Business Spotlight: Knifewear Group
When a seven-year-old Kevin Kent, who is now the CEO and founder of Knifewear Group, received a pocketknife from his uncle with cheeky instructions to "not tell mom," it sparked a lifelong passion for knives. He compounded this obsession with his first Japanese knife that he bought while working as a chef in London's famous St. John Restaurant.
When he returned to Canada, Kevin started his business by selling Japanese kitchen knives — from a backpack while travelling on a bicycle! Today, however, he is proud to own five knife shops across Canada. This is in addition to a chain of stores called Kent of Inglewood (which primarily sells axes and straight razors), a book (The Knifenerd Guide to Japanese Knives), and producing an award-winning documentary, Springhammer, about Japanese blacksmiths.
Today, Kevin talks about what it's like to live life on the cutting edge.
"I was a chef for 20+ years, always using European knives. In 1999 I was living in London when I tried a Japanese knife, and it blew my mind. I didn't know knives could be that insanely sharp, stay sharp that long, and look that beautiful.
"I first picked up a Japanese knife at a restaurant convention in London. I told the knife maker that I had great skills and that I had razor-sharp knives. I then grabbed a tomato to show it who was boss. With the help of that Japanese knife, I blasted through the tomato like it was made of air and sunk the knife deep into the wooden cutting board. That's how blunt the knives that I was accustomed to using actually were!"
Years after Kevin dispatched the tomato (and the poor cutting board under it) he returned to Canada with plans to open a restaurant in Calgary. But his love of pristine Japanese knives changed the course of his plans.
"In Spring 2007, I imported a few knives from Japanese makers and made a few food/chef/knife-inspired shirts designed by Canadian chef and illustrator Pierre Lamielle. That is where the name Knifewear came from," he continues. "My big plan at the time was no different from the guy at college who sells weed so he can smoke some for free. I wanted to sell a few knives so that I could add some really great ones to my personal collection, and I wanted to sell some cool shirts. Eventually, I planned to open a restaurant (or a few of them). The knives and t-shirts were simply a way to pass the time and have some fun."
However, as Kevin was soon to learn, when you love your product and love what you do, it has a habit of turning into a career. From his company vehicle — a mountain bike — he visited and sold knives to chefs all over Calgary that summer, holding sales meetings at tables, in kitchens, and even in the alleyways behind kitchens' back doors. He did this while also holding down a job as a sous chef. Eventually the knife sales won out and the chef transitioned into full time sales.
"Almost daily I have a customer tell me that our knives have revolutionized their time in the kitchen, and that is endlessly rewarding," he says with pride.
There are many knife shops in Calgary. What makes Knifewear stand out?
"We offer an undeniably better product with engaging, educated staff who provide a fun experience," Kevin answers without hesitation.
While his business acumen didn't come overnight and there were some growing pains along the way, Kevin is happy to say that he has always prioritized his staff from day one.
"I should have had a sales website similar to what we have now much sooner, but one thing we did well from the start was pay our staff a living wage or better, and that has helped reduce staff turnover and made our shops a place where our staff can work, learn and grow for many years.
"We have always paid a living wage (which is above minimum wage) as well as profit sharing, bonuses, long service leave (three-month paid holiday after 10 years of working with us) and a health plan. There are always challenges in business, but I find the successful ones find a way to succeed, rather than complain about external forces."
The former UK resident is happy to be living and working in Calgary.
"I love that this week I will go skiing at Sunshine and fly fish the Bow the next day. Being between the mountains and prairies is a magical location. Calgary is also great at embracing entrepreneurship and that's very inspiring," he says.
For Knifewear, giving back to the community that supports the company is very important.
Kevin explains, "Besides taking care of staff we also donate about 1-1.5 per cent of our annual sales to local causes. We sharpen a lot of knives every year and give half of the proceeds, as well as sharpen-by-donation times for Red Cross emergencies that we feel passionate about. For a couple years I produced a topless chefs (not firemen) calendar called Off Cuts to raise money for Brown Bagging for Calgary Kids. I volunteer with a number of organizations within my community, as do many of our staff."
Calgarians have many great things to look forward to from Knifewear.
"We will be opening another Knifewear shop at the new Farmers' Market in North Calgary," says Kevin. Then he smiles. "Also, my book just hit the shelves and is up for a number of awards! How cool is that?"
Learn more about this sharp company by visiting knifewear.com online, @knifewear on Twitter and Facebook, and @knife.nerd on Instagram.