If necessity is the proverbial mother of invention, then Ergo Chef is a poster child. This is the story of how a family owned knife company was born.
In 1996, Chef Scott Staib was on the foodservice fast track as Sous Chef for Aramark. Rising through the ranks, the Johnson & Wales graduate was poised for great things – until he was derailed by tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome from the frequent motion of chopping and slicing.
We spoke with Chef Scott’s brother, Mike Staib, VP of Sales & Marketing at Ergo Chef, to find out what happened next…
How did your family actually get to the point of making knives?
My mother, father, brother and I were actually sitting around the table one night. Scott had just been to the doctor that day. The doc told him he’d either have to come up with some alternative method or go to “the front of the house”. No way did Scott want to stop cooking – it was heartbreaking for him to imagine that. So, we started putting our heads together…
My brother and some of his chef buddies had a sit down at my dad’s company (Capital Design & Engineering) with my dad and his engineers – I watched. We started looking at how a knife fits into a chef’s hand, wrist movements during chopping and the angle of a knife when it hits a cutting board.
That’s how our ideas for developing an ergonomically sound knife came to fruition. We made a prototype and my brother’s symptoms disappeared within just three weeks of using it.
We were – we had created a true extension of a chef’s hand.
On the Chopping Block
The next step was testing. We made lots of prototypes and sent them out with questionnaires to chefs, and cooking schools. We collected several years of feedback to make sure it was more than, just a knife for my brother. Over 90% of the people who tested, wanted the product. We thought, ‘hey – we really have something here!’ Then we had to find a manufacturer.
We fumbled in the beginning as many new companies do… dissected the steels, used high carbon from Germany. We went through one run in New York state which didn’t work, and then tried another source in Taiwan, which did incredible work, but we had to remake all the tooling – we almost called it quits.
It wasn’t until 2003 that we had the first great batch, and by 2005, we had a full line. Then we hooked up to an import company in New Jersey. Now, we’re available throughout the US and some parts of Canada. We were in Australia for a while, but the Aussies couldn’t get use to the design.
Yes, we met Sam Morgante, who served as a White House Chef under George W., at a couple of industry shows. He came over and tried our product at the booth and really liked it. Sam then introduced us to former White House Chef, Martin Mongiello, who started the Presidential Culinary Museum. We have some Presidential Food Service Knife Sets on our website now – we truly value working with a veteran owned business.
How many family members work at Ergo Chef?
Our sister, Lori, is the office administrator… and our Uncle – a Vietnam Vet. He retired from the Post Office and said, “he wanted something to do part-time”, so he’s packing and shipping for us now.
We rent space for the company in the back of the building of my dad’s business. There’s a door between us, so we can go over there and work with the engineers whenever we need to.
If it wasn’t for our father, we wouldn’t be in business today. He let us use his machines, his engineers – he literally gave us all of our R&D. You take out a loan for the business, and it makes a statement – to have been able to do our R&D like this – it’s huge!
What is your brother’s role?
Scott is actually president of the company, works R&D on new products and handles chef accounts – we found many restaurants rent their knives. He’s cooking only at home now – he actually leaves work, goes home and cooks dinner.
It’s ironic that all this started to keep him professionally nimble and now he’s running the company and not cooking anymore…
Yes! You certainly don’t start out saying, “I’m going to start a knife company!”
…and what were you doing before this all evolved?
I was in sales, marketing my father’s company and ultrasonics – plastic joining – they use the process in the medical field, for cell phones, in the car industry. I learned development of tools there, so I could sit down from the layman’s view with my brother the chef vs. home cooks, etc.
Cut to the Chase
What have been your biggest challenges in marketing the company?
Getting people used to the design – how do you do that when things are under glass? We just created a video, it has helped us a lot to show people how it works. It’s the angle and the rocking motion that really helps.
Another challenge we face is getting reps to present our products to buyers when they’re looking for new lines in our category. It’s tough when reps are presenting thousands of products – it gets deluded. This is another area where the video has helped.
The other challenge is branding – trying to get our name out there every year without a big budget. Advertising is too expensive. When Professional Chefs and BBQ Chefs use our knives at events, or on TV, we sometimes see a spike, but the internet is where it’s at – we’re trying to work that.
Where can you buy Ergo Chef knives?
You can buy them on Amazon and at gourmet kitchen stores across the country. [There’s a zip code search on their website.] You can also buy directly from our site.
Chef Scott and Mike will be at the International Home & Housewares Show, March 15-18 in Chicago. Stop by and see them at the Ergo Chef booth S 1460.