By Tim O'Connor
Restaurant operators in today’s market are forced to balance two competing trends. On one side, the shortage of labor, rising wages and high turnover make it difficult to keep kitchens fully staffed. On the other, diners are demanding more customization in their meals. “They want it at any time in almost any place, and they want it the way they want it,” says Alan Peppel, president and CEO of cutlery and commercial products manufacturer Dexter-Russell.
As restaurants and other foodservice providers look for technologies such as automation to solve their labor challenges, they can get further away from providing the unique dishes that consumers want. To bridge those opposing forces, restaurants need tools that allow cooks to work more efficiently while still providing the flexibility to tweak dishes to a diner’s preferences.
Dexter-Russell is bridging those competing demands by working with restaurant operators and chefs to design knives and other products that speed up preparation or are better suited for specialty dishes. “We’re finding people are more concerned about yield and productivity than ever,” Peppel says. “We also get asked to help create, design, or manufacture more specific items for them that are task and product specific.”
With 2,400 different items in its catalog, Dexter-Russell can help kitchens meet that customization challenge. Unlike competitors that treat knives as only a portion of their portfolio, knives, cutlery, and product solutions are Dexter-Russell’s business, granting it a higher level of expertise in the market. As specialists, it aims to create knives that enhance the work of chefs and cooks. “We truly think of our product as a tool for professionals to use,” Peppel says.
When developing new products, Dexter-Russell taps into its 200-year-old heritage as one of the first manufacturers of cutlery in North America. “We have quite the storied past in manufacturing products in the United States,” Peppel says. The company’s origins date back to 1818 when Henry Harrington established The Harrington Cutlery Company in Massachusetts, which eventually became known for the Dexter brand of fine kitchen and table cutlery.
The Russell part of the company’s name is a bit younger. John Russell founded the John Russell Cutlery Company in 1834 also in Massachusetts. Nearly 100 years later, in 1933, The Harrington Cutlery Co. and the John Russell Cutlery Co. merged into a single entity, the Russell Harrington Cutlery Co. The name remained until 2001 when it changed to Dexter-Russell to help customers better associate it with its best-known product line. “The Dexter brand was strong in the industry, stronger than Russell Harrington, and we thought it would make sense,” Peppel says.
The same year that Dexter-Russell updated its name, the company named Peppel president. He’s been with the company for 26 years and in that time has overseen Dexter-Russell’s efforts to become more proactive in the designs and knife shapes it introduces to the marketplace.
The company’s current generation of products exemplify its focus on usability. Its V-Lo series features an award-winning, state-of-the-art soft handle designed for greater comfort and control. The blade itself is made from proprietary stain-free, high-carbon steel that enhances sharpness, corrosion resistance, edge holding, and makes it easier to re-sharpen.
The V-Lo knife works well for most cooks, but for chefs who have been in the industry longer and suffer from arthritis or other joint issues, Dexter-Russell needed something different. To aide in a redesign, the company enlisted chefs with osteoarthritis conditions to help it create a knife that would be comfortable for them to use for extended periods. The result was the DuoGlide™, an ergonomic knife with an oversized, textured handle that can be gripped in multiple ways to make it more comfortable for the user to chop, cut and slice. “It positions the hand much more over the blade,” Peppel says.
The first DuoGlide was released about six years ago but Dexter-Russell continues to build on the concept. The brand now has six products in its lineup, a paring knife, a utility knife, a scalloped bread slicer, and all-purpose duo-edge chef’s knife, a cook’s knife, and a duo-edge slicer.
Blending Home and Commercial
The need for knives such as the DuoGlide is only expected to rise alongside the popularity of online meal ordering through services such as Grubhub and UberEats. As a result, Peppel says more food preparation is now occurring outside the home kitchen. The boom in orders has put even more pressure on the kitchen to churn out dishes at a faster pace.
At the same time, those who still want to cook at home have become infatuated with the high-end kitchens and gadgets they see on the Food Network. People are no longer content to use a consumer-grade knife, they want to use the same tools as the stars of shows like “Top Chef” and “Chopped.” For a manufacturer—and a distributor—Peppel sees that trend as positive. The desire to bring commercial products into the home serves to increase Dexter-Russell’s potential customer base.
Peppel likens it to the Home Depot model. Big-box stores don’t care whether they are selling a 2X4 plank to a contractor or DIYer, only that they are making the sale. The cash-and-carry model used by many distributors is a good fit for that kind of thinking, he contends. “In a Food Network, online world, the commercial and the home enthusiasts are starting to blend,” he says. “Many dealers and distributors take advantage of that.” ■