Function Junction Set to close

In 1977, Function Junction opened on the Country Club Plaza as a new kind of kitchenware store.

It focused on high-quality products that had a great design, were really functional and relatively inexpensive.

“I was looking for that niche market that wasn’t a discounter, wasn’t a department store. Good value,” says co-founder Mary Merola. “That would allow me to showcase houseware products. .. anyone could be a gourmet in their own kitchens.”

It was so popular it grew to 17 locations in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

But now the last store – in the Crown Center Shops – is set to close June 30. Its “End of An Era Sales Event” started at 10 a.m. May 22 with items currently 20 to 70% off.

Merola says she grew up in the kitchen, making Italian recipes passed down from her parents. 

“My mom could cook, she could bake, she could present. It was a production,” Merola says.  

At only 19 years old, she became a buyer for a 30-store paint and hardware chain in Chicago. Housewares were just an afterthought for that company, but she expanded the offerings and sales surged.

It is where she met her future husband, the late Steve Eberman, who was the merchandise manager.

Together they moved to Kansas City after the Plaza offered them a 1,563-square-foot spot in the old Seville Square.

“It’s opportunity, ambition and the skills. I had the ambition and the skills. What I needed was that first opportunity,” she says.

The store had a limited selection of glassware, cookware and kitchen tools – garlic presses, lemon zesters, and pastry bags – not common household items at the time.  

But as customers requested more products, the couple relocated to a whopping 12,000-square-foot corner spot on the Plaza, and expanded to more than 4,000 items including home furnishings.

“The product is really the pulse of the store. .. critical to our success,” Merola says.

The name Function Junction didn’t lock them into certain categories so they could change as demand changed. But they didn’t carry toasters unless they had more features. 

“If I can’t find that better mousetrap, someone else is probably serving the market,”  Merola says.

Most items were not boxed so customers could see and touch them. It also reduced the cost and was more sustainable before that was a buzzword.

Merola would often get her hair cut in the office to save time and be immediately available to staff in the days before cell phones. More than 2,500 people worked at the stores over the years. She currently has ten employees.

But by the late 1990s the couple had to make adjustments.  

“We needed to identify what our options were. Get a lot bigger, bring in business partners and such; stay at the same level and be a regional company; or downsize,” she says. “Steve was quite a bit older and wanted to retire. I didn’t want to bring in a partner, I wanted to continue to be hands-on, closer and personal with the customers and staff.”

They closed three stores and filed for Chapter 11 in 1998. Then closed two more locations before successfully reorganizing. 

Eberman died in 2014. Rebecca Wilkie became a partner in 2005, and the two married in 2016.

“There was the Steve and Mary chapter, the Mary chapter, and the Mary and Rebecca chapter,” Merola says.

Mary and Rebecca relocated and expanded in Crown Center in 2009, adding a culinary studio for cooking classes and demonstrations – Thanksgiving feasts; cookies and cakes to introduce a new bakeware line; and team building events.

Function Junction has seen record sales post-pandemic as customers realized they missed the shopping experience.

One advantage of their brick-and-mortar store? Customers can try out the products in the culinary studio before they buy them, “We’re looking at you, Amazon,” a sign says. 

Merola said she hand selects them all. 

Her favorite items are a new lemon squeezer that squeezes all the juice, ceramic knives (a staple for 30 years), and American-made bakeware. Over the years, many American manufacturers have closed, she says, making it challenging to find the high-quality American-made products she prefers.  

Currently, the store’s most popular items are barbecue tools and accessories, and popcorn equipment such as the Whirley Pop 3-minute popper, along with bowls and seasonings.

Function Junction also is known for its 100% cotton kitchen towels (many from women-owned companies) with sassy sayings such as “I’m not saying I am Wonder Woman, I am just saying that no one has ever seen me and Wonder Woman in the same room,” and “If a donut falls on the ground and you pick it up. …That’s a squat, right?”

Another top-seller is its destination cutting and serving boards – shaped like a particular state and laser engraved with cities and points of interest. 

Rebecca Merola handles administrative duties – paying bills, employee regulations, and financial statements. They plan to continue Function Junction in some format, just not brick-and-mortar.

For now they look forward to giving customers great discounts during the sale and sharing memories – like the couple who are still using the dinnerware that they bought as newlyweds two decades ago.

“There are a lot of good memories and they share them with us. That is such a joy,” Mary Merola says. “I feel we have a phenomenal brand that people identify with.”

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