As kitchen store and school Cooks | Bellecour celebrates 50 years in business, owners reflect on how they ‘have to change to stay the same’

A group of kids smile at Th’rice, the cooking school and store that later became Cooks of Crocus Hill, in this undated photo from the 1970s taken at Th’rice’s original location on Grand Avenue and Lexington Parkway. The store originally opened in 1973. (Photo courtesy Cooks | Bellecour)

Chef Gavin Kaysen, a co-owner of Cooks | Bellecour, leads a cooking demonstration at the store’s St. Paul location on Sept. 26, 2023, as part of the store’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Cooks owners Karl Benson and Marie Dwyer joined forces with Kaysen’s Bellecour Bakery in 2020 and renamed the business in 2023. (Photo courtesy Bre McGee / Cooks | Bellecour)

A group of women, including Cooks of Crocus Hill founder Martha Kaemmer, second from right, smile in the teaching kitchen at the store then known as Th’rice in this undated photo. Now known as Cooks | Bellecour, the store is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023. (Photo courtesy Cooks | Bellecour)

Cooks | Bellecour owners Karl Benson, left, and Marie Dwyer smile at the St. Paul location of the gourmet housewares store and cooking school on Oct. 17, 2023. Benson and Dwyer, who are married, took over ownership of the business, then called Cooks of Crocus Hill, from founder Martha Kaemmer in 2008. (Jared Kaufman / Pioneer Press)



One weekday in the mid-1990s, Marie Dwyer stood atop a ladder at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul, arranging cookware around some seasonal decor. A man walked up the stairs for a meeting with owner Martha Kaemmer.

As a marketing and design consultant for the store at the time, Dwyer came in occasionally to create merchandising displays and reset the sales floor. She didn’t know it yet, but the man on the stairs was Karl Benson, her future husband and business partner. The duo have run the business, now called Cooks | Bellecour, since 2008.

First opened on Grand Avenue in 1973, Cooks is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

“That was the first time you met me, and you almost quit!” Benson said to Dwyer in a recent conversation. “You said, ‘Hey, nice to meet you, but I’m moving on.’”

Kaemmer was looking for someone “to come in and take Cooks to the next level,” Dwyer said. Some employees, Dwyer included, saw this transition moment as a natural time to move on.

Benson, too, had been looking for a career change from a job in software. A friend suggested he talk to Kaemmer, but he was skeptical. He had a business degree, but his only retail experience was a high-school stint at a Thom McAn shoe store, and he knew “even less about a cooking school than I knew about shoes!” But he agreed to take the meeting.

The day Benson and Kaemmer met, a 45-minute coffee meeting turned into a three-hour discussion on business, personal values and their shared Scandinavian heritage, he said. A few days later, she offered him a partnership role in the company.

His first goal: Keep Dwyer on board.

“Karl said, ‘I understand you have some good ideas, and I want to talk to you about those ideas, so could you just sit tight for a bit?” Dwyer said. “So I did. And here we are 30 years later.”

The two are now married, and they took over full ownership of the store from Kaemmer in 2008.

Yes, Dwyer said, the store first opened 50 years ago. But that doesn’t mean it’s been the same business for 50 straight years.

Martha Kaemmer, left, smiles in the cooking school at Th’rice, the gourmet kitchenware store she founded with sister Mary Rice in 1973. In the late 1980s, the store moved down Grand Avenue and was renamed Cooks of Crocus Hill. (Photo courtesy Cooks | Bellecour)

Th’rice, as it was initially known, opened in 1973 as a gourmet housewares store on Grand Avenue and Lexington Parkway.

The store added a kitchen the next year, moved a few blocks down Grand in 1979 and then landed in its current home in 1988, with a shiny new name: Cooks of Crocus Hill. Since then, an Edina location opened; a Stillwater location opened and closed; a North Loop location opened.

Some ideas were short-lived: In the early 2000s, the company had shop-in-shop agreements that put the Cooks of Crocus Hill brand in department stores across the Midwest.

Other partnerships were transformative. In 2020, Benson and Dwyer joined forces with chef Gavin Kaysen to move his Bellecour Bakery into their North Loop location, and in 2023, the trio officially merged the businesses into Cooks | Bellecour.

“That is partly how we have been able to survive in this business, is constant innovation,” Dwyer said. “We’ve learned so much along the way. Make the same mistake twice? I don’t think so.”

To remain relevant, Benson said, “we have to change, to stay exactly the same.”

Now, as Cooks | Bellecour, all three locations still have wide kitchenware selections and offer cooking classes. Sweet and savory pastries are baked daily in the North Loop and Edina locations; in the afternoons, after the bakers go home, the kitchens are flipped from working bakeries into cooking schools. In St. Paul, baked goods are brought in fresh daily, and the upstairs kitchen is available for classes or events any time.

Benson sees the owners more as “stewards” of the business, he said.

In one form or another, Cooks preceded Benson and Dwyer, and, optimally, it’ll outlast and surpass them, too. The couple’s goal is to think of the business as an entity separate from themselves that they’re simply shepherding along, Benson said, particularly to try to remove their own egos from their decision-making.

“In some respects, it’s like raising a child,” he said. “If your goal is to raise strong, highly capable, functioning kids, then maybe you can take yourself out of that dynamic a little bit and decide what’s in their best interest — in this case, the best interest of Cooks.”

Martha Kaemmer — who, with her husband, Art, also became known for their decades-long Halloween tradition of collecting food bank donations alongside “Alice the gorilla”— died in 2018.

Still today, her focus on creativity and accessibility is ever-present for Benson and Dwyer, they said. She didn’t want food and cooking to feel intimidating or fussy or overly serious because, as she’d say, life happens in the kitchen.

“Martha’s still with us,” Benson said. The way she saw it, “dinner is just the catalyst to life.”

A Q&A with Benson and Dwyer, 10 years later

A little over 10 years ago, in April 2013, the owners of then-Cooks of Crocus Hill, Karl Benson and Marie Dwyer, sat down with the Pioneer Press for a Q-and-A.

This fall, we asked them some of the same questions — without telling them their previous answers first. Their answers from a decade ago are printed alongside their new responses:

Marie Dwyer and her business partner and husband, Karl Benson, seen at their Cooks of Crocus Hill location at 877 Grand Ave. in St. Paul on April 17, 2013. The two met while working at the Crocus Hill location in 1997 and married in 2008, the same year that they bought the business. (Ginger Pinson / Pioneer Press)


2013: Karl, 52; Marie, 48

2023: Karl, 63; Marie, 59

What’s the philosophy behind the stores?


Karl: Sharing discoveries about food.

Marie: That has been the philosophy since Martha started it.


Karl: Cooks is a great place for sharing discoveries about food. And, “Life happens in the kitchen.” Those have been consistent for a long time.

Marie: How’d we do? This is like a game show.

What’s something few people know about you?


Karl: I used to be a male model. (He laughs). Just kidding. I absolutely love to ride a motorcycle.

Marie: I would say I got started in food because of industrial design. I landed in food from there.


Karl: We really like restoration projects. We probably didn’t realize it back then. We have a 110-year-old log cabin that we’re on year four of restoration on, and we’re doing it all ourselves. (Marie) gave me five summers — if we’re not done by the end of next summer, it’ll just be Marie here. People will say, “What happened to Karl?” And she’ll say, “he didn’t finish the cabin!”

Marie: That I started in industrial design, and that I sailed across the South Pacific in a sailboat for six weeks, in the late 80s. From the Panama Canal to Tahiti. Three weeks without sight of land; it was awesome.

What’s your favorite local restaurant?


Karl: Alma (Minneapolis) and Meritage (St. Paul).

Marie: Lucia’s (Minneapolis).


Karl: Certainly Spoon and Stable (Minneapolis). And I’m not just saying that because of Gavin (Kaysen, Cooks | Bellecour co-owner and the chef-owner of Spoon and Stable)!

Marie: Mine is Hyacinth (St. Paul). Love Hyacinth.

What’s your favorite item in the store?


Karl: A knife. My favorite is the Wusthof Le Cordon Bleu. It’s a thinner Wusthof knife that works like a Japanese knife. But it’s Wusthof design.

Marie: We have this really great piece — it’s not in the stores because it was a gift from friends — from Mauviel. It’s a French copper potato steamer. It has changed my world. I leave it out all the time, because it’s a work of art, but it also cooks fingerling potatoes perfectly every time. We can special-order the potato steamer, but it’s very expensive. It cooks potatoes in about 8 minutes. It’s like a caveman microwave.


Karl: The calamansi vinegar, or chili crunch.

Marie: There’s so many good things down there! I can’t decide. Can I pass? (She laughs)

What would you say are the bare essentials for a well-stocked kitchen?


Karl: A really good chef’s knife, a whisk, an Epicurean cutting board, a Microplane zester, a Le Creuset 5.5-quart Dutch oven and a Mauviel saucepan. If you have those items, there’s nothing you can’t make.


Marie: A really good knife. Other things I use every time I cook: A microplane zester, an excellent cutting surface, a citrus squeezer, and probably a saute pan.

Karl: My only real addition to that would be a whisk. And kosher salt.

Marie: And really good butter.

How has the way we cook changed since you’ve owned the store?


Karl: People are more aware of food because of television but less prepared to cook than they were 15 years ago.

Marie: Yes, during the past 15 years, the awareness of food has really grown. But also the farm-to-table concept is everywhere. People used to be nostalgic for a real tomato because you couldn’t find one. Now, there are all the neighborhood farmers’ markets. There’s this wonderful return to real food.

Karl: And that’s translating to millennials. Those young people are curious about going back to the source. Like with the craft beer movement.

Marie: And people are making their own vinegars and canning. We used to carry canning supplies only in the summer, but now we need to carry it year-round.

Karl: People are finding out the perfect time to make a kumquat jam is in January. Canning isn’t just a summertime activity; it’s about finding something that’s at the height of its flavor and preserving it.


Marie: Well, since 2013, at least, we’ve gone through a few phases. When everybody was at home (early in the pandemic), people returned to cooking slow and low. The big French ovens, more interest in baking bread. There was this return to some of those nostalgic techniques of cooking.

Karl: The biggest change over the time we’ve been here is that everybody wants bigger, bolder flavors. They want to solidify their technique, but the technique is an interim step. There’s a greater awareness now that the technique gets me to step two, which is bigger, bolder, brighter (favors). Whereas, 25 years ago, the technique was the end in and of itself. If I can saute, I’m making sauteed foods. If I can roast, I’m making roasted foods.

Years and years ago, it was, if I want really good food, I have to go to a restaurant. But now, it’s like, why can’t I just make good food at home? And we can help with that.

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