panhandler

Broadway Panhandler

It’s all cutting-edge at this kitchen-tool mecca.

It’s all cutting-edge at this kitchen-tool mecca.

What do you do when you give your daughter an All-Clad double boiler and she leaves it on the stove untended, scorching the pan to a scary hue that no amount of scrubbing will alter? One New Yorker who found herself in this predicament had the good sense to stop by the Greenwich Village kitchenware emporium Broadway Panhandler to seek some expert advice.

She happened to be in luck: Store owner and pots and pans guru Norman Kornbleuth was on the floor. “My daughter is sad, but I’m more upset because I bought the pan for her,” the customer confided to Kornbleuth.

“We have a product called Bar Keepers Friend,” Kornbleuth told her. “It’s a stainless steel polish, but it’s not an abrasive.” Alas, the scorcher had tried this, to no avail. Kornbleuth began querying the customer. “Did it turn a little purplish? Like a rainbow?” The woman nodded, as though an expert diagnostician were precisely describing her obscure symptoms to her. “Let me put you in touch with someone here, and they will put you in touch with All-Clad,” Kornbleuth said. “They will give you additional tips.”

It was simple advice, but dispensed with kindly, reassuring professionalism.  The woman walked toward the store’s “Hospitality Desk” with Kornbleuth, hopeful that the problem pot would be restored to its former glory.

The customer may not have known that the avuncular grayhaired man dressed in T-shirt and sandals answering questions was the store’s founder as well as owner, a second-generation panhandler who at 66 still tries to find time to help customers who wander into his kitchen-supply wonderland. “I can’t be out here as much as I like,” Kornbleuth says, “but I really love to help people make the right decisions.”

Kornbleuth has been helping New Yorkers stock their kitchens and dress their tables since 1976, when he opened Broadway Panhandler at Broadway and Spring Street in Soho, just as garment factories were vacating the neighborhood and big spaces and low rents beckoned. The store has moved twice since then, in 1995 to a beautiful 150-year-old cast-iron building on Broome Street, and then four years ago to its current 5,000-square-foot location on East Eighth Street just off Broadway.

The store is to kitchenware and tableware aficionados what Las Vegas is to gambling addicts: an irresistible temptation, an epic endorphin rush. It is stuffed with pots, pans, cutlery, baking utensils, table linens, kitchen electronics, artisanal crockery, cutting boards and gadgets galore. Colorful, stand-alone displays celebrate the season and its holidays while separate stations for collections such as eco-friendly bamboo ware or quirky kids’ cooking tools attest to a sharp retail eye at work.

But the business has its roots in far more prosaic wares. It began in 1939 when Kornbleuth’s father, Harry, a Polish immigrant, landed a contract with the United States War Department to supply giant wooden salad bowls to the Navy. He named his restaurant supply business Anchor, which both saluted his first customer and conveniently placed it at the beginning of the Yellow Pages.  Along with the military—still a major customer of Anchor, which Kornbleuth runs in addition to Broadway Panhandler—the senior Kornbleuth added schools, universities, hospitals, prisons and other large institutional customers.

From the age of about five, Norman spent time with his brother, Joe, at their father’s store on the Bowery, at East Fifth Street and Cooper Square, using giant stockpots as hiding places, 30-inch mixing bowls as rocking horses and merry-go-rounds, and rowing across imaginary lakes in roasting pans. The first task he recalls being assigned was screwing the tops onto saltshakers destined for military mess halls. As a Cub and eventually Eagle Scout, Kornbleuth learned to sharpen knives and whittle, developing a love for and expertise in knives that found expression in his store’s extensive offerings. He recalls the Bowery as “pretty seedy, with flophouses, derelicts and a variety of things that as a child were hard to grasp.” Fonder memories include accompanying his father to the bank at Eighth Street and Broadway, near the store’s current location, and visiting the Horn & Hardart Automat there.

While Joe went on to become a periodontist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Norman stuck close to his father’s business, both geographically and vocationally. Although the family lived in the Bronx, he attended Stuyvesant High School, still an all-boys school at the time, then, in the early ’60s, New York University to study marketing. Frequent customer and culinary celebrity James Beard had taken a shine to Anchor’s heavy-duty commercial frying pans made by Wear-Ever, which gave Kornbleuth the idea for a marketing class project to sell the Wear-Ever line to home cooks with the endorsement of Beard. He was ahead of his time, but not by much.

Kornbleuth began an MBA program at Michigan State University’s hotel and restaurant management school but never finished; his father called him back to help with his business in 1967 after the abrupt departure of his sales manager. The idea for a retail store was conceived with the encouragement of Kornbleuth’s friend and mentor Ron Kasperzak, the inventor of the Calphalon line of aluminum cookware. Kasperzak had already begun selling Calphalon to the home cook as well as to institutions, and encouraged Kornbleuth to begin selling heavy-duty restaurant ware for home use. Kornbleuth’s class project became a reality, although celebrity chef endorsements were still yet to come.

As they worked to grow the new business, Kornbleuth and his wife Babette put their daughters, Michelle and Heather, to work just as Norman had worked in his own father’s store. Heather, now Broadway Panhandler’s director of marketing and advertising, recalls putting in Saturdays and summers. “My earliest memory is giving change from a cigar box at the store when I was about seven,” she says. “I probably learned how to count by giving change. In the summers during college I used to stand behind the knife counter and sell knives.” Although Michelle, like her uncle Joe the periodontist, has departed from the family business (still in New York, she’s a psychologist), her father says she is a skilled cook with a full line of Bourgeat copper pots that have turned “as green as the Statue of Liberty” from use.

Kornbleuth stocks his shop with products to suit wallets of varying sizes, from NYU students (your grandmother’s speckled porcelain on steel) to the most finicky home chefs (the aforementioned Bourgeat, deBuyer Acier). At home, he prefers cast iron to Teflon, though he notes that newer ceramic-coated products from Cuisinart, Bialetti and Mepra are good nonstick alternatives containing none of the chemicals of Teflon.

Large areas of the store are dedicated to its impressive knife selection (about 500 different models, including German, French and Japanese brands) and baking equipment, including over 300 different cookie cutter shapes. The store’s longstanding relationships with its suppliers make it one of the first outlets they work with to release new and novel products likely to generate press. A playful set of colorful, resin-coated Pure Komachi knives featured in O magazine, for example, was a recent hit. On a recent afternoon, Kornbleuth had walked to Union Square to buy organic heavy cream and was test-driving a hand-cranked French churner that makes butter in five minutes.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Kornbleuth says he is on the lookout for a second location somewhere in Manhattan. “I still enjoy getting up and going to work every day, and I fully intend to stay with Broadway Panhandler indefinitely,” he says. “I’m not the retiring type.”

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