Kitchen Outfitters: The Teacher Becomes the Student

The opportunity was too good to pass up when this former Spanish teacher changed careers. More than a year later, she finds learning never really stops when you’re an entrepreneur.

Sarah Halvorson, the new owner of Kitchen Outfitters, in Crystal Lake, is carrying on the traditions of her predecessor while also adding her own touches.

When Sarah Halvorson and her husband, Mark, learned that Mary Behrens was selling her kitchen supply store in downtown Crystal Lake, an idea began to simmer … then it quickly moved to a boil.

After all, the Crystal Lake couple had been loyal, longtime customers at Behrens’ Kitchen Outfitters, 64 N. Williams St.

With her husband’s blessing and assurances from Behrens that she would stay on to tutor the new owner, Halvorson bought the popular downtown Crystal Lake business in June 2022.

“I opened in January, so I had six months to work with Mary and finish out the school year,” says Halvorson, who taught Spanish for eight years at McHenry High School’s East Campus. “I worked on weekends. It was absolutely a lifesaver.”

Halvorson, a Jacobs High School graduate, grew up in Algonquin and earned a degree in education from Northern Michigan University in Marquette. She lived and taught for a decade near Columbus, Ohio, before returning to McHenry County to be closer to family.

“During my six months with Mary, I did research,” Halvorson says. “I can figure out how to do most things, and I knew I could figure this out. I think every year I’m going to get better.”

Mark Halvorson, a graphic artist, remains a source of support while Sarah juggles caring for two children – daughter Willow (12) and son Sam (6) – and the responsibilities of running her own business.

“I have young children. I need to be there. I try and find a balance,” she says. “As owner, I have the benefit of control. We were closed the first two days after Christmas because, at that point, I was ready to collapse. And then during the first week of January we be closed for inventory. I like the fact that I’m home in the mornings and can get the kids ready for school. I used to be at work from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.”

Since it first opened in 2013, Kitchen Outfitters has been the solutions store for home cooks. It carries cookware, cutlery and cutting boards, grilling supplies, mixing bowls, cleaning and organizational linens, food products, small appliances, bakeware, barware and a wide assortment of kitchen tools.

“We’re not a restaurant supply house. We don’t run into industrial cooking supplies,” Halvorson says. “But we try and have a little bit of everything for the home cook. We have an ability to help people find that hard-to-find item.”

Halvorson credits four “really good” part-time staff, including holdover Kate Columbaro of Crystal Lake, for making her job easier and for keeping the store’s five-star reputation intact.

“The transition was surprisingly seamless and a very happy one,” Columbaro says. “Sarah has done a phenomenal job of maintaining the root of what Mary built.”

Columbaro, who loves to bake, said working at the store continually triggers “look-what-we-can-do” ideas she can share with her husband, who does most of the cooking at home.

“I like the little kitchen gadgets that seem so meaningless to some people, or so cute, but sometimes they make all the difference,” Columbaro says, “whether it’s a tiny pan scraper or a whisk in a different size.”

Kitchen Outfitters’ forte is customer service and expertise. “What are my customers going to struggle with? What do they need to know?” Halvorson says. “When people buy things online, you never know what they are going to get. You don’t know if it will work for you. We’ve all had that Amazon order that comes in and looks nothing like what we ordered.”

Halvorson and her team work to remove the guesswork. Sometimes, that means tailoring a product to a customer’s needs – even if special orders can take four to six weeks to come in. Customers reward that dedication with loyalty, something Halvorson deeply appreciates.

“I have a Geometry brand towel order I’ve been waiting on for almost five weeks. Despite costing $17 for a tea towel, the use of post-consumer recycled materials is incredibly popular,” she says. “Sometimes when I place an order from a particular vendor, a customer will have to wait. It might be a month. The only thing I can do as we go through the process is to be honest and upfront.”

Some of Halvorson’s biggest challenges are anticipating cooking trends and meeting the expectations of her customers in a timely fashion. She also works on keeping prices competitive with larger outlets.

“I never felt like I was competing against big-box stores. That is just a totally different experience. I can’t keep that amount of inventory,” Halvorson says. “I’ve learned you can’t have everything in your store for everybody all the time. I do the best I can. Everyone who works with me is a part of the process. We talk about ordering and we talk about things we learn from our customers.”

Halvorson prides herself on being responsive to customer needs – from quirky cookie cutters to an unexpected demand this holiday season for traditional nutcrackers, olive stuffers and sink mats. She learns something new from her customers nearly every day.

“I always like the interaction with people. If I didn’t like that I wouldn’t have been in teaching for so many years,” Halvorson says. “I love helping people figure out which pan is going to serve them best. I’m still in education. It’s just a different type of education.”

Her business philosophy is to keep the sale secondary to helping people and meeting their needs, whether that means sourcing products from family-owned businesses – including local cutting board vendors The Rustic Barn and TreeNut Studio – or bringing back how-to videos, in-store demonstrations and classes on topics such as mixology, knife skills and cookie decorating.

“Mary will tell you that during COVID there was a big surge in cooking and in her business.

Everyone was stuck at home,” Halvorson says. She believes the economic climate today is improving in some ways for independent businesses, particularly with large retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond folding or moving exclusively online.

“Especially in Crystal Lake, people value small businesses. They want to have that thriving downtown and they are willing to support it,” Halvorson says. “If we continue to make the right financial decisions and be symbiotic with the public, we’ll be successful. I’m hoping small businesses will be back to making a quiet rise.”

Halvorson credits the ongoing support and shared expertise from her downtown neighbors – including Marvin’s Toy Store owner Lori McConville, Wear Did U Get That boutique owner Stephanie Ormsby, and the former owner of the Olive Tap, Kristie Rainwater, for creating a welcoming and energetic retail environment downtown.

“We get excited every time we get a new delivery,” Halvorson says. “It never gets old.”