House of Knives

For man the knife was an essential survival tool since the dawn of time, and this workaday tool has been perfected over the millennia to the tools that we know and appreciate today, using them everywhere from our kitchens and dining tables, to our work desks and out in the country. This is the story of the House of Knives, whose business was built on this tradition; a business that today transcends what people understand under the terms “quality”, “uniqueness”, and “function” when it comes to knives and other tools used in and out of your home.

While the “House of Knives” trademark has existed in Canada for over 30 years with a peak of 50 corporate and franchised locations back in the 1980`s, the franchising model has been abandoned for now.  In 2011, Andre Eng and his wife Qua-Fung Eng acquired the rights to this trademark and brand in Canada after 27 years with the brand as franchisees. Today this 100 per cent Canadian family owned company operates 15 locations in Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, Okanagan, and Central Alberta.

The Canadian Business Journal spoke with ew, about how he became a principal of this unique brand, and about the current business climate for quality culinary and other tools.

“The trend has not been positive for traditional cutlery stores around the world. Back in the 1980`s there were over 300 cutlery stores in the U.S. alone, all of which have since closed.  One of the problems was that they were all focused exclusively on cutlery. Another problem was the unfair advantages of website-only dealers, a key challenge for brick-and-mortar stores. We were able to survive and thrive because we were able to diversify ourselves with many added categories such as kitchen gadgets, LED flashlights, manicure instruments and wet shaving products,” says Eng.

Today over 50 per cent of the company sales are related to cutlery and houseware gadgets, and another 25 per cent are outdoor products such as knives, multi-tools and flashlights for campers, hikers and hunters; the rest of the sales consist of an assortment of other products, with a big part in personal care products for women and men.

“We have so much uniqueness and quality. We attract people who have an appreciation for quality. It doesn’t matter if you love to cook, sew, camp or hike, you want to be able to use tools with confidence, knowing that they will function properly,” summarized Eng.

Knives: the Spine of the Business

Having trained as a chef, and with over 25 years in the cutlery industry, Eng travels to Europe, Asia and right across the world to visit knife, personal care, and other factories. He knows all the manufacturers, cutlery styles, and market trends. While the traditional kitchen knives have not changed much, dramatic new trends have risen in Japan, with new approaches and sensibilities towards the design, use, performance and functionality of a knife.

It was the Japanese Shun kitchen knife brand that entered the market 10 short years ago and it’s positively redefined people’s ideas about how a knife should work and serve. Based in Seki City, the heart of the Japanese cutlery industry, Kai Corporation that owns the Shun brand has more than 100 years of experience in producing everything from housewares and fine cutlery, to beauty care products and medical supplies. Shun artisans draw on the ancient sword smith traditions of Japan to produce blades of unparalleled quality and beauty that compete with, yet also compliment, the world famous German brands of Zwilling J.A. Henckels and Wüsthof that had been dominated the market for generations.

“The amount of history in the famous city of Solingen in Germany is unparalleled. Zwilling has been manufacturing since 1731 and Wüsthof will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year (the business is still family owned in its seventh generation). Most businesses never transition past two generations let alone seven. Today Wüsthof still has the same level of commitment to quality as it did in 1814. If you had asked me 10 years ago if anyone could compete with Zwilling and Wüsthof, I would have said you were crazy. I give a lot of credit to Shun for being able to not only compete with the German brands, but to dramatically change how and what people think what a good kitchen knife should be.

“Compared to the forged blades of the German manufacturers, Shun introduced blades that used a harder super-steel core sandwiched between 66 layers of stainless steel which gives them their distinctive Damascus-like pattern. The knives were lighter yet the blades were harder, thinner and sharper. It has made everyone from hobby to professional chefs rethink what type of knife to use. The experience is very different between using a German made knife versus a Shun. In this regard Shun broke all the barriers and conceptions,” says Eng, and continues, “Today we are asked numerous times which knives are better, German or Japanese and we simply tell them that it’s like comparing a Lexus to a BMW. Both are good, just the experience and feel is different. Knives are personal and one should consult one of our experts on what to consider when investing in a knife as one won’t buy a car without a test drive.”

Resurgence of the Personal Care for Men

According to Eng, since the global recession the personal care category for men has also witnessed a renaissance, and represents one of the new big growth categories for House of Knives, especially the rebirth of wet shaving and increased interest in the traditional shaving methods using double edge safety razors and straight razors.

Shaving has been one of the few rituals in which men can indulge, and while the disposable razors may offer the instant gratification, reports show that the average man is spending up to $400 per year on the disposable blades alone. The drive in men’s personal care has been towards more holistic approaches.

“There are several advantages to these traditional methods — it makes you healthier because of the closer shave, it makes you wealthier because you are saving money, and it makes you greener because there is less refuse. Men or women, people are simply getting to the more holistic ways of looking after themselves. To give you an example of the demand today, the lead time from order to delivery from Dovo, one of the leading manufacturers of straight razors in Germany, is now two years,” says Eng.
Mantra: “Uniqueness, Quality and Function”

The company has been on the cutting edge of bringing the highest quality products to its customers, combing through manufacturers right around the world seeking out the best products for the customer, and identifying the trends and products that the customers will love and appreciate. Even if many of the products come with designer prices, stores continue to attract customers from all walks of life with one thing in common — desire for beautifully crafted quality products that can last a lifetime.

“Our customers appreciate quality tools. Many of our products are European-made and handcrafted by skilled tradesmen. Everything today seems to be disposable and about instant gratification, so the point we make with our quality products goes against that. That’s why over 90 per cent of what we sell has a lifetime warranty. In the end, it’s about quality versus quantity.

“Our vision is to improve the quality of life of all those we encounter through Edge-U-Cation and innovation. We believe that properly edge-u-cated consumers will make the best decisions and our job is to help our customers find those products that best meet their needs. And to ensure customers get the best bang for the buck, our Sharp Price Guarantee ensures we have some of the most competitive prices in Canada and, even better, we have an awesome BandEdge rewards program that gives five per cent back as rewards toward future purchases,” Eng says.

House of Knives provides customers with an alternative to the disposable lifestyle, and gives the opportunity to redeem those who grow weary of the instant gratification provided by low quality products. The company recently opened its first Alberta location in Red Deer, Alta. The plan is to continue to grow both online and offline by providing Canadians unique, quality and functional products that are guaranteed to not only last but, over time, offer the ultimate in good value.