Is This the End of Instagram Cookware?

May 25, 2024
Dining & Wine
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Just a few months after the pandemic sent Americans indoors, Mia Graber received a lidded nonstick skillet the color of spruce pine needles, complete with a steamer basket and a wooden spatula on the handle, as a gift from her husband.

“I was immediately like, ‘Oh, this is the pan I had been seeing all over Instagram,’” said Ms. Graber, 33, who was understandably excited. It was the Always Pan from Our Place, which, at the time, cost $145 and promised to “do the work of eight pieces of traditional cookware.”

To Ms. Graber’s disappointment, it did not. Fried eggs stuck to the nonstick surface, the pan couldn’t be put in the oven, and over time the interior ceramic coating began to chip away. Soon, she reached for it only when she needed to steam something, and it began to gather dust.

So last month, Mr. Graber listed the pan on Facebook Marketplace for $50. After a few inquiries fizzled, Ms. Graber, a communications manager in Mill Valley, Calif., dropped it off at her local Goodwill.

Ms. Graber’s Always Pan is one of a flurry of once-hot, direct-to-consumer (D.T.C.) cookware products popping up on digital secondhand marketplaces or in Buy Nothing communities — or being tossed entirely.

Within the last month, more than a dozen Always Pans (and one stray lid) were available on Facebook Marketplace within 100 miles of Echo Park in Los Angeles, and nearly two dozen appeared within 100 miles of Brooklyn. Around Austin, Texas, nearly 10 items from Caraway, another cookware startup that produces nonstick pots and pans in cheerful hues, were available for purchase at steep discounts.

In the East Village of Manhattan, a Dutch oven from the cookware startup Great Jones, which retails for $180, was listed “in perfect condition” at a more than 25 percent discount, with two others available nearby. There was a Great Jones loaf pan in New Jersey; two more Dutch ovens in Southern California; and a Great Jones frying pan in Maryland.

While it’s not exactly unusual to see well-loved cookware cast off at yard sales or thrift stores, it does raise eyebrows when that cookware hit the market in the last five years, often with long wait-lists in a superstorm of aspirational, pastel marketing.

“It was a lot of the same photography of a nicely manicured hand with J. Hannah nail polish holding a plate,” said Jo Ledda a 33-year-old dietitian who coveted the Always Pan after seeing it splashed all over social media. Ms. Ledda, who received an Always Pan as a gift in 2021, said it lost its nonstick capabilities within the first month of use. She eventually threw it out.

Tosin Odugbemi Hoskins purchased Caraway’s nonstick pots and pans in 2021 in the “cream” colorway after seeing influencers promote them. “They enlisted an army of people to tell you it was the best pan in the world,” she said. After about six months, the ceramic nonstick coating began to deteriorate.

“It was this whole dance,” she said of the four-piece set. “I had one if I wanted to make a steak, and one for only fish or egg.” She would micromanage her boyfriend — a chef — when he wanted to use one. In April, Ms. Odugbemi Hoskins finally listed the set for $50 on Facebook Marketplace from her home in Millbrook, N.Y.

During the pandemic, when direct-to-consumer companies were more equipped than ever to meet shoppers exactly where they were — at home in front of screens — startup cookware that embraced the so-described millennial aesthetic caught on faster than a saucier of cherries Jubilee. Caraway’s monthly D.T.C. sales increased by 390 percent from January to May 2020 when consumers were largely homebound, for example.

Exclusivity was often part of the pitch. A 2020 advertisement described Our Place’s Always Pan as “cult favorite, best-selling, wait-list inducing” cookware. (Supply chain limitations during the pandemic were partly to thank for the wait-lists.) Paramount to this narrative was the idea that an aesthetically pleasing life was just a pan away.

“The real goal was transforming physical products into characters and friends,” said Sierra Tishgart, a founder and the chief executive of Great Jones. “It’s not just a sheet pan,” she said of the company’s glossy, candy-colored nonstick baking pans, available for $40. “It’s Holy Sheet.”

Consumers bought into the vision. “The Always Pan felt like it bridged the gap to adulthood,” said Ms. Ledda, who felt intimidated at the time by legacy brands like Staub, All-Clad and Le Creuset. She also purchased Great Jones’s Holy Sheet in “blueberry.” While performing the “Sisyphean task of constantly trying to get grime off,” she said, “that’s when the paint came off.” She threw it out.

Some dissatisfied customers described a disconnect between the vision and the reality. “They’re called Always Pans,” said Katie Mui, 34, who donated her limited-edition Lunar New Year Always Pan after the interior scorched and her cleaning efforts proved futile.

But no cookware is indestructible. Ceramic nonstick coatings — made from sand-based blends and marketed as safer than Teflon — simply aren’t designed to withstand super high temperatures, nor to last forever.

Founders of several of these D.T.C. companies said secondhand sale listings are not representative of a larger trend.

Ms. Tishgart said Great Jones’s sheet pan sales have nearly doubled since the peak of the pandemic, and fewer than 1 percent of orders have been returned because of customer dissatisfaction with quality. (Only a few Great Jones products use nonstick coatings.)

Jordan Nathan, the founder and chief executive of Caraway, said the company’s revenue increased by more than 500 percent between 2020 and 2023. (Caraway, which began as a D.T.C. company, partnered with a handful of online retailers in 2020 and debuted in Crate & Barrel stores in 2021.)

Shiza Shahid, a founder and a chief executive of Our Place, said the company has seen “continued growth year over year,” and that the Always Pan remains its best-selling product.

“Cookware is a technology product, especially coatings,” Ms. Shahid said, adding, “Everyone is working to expand life span.” Our Place released an Always Pan 2.0, which is oven-safe up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, in 2023, and a coating-free pan earlier this year. The coating-free pan costs $195, and the gold colorway sold out within days, Ms. Shahid said.

Some of the consumers who parted ways with their pandemic-era D.T.C. cookware have transitioned to legacy brands. After donating her Always Pan, Ms. Mui returned to Le Creuset cookware she’d had all along, and Ms. Odugbemi Hoskins recently purchased a set of cast-iron pans from Smithey Ironware.

“They’re marketing what would have been a Target-level product as a luxury item, but it’s not a luxury item,” Ms. Odugbemi Hoskins said. “That’s been my growth curve as a young woman. Thinking, ‘I will buy this and become an It Girl’ — I’ve passed that a little.”

After nearly a month on Facebook Marketplace, her set of Caraway pans sold last week for $40. “I hope they love their new home,” she said.

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