart said. “I just remember being like, Okay, I need a stockpot. I’m going to a retailer’s website and scrolling through 20 pages of stockpots. Some have copper cores, some are eight-ply and some are five-ply … it was so overwhelming.”

“You had to go to one brand for cast iron, and another one for your nonstick, and another for stainless steel, and that was such a pain,” she added. Tishgart designed Great Jones to keep those various needs in mind, offering a range of materials with the goal of being a “one-stop shop” for cookware needs.

Our Place co-founder and CEO Shiza Shahid also felt there were too many cookware products required for different purposes, and wanted to make the process easier. Shahid told Vox that in starting Our Place, she wanted to challenge “the industry norm of selling bulky, difficult to use, expensive cookware sets.” Shahid said the multipurpose “Always Pan” was designed to replace eight other types of cookware: a frying pan, saute pan, steamer, skillet, saucier, saucepan, nonstick pan, spatula, and spoon rest.

Jordan Nathan, the founder of Caraway, had a different mission: After leaving a nonstick pan on the stove too long and filling his apartment with fumes, he started to learn about the chemicals used in Teflon and nonstick cookware and wanted a safer alternative. “There was definitely a gap in the market to create a brand around safety and nontoxic materials,” Nathan said in an interview.

For Asheville, North Carolina-based East Fork Pottery, kitchenware is a form of art. The ceramics brand focuses on dinnerware: plates, bowls, mugs, and everything else you need for your tabletop. The company was founded by potter Alex Matisse — the great-grandson of famed French modernist painter Henri Matisse — who, with his wife, Connie, wanted to make high-quality, artisanal ceramic pottery more accessible to a broader range of consumers. The company has built a legion of devoted fans who anticipate launches of new colors, and their signature mugs have become so popular they’ve inspired their own Instagram hashtag (#TheMug). The most devoted shoppers have tried to collect them in every color.

Cookware startups are reporting a pandemic-driven rise in sales

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many Americans have been cooking a lot more because of the extra hours spent at home. With restaurant shutdowns and social distancing restrictions, they’re dining out less — so they’re taking some of the budget they previously spent on restaurants and spending it on groceries and cookware instead.

Data from the food industry association FMI confirms that Americans shifted a sizable chunk of their food spending toward groceries and cookware instead of restaurants as a result of the pandemic. In February, Americans spent 52 percent of their food budget outside of grocery stores and supermarkets; by April, that number was down to just 34 percent — approximately $23 billion in spending on restaurants and dining was redirected toward cooking at home within a matter of two months.

And cookware sales have been way up in 2020: The Cookware Manufacturers Association reported that US cookware sales were up 36.2 percent in Q3 of 2020 versus 2019, and that overall from January to September, cookware sales were up 20.7 percent in 2020 versus 2019.

Julian Thomas, a 30-year-old communications consultant in New York, told Vox that although he spent the first few months of the pandemic relying on takeout, he eventually decided he had to start cooking more as the months wore on, so he bought Our Place’s “Always Pan” in September because of its multifunctionality and aesthetics.

“I don’t have a lot of space in ​my NYC apartment​, so I wanted to avoid a full 8-12 piece cooking set,” Thomas, who describes himself as a “sucker for aesthetics,” told Vox by email. “I wanted something that would match my laid-back bachelor style.” He also reports that the pan helps him feel better about his “non-existent cooking skills,” saying, “I have a fancy pan that makes my sub-par meals look at least somewhat attractive.”

Founders of some of the most popular cookware startups told Vox they had seen significant growth during the pandemic. Caraway founder Jordan Nathan said that in the few months immediately after the pandemic hit the US in March, the company saw close to a 300 percent increase in sales.

Our Place launched in late 2019, so co-founder and CEO Shiza Shahid told Vox that “we’re too young to be able to isolate the impact (positive or negative) of the pandemic in our data,” but said that Our Place has seen growth every month since they launched, both before and after the pandemic.

Tishgart, the Great Jones founder, also reported that her company had hit record numbers this year, seeing particularly high sales in April and November. “At our peak, we’ve been up over 1000% on an average sales day,” Tishgart said via email.

Chip Malt, co-founder and CEO of Made In, told Vox via email that his company was seeing buyers who are “much more engaged at home, particularly with cooking,” calling home entertainment — including cooking — “definitely a consumer interest area.” Made In reports that its customers have also become more loyal — the repeat purchase rate is up by 20 to 30 percent since the pandemic began.

And East Fork CMO Connie Matisse told Vox that March 2020 was their biggest sales month in company history, twice as big as the previous holiday season in November 2019. But when the pandemic forced them to shut down their factory for seven weeks in March and April, the company was forced to switch to a preorder model.

Now they periodically open up sales for preorders, close them when they sell the exact amount of product they felt they could make, and ship items to customers within six to eight weeks. If anything, the preorder model may have added to the company’s allure: Customers followed East Fork’s social media and newsletter updates breathlessly to see when the next preorder sale would begin. A recent preorder sale lasted only 32 minutes before the company noted on Instagram that it had sold out yet again.

“With everyone spending so much more time at home with their stuff, and a lot of people do still have money in the bank right now, home is where we’re spending it,” Matisse said.

Why so many of these cookware brands are so colorful

It’s impossible to talk about the proliferation of new cookware brands without talking about how many of them look like they belong on Instagram. They offer their products in a range of bright colors and pastel shades previously never seen in the cookware category, and as a result, they have become ubiquitous on the platform. They are not just functional — they also look beautiful on the stove or the dinner table.

Nathan says he found that the color options in traditional cookware were lacking; he wanted to offer a broader range of colors that aligned with the way modern consumers think about designing their homes today, and he wanted cookware to be something that fit into their overall home design aesthetic. “When you did want color in the kitchen category, you typically had to choose like a bright red or really desaturated baby blue and nothing that really you’d find in the rest of your home,” Nathan says.

“We’ve definitely taken an approach of offering colors that exist in the rest of your home,” Nathan says, aiming to create cookware that “matches your personality.” “It matches what you’re looking to build your home around,” he explains, taking a “home decor lens to kitchenware.”

And color plays a huge role at East Fork, where the company treats new color launches with the same fanfare another company might reserve for new product launches. They eventually retire some glaze colors, which further contributes to the exclusive, collector’s-item feel that East Fork has built around its color launches.

Connie Matisse told Vox that initially, the concept of color launches was an economic choice: “Ultimately, why we leaned so heavily into this color launch thing was really basically out of necessity — because we make our own products, our marketing budget compared to our competitors’ marketing budget is just pathetic,” she said. As a result, “the colors have become a big differentiator” for East Fork, and the enthusiasm about the color launches on social media helped them grow as a brand.

Great Jones also shares some of East Fork’s view of kitchenware as art — Tishgart described how the company prioritized color and aesthetics because they see cookware as not just a purely functional item but something that’s meant to be put on display in one’s home, to be seen and admired, elevating cookware to the status of a piece of art. “To me, the aesthetics are about taking pride in it,” Tishgart said. “If I keep something out on my stove and I’m proud of how it feels in my home, I’m gonna use it more, and it’s gonna be a part of my life. I think that design element was missing from the majority of brands.”

Our Place’s Shiza Shahid believes the same. “We made colors that brought us and our community joy,” she said via email. “Because the Always Pan is so beautiful, people leave it out on their stovetop. And that makes them more likely to cook a nourishing meal for themselves and those they love.”

Can the color of your cookware truly spark joy and impact how you feel? “The association between color and mood is less well established in the scientific literature than one might think,” said Susana Martinez-Conde, a medical scientist and professor who studies neurology and perception, and author of the book Champions of Illusion. “There are some studies that do point to a certain universality of experience in terms of associating certain colors with warmth, and also connecting the brightness of colors with positivity — which one could relate to joy. Whether some colors can inspire people to cook more is yet to be determined!”

Other studies have also shown that colors can play a role in purchasing decisions. A 2006 study on the impact of color in marketing from the University of Winnipeg found that consumers make snap judgments about products within 90 seconds of their initial interactions, and a large majority of these assessments seem to be based on colors alone. Many marketers invest heavily in the concept of color psychology, strategizing on how to use colors in logos, marketing materials, ads, and products to influence consumers to make a purchase.

In the end, certain colors probably can spark joy for some people — seeing bright colors in their kitchen may make them feel happy or calm. But the people who see the most benefit from the use of bright colors in cookware may be the companies themselves — because seeing a lavender pan or a pine-green cutting board on their Instagram feed may influence a shopper to purchase that item, regardless of what else they know about the product.

In nine months of life at home, home cooking has gone from novelty to drudgery

If there is one thing that has defined the past eight months, a nearly universal experience many have shared, it’s the never-ending daily drudgery of having to feed ourselves. In the Before Times, breakfast might have been on the go while commuting, coffee was grabbed at a coffee shop or at work, and lunch was from the salad joint near the office. But now, many Americans have found themselves responsible for preparing three meals a day at home, a repetitive task that never ends — and with it comes endless rounds of washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen, all so you can begin the cycle over again the next day.

Early on in the pandemic, many Americans tried to make quarantine cooking feel novel and exciting. They baked bread and grew scallions and made shallot pasta and tried new and adventurous recipes to pass the hours spent at home.

Eight months later, however, Americans who aren’t used to all this cooking are growing tired of it. Tyson Foods reported a surge in sales of prepared food items as consumers lose patience with preparing three meals a day from scratch. Tejal Rao wrote in the New York Times about feeling home cooking burnout: “People all over the country are exhausted by the losses of the pandemic, police violence and continuing protests against it, and the tensions of the election,” Rao wrote. “Even nerdy cooks who found pleasure in freezing sheets of pie dough a week ahead of time (yes, that’s me) might find the approach of the holiday overwhelming.”

In the New Yorker, Helen Rosner wrote that the obligation of needing to cook every day had sucked all the joy out of the act: “I’ve made hundreds of dishes for hundreds of meals. And I am so bored. I am so tired. In theory, I love to cook. But I am so, so sick of cooking.”

It’s easy, and common, to make fun of Instagram-friendly, colorful cookware — peruse the Twitter search results for the “Instagram Pan” and you’ll see lots of Twitter users mocking it for its Instagram aesthetic, or others guiltily admitting that they just caved in and bought it.

The unspoken assumption seems to be that purchasing decisions should be based purely on the quality and functionality of a product, not on aesthetics or whether it will make good content for your Instagram account. Self-deprecating tweets admitting to purchasing an “Instagram pan” are a product of a culture where it’s seen as uncool to care or to purchase something that’s viewed as “basic,” even if you enjoy it.

Many of these startup founders would argue that quality and aesthetics don’t have to be mutually exclusive — a pan doesn’t have to be black, or be ugly, in order to work well. Cookware can be both functional and beautiful; it can cook well and be an item that people are proud to display in their homes. An electric blue sheet pan or deep red plates won’t solve all your cooking burnout woes, but they might be able to bring a little more joy into what can otherwise be a tedious daily chore.

“We live in small apartments, and you want your kitchenware to look good on your stove because that’s often the only place you can store it,” Tishgart said. “And yes, there’s a superficial element to that; you like how it looks and maybe want to post it to Instagram, but that’s actually going to encourage you to cook more,” she added. “That has resonated with people so strongly and been a part of the Great Jones story — the use of color and the joy there.”

But what’s really wrong with Instagramming your cooking and featuring your seafoam green Dutch oven? Instagram used to be a place where we curated only the most glamorous moments of our lives, like parties, vacations, and dining out at restaurants. But none of those activities are possible in the current pandemic reality, and our worlds have shrunk dramatically.

Many Americans are now spending more time than ever at home, and endless cycles of cooking, cleaning, and commuting from the bed to the desk to the couch are not quite glamorous enough for documenting on Instagram. So maybe changing things up in the kitchen with some colorful new cookware — and, yes, Instagramming it — can bring a little joy into the monotony of our daily pandemic routines.