Meet the Founders of Great Jones: The Hipper, More Affordable Cookware of Your Dreams (We’re Obsessed!)
Welcome to Kitchn’s series Kitchn Crush, where we highlight some of the coolest, most inspiring people in food you need to know about right now.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman moving into a new apartment, in possession of zero fortune, must be in want of some sort of quality cookware. Right? Well, at least that was the case for me when I moved into my first New York City apartment, lugging a box of scratched nonstick cookware from the college house that I shared with seven roommates. Around the same time, my older sister got married, bought a house, and stocked her kitchen with the dreamy All-Clad and Le Creuset that she was generously gifted at her bridal shower.
I learned the hard way that it is just not socially acceptable to host a Welcome to the Real World Shower; although my sister and I had both reached turning points in our lives, only one of us was starting out with the good stuff. Neither of us questioned it … until someone else did.
Meet Sierra Tishgart and Maddy Moelis, the founders of Great Jones, the cookware startup standing up to legacy brands like Le Creuset, All Clad, Staub, and more. Before they left their full-time gigs for full-time entrepreneurship, Sierra was a food editor at New York Magazine where she had won a James Beard Award for her writing and developed a vast network of chefs and industry professionals. Maddy had a unique skill set of her own, having managed consumer insights at Warby Parker before heading to Zola, an online wedding registry, as a product manager. Between the two of them, Sierra and Maddy have what it takes to tackle the confusing cookware industry head-on.
While most startups exist to solve a problem and fill a gap in the market, the problem that the Great Jones founders aim to solve is the fact that there are too many options on the market and not a lot of help navigating them. We got a chance to chat with Sierra and Maddy about how they got their company off the ground, the vision behind their charming cookware line, and why they think high-quality cookware doesn’t need to cost a fortune.
What has it been like going from childhood best friends to business partners?
Sierra: What was and is so wonderful about being business partners with a friend is that we have 20 years of built-in trust. So much of starting this business has been about taking a leap of faith, doing new things, and really trusting each other to make clear decisions, so having that as an ingrained part of our relationship is a really wonderful thing. This came at an interesting time for both of us. We were both having experiences in relation to buying cookware. I was working with so many chefs and wanted to spend more time at home cooking. When I went to upgrade, it was so confusing and expensive. Maddy was also in a situation where she kind of had a leg up on making this purchasing decision.
Maddy: I was working for Zola, sitting next to the cookware buyers. I was seeing these marketers from heritage cookware brands, and saw how big the market was. There were pages and pages of cookware that all looked the same. It was hard to discern the difference, mainly in price point. I asked the cookware buyer what I personally needed and she told me that I needed a 14-piece set. I only used two out of the 14 pieces in my own home. From a market perspective, I saw how complex and hard to navigate buying cookware was.
Sierra and I did a lot of research to see if people were feeling that same pain point. Seventy percent of people we surveyed didn’t know what kind of cookware they needed and why. We thought, who better than us?
How do you feel going up against legacy brands like Le Creuset and Staub?
Maddy: The first step in our process was designing something that never existed before in the market. From a visual perspective, we took a totally different, out-of-the-box approach. Now that we’re in the market, we find that to be a really competitive advantage. We think our products are beautiful, and functional, and also function as design pieces as well.
Sierra: We did an entirely custom build for all of the pieces. We wanted to weld the handles instead of riveting them so food doesn’t get stuck; we wanted a whole new handle shape, because most handles hurt people’s hands and are not optimized for ergonomics. We made dozens and dozens of 3D prints and took them to all the chefs we knew around town, had them hold them and feel them. That loop design that we’ve become known for dissipates heat and it’s not too hot to the touch. We’re really proud of the aesthetics.
What were some takeaways you learned from the process of securing venture capital?
Sierra: We are both first-time entrepreneurs so what really helped us get started is very much tied to privilege — like where we went to college, and who we knew. But we were also so surprised and humbled by who was willing to lend their time. A lot of it was sending cold emails to people. “Can we pick your brain?” is a funny, overused expression, but we did a lot of that.
Another thing is that most startups are companies run by men. We wanted to be two female entrepreneurs, in a moment when it’s clearly a great time to do it, and show that we can be strong leaders, with conscious capital, and teams that last and are supported. That’s a strong case to make to investors directing capital.
Where did you turn for design inspiration?
Sierra: Aesthetically, we wanted our cookware to look like jewelry and have these unconventional colors in a matte finish. Maddy is good at consumer research, so that involved talking to everyone that we knew and their friends and their friends. We figured out a lot of the design process through Maddy’s survey.
The plan wasn’t to “reinvent cookware.” The goal wasn’t to disrupt, or any other tech-y thing. The goal was to improve upon it. People wanted space saving-solutions, so our products nest and share lids. Handles were generally unpleasant to people. At every turn, we were trying to be mindful of the feedback that we were hearing.
Of the five pieces in the collection, which is your favorite?
Sierra: The Saucy is my go-to. I cook a lot for just myself so it’s the ideal size. It has a spout that pours easily.
How did you come up with the names?
Sierra: The naming was really hard — and I used to think about words for a living! To have to pick names that we would have to live with forever felt like a major decision, so that was tricky. Most people associate Great Jones with the street name in New York, but we chose Great Jones as a nod to Judith Jones. She had died in August of the past year . I was rereading one of her books and was thinking about her incredible legacy. A lot of people didn’t know who she was (as often happens with women), but she helped shape what we think about American home cooking.
Maddy: Another interesting thing about our product names: Yes, they’re fun and cute, but the actual impetus behind those names is that people felt sheepish about pronouncing the names of other types of cookware, French word like cocotte, saucier. This has kind of become a marketing ploy over time. It’s something we noticed people felt uncomfortable about and it made products less accessible. We decided to steer away from this and come up with names that are fun and easy to understand. It was a challenging process but we are excited about where we landed.
Sierra: The big stockpot (Big Deal) was the hardest and last one to name. I honestly think naming kids would be easier. We didn’t want to veer too far. We were throwing out names like Big Apple and Mr. Big. My mom still calls it Big Shot!
What was the inspiration behind the color choices?
Sierra: The green color — Maddy and I met at camp — so that was one of our camp colors. The blue was modeled after a Celiné handbag that I had in my closet that I cherish. It’s the nicest thing that I own. The mustard yellow is inspired by the Michelle Williams’ Oscars dress from a few years ago — one of the greatest dresses ever. The gray, we modeled after the interior of all of the Dutch ovens, which is something that we really had to push for. Most Dutch ovens have a cream interior that dirties easily. Either that or it’s black and makes it hard to see if you’re browning butter, for example. We were like, why not gray? To our knowledge, that had never been done before. The feedback that we are getting is that it doesn’t show every stain but you can still see what you’re cooking.
What has been the hardest part about starting Great Jones?
Maddy: The hardest part has been so many unknowns every single day and making decisions quickly for the long term and short term. I’m the type of person who is used to working with a lot of data. Having to make decisions and then drive the ship with a lot of unknowns has been a really good learning experience. We’re learning to feel confident in our intuition and have strong people in our network to guide us.
Sierra: The hard part is knowing that starting a business is personal and vulnerable. We joke about it being our baby, but it really was! We were happy with the reception at the launch, but I was really nervous for many, many months before. You’re putting something out in the world that we love and feel so much for but it’s suddenly open for critique.
What about the most rewarding?
Maddy: The best part is seeing people that we’ve never met post about our products and use them. It’s so fun to see them in use bringing joy and comfort to people’s homes. It’s crazy and so fun and exciting.
Sierra: Maddy and I have been friends for 20 years, so to get to do this together and grow into our power here, support each other, learn new things, and feel confident in doing something that is hard for us is the most rewarding.
Any other essential cooking tools that you think deserve an upgrade?
Maddy and Sierra: YES.
Sierra: We are just starting to develop new products. There was one that we really wanted to launch with but we didn’t because we wanted to get it just right. We will keep it close to the chest right now, but we both see a lot of places in the kitchen and products that could be improved upon, so we’re excited.
The Great Jones launch was met with such an overwhelmingly positive media response. How are you handling the hype?
Maddy: It’s a challenge. I wouldn’t say that it’s pressure or that it’s bad. It’s all good. We set the bar high for ourselves, we set lofty goals, and we exceeded them with our launch. We are excited to push and grow. There are currently five of us – so it’s a small team. That’s the fun part about starting a business, building out the team.
Sierra: When we started, we wanted our brand to be clear and joyful, a breath of fresh air. We wanted to really add something and have there be a “why” behind it. Maddy and I started talking about this in the fall of 2017. We left our jobs in early 2018, so all of this is just one full year. Our day to day started February 1 of last year, and we launched on November 1. So in nine months we had a child. [Laughs.] We had a really clear vision of what we wanted the design to be. Our renderings look identical to the products that we were creating, so getting to present to factories this really clear vision, was key. There was a trust involved in creating cookware in a way they hadn’t before.
You stress that you’re not professional chefs, you’re home cooks! What are some dishes you like to cook in your Great Jones cookware?
Sierra: One of my favorite recipes to make are these buttery rice cakes on our site. They’re inspired by YardBird in Hong Kong where Maddy and I ate together. I make it all the time. They’re both sweet and savory. I cook in The Saucy almost every single night and make pasta, oatmeal, or rice.
Maddy: I was just telling Sierra that last night I made shrimp scampi in our Dutchess with some pasta. There’s a clear carb theme going on here.
Anything we should keep an eye out for in 2019?
Sierra: We created a really fun gift-with-purchase for Valentine’s Day. It’s a remix on our tote bags and we’re partnering some other companies that we love to fill it with sweet surprises. We also just shot our first recipe column with a chef we really, really admire — more on that coming soon. You talk to a lot of chefs who don’t cook at home, but she is an avid home cook. This is her first time sharing recipes and she created a collection of recipes centered around hosting.