When it comes to ultraluxury, Fiat (FI:IM) has Ferrari and Volkswagen (VOW:GR) has Bugatti. Electrolux (ELUXA:SS), maker of vacuum cleaners and dishwashers, has a luxe brand too: Molteni, which makes really, really fancy stoves that start at €21,000 ($26,775) and can fetch up to €200,000 ($255,000). Most Molteni stoves can be found in the kitchens of top chefs. Alain Ducasse’s establishments in Paris, New York, Hong Kong, and Monte Carlo sport Molteni stoves. So does Alinea in Chicago and Dolce&Gabbana’s Gold Restaurant in Milan. There’s one in the Chinese government’s guest quarters for visiting heads of state in Beijing. And another in the French Prime Minister’s residence, should he want to have Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni over for a home-cooked meal.
Now, in an era when so many people eat takeout as they watch celebrity cooking shows on TV, some home cooks are hankering for a Molteni stove, too. While restaurants make up most of Molteni’s customers, demand is increasing from private buyers, says Alberto Zanata, head of Electrolux’s professional products division. These customers, about 20 a year, tend to be the super rich, designers who favor the stoves’ standout aesthetics, or chefs who want one for their own homes. “People are looking for more appliances close to the ones used by the famous chefs,” Zanata says. Molteni’s biggest markets are France, China, and the U.S. (Its wares are especially popular in Las Vegas.) “Asia in general and China in particular” is growing fastest for Molteni, Zanata says, spurred by the region’s embrace of luxury and by “culinary trends becoming global.”
The principal purpose of a Molteni stove is cooking, which of course can be accomplished on a range that costs less than roughly five times the price of a 2012 BMW 528i sedan. In the U.S., where talk-show hostess Kelly Ripa stars in its advertisements, Electrolux lists a 30-inch Frigidaire-brand stove for $449. But putting it in the same class as a Molteni is a little like comparing a dime-store ring to a Van Cleef & Arpel bauble.
The Electrolux unit traces its roots to 1923 when Italian craftsman Joseph Molteni settled in Saint-Uze near Lyon, France, and started making wood-and-coal stoves known as fourneaux bouilleurs. It’s come a long way since. It takes Molteni’s 20 workers some 500 hours to build each stove, which has a solid steel structure and can be up to six meters (19.7 feet) long. Only about 150 stoves were made last year in a workshop near Lyon. Molteni’s “classic” range, which looks much as its stoves did 80 years ago, makes up 90 percent of its sales. But each is custom-made, and Molteni is happy to accommodate requests. A Russian client asked for gold-coated knobs on his stove. One chef asked for the color of his home Molteni to match his own distinct red hair, Zanata says. In this business, discretion counts; he declined to name either client.
Molteni generates less than 0.2 percent of Electrolux’s $15.3 billion in revenue. But for the Stockholm-based company, which acquired Molteni in 1988, there are non-monetary upsides. The stoves and other high-end restaurant equipment made by Molteni provide a little upscale flash. The hope is that the halo effect created by Molteni will extend a little to Electrolux’s microwaves, front-load washers, and refrigerators. Hard economic times have meant that Electrolux’s sales to the kind of people who are more focused on what their appliances do than what they say about their social status have slowed. Sales volumes of household appliances sold in North America in 2011 were an estimated 25 percent lower than in the peak year of 2005, while volumes in Western Europe were roughly 15 percent below their 2006 peak. Getting firm financial data for Molteni is a little like trying to pry a treasured recipe from a top cook. Zanata says only that Molteni had a “good year” in 2011 and sold “slightly more” stoves than in 2010. He declined to say whether the unit was profitable but said that in 2010 it contributed positively to Electrolux’s profit.
Electrolux could benefit by playing up its ties to Molteni, says Rob Frankel, president of brand consulting firm Robfrankel.com. “To enhance a brand like Electrolux that really does have a history of design and a pretty good reputation for reliability,” he says, “you probably want to show that kind of DNA running through the entire company.”