Japan is known as an exporter of great knives, not an importer — until now.
Portland-based STEELPORT Knife Co. has launched a partnership with Munemasa Cutlery Company, a Tokyo-based Japanese Cutlery Pro store, according to a Tuesday announcement.
STEELPORT launched in 2020 and released its first knife, an 8-inch chef’s knife forged in a small Northeast Portland factory, in 2021. Last year the company announced a deal with national kitchenware retailer Sur La Table to carry the knives in stores across the country. The company’s products — which now include a 6-inch chef’s knife, a 4-inch paring knife, a 10-inch slicing knife and a 10-inch bread knife — are also available in Canada.
But the Japan deal is different. The country is better known as an exporter of high-quality knives than an importer.
Ron Khormaei, the company’s CEO and co-founder, says finding an American-made knife in Japan is like finding an Oregon-made sparkling wine in France’s Champagne region.
“You have to show them it’s good,” Khormaei tells Oregon Business.
STEELPORT’s knives, which range in price from $250 to $450, are made in a small factory — the company employs 12 people — on Portland’s Sandy Boulevard, using an eight-step process that starts with a single metal rod and ends with the addition of an Oregon maple handle, dipped in a coffee finish.
Portland is something of a hub for knife manufacturing, Khormaei notes, with Leatherman and Gerber both headquartered in the city. But STEELPORT knives are the only U.S.-made knives that are sold nationally, though most of the company’s sales are direct-to-consumer sales through its website. That’s partly because retailers sometimes have rigid ideas about where knives should come from, Khormaei says. The conventional wisdom among hobbyist chefs is that the best knives come from Japan and the cheapest knives come from China — but the idea that kitchen knives can come from the United States is still an uncommon one.
Khormaei describes STEELPORT’s bread knife as “the best bread knife in the world — not because it’s so good but because there aren’t many good ones.” That’s partly because bread baking isn’t popular in Japan, and partly because of another commonly held belief in the world of cooking and kitchen retail, repeated in cookbooks and books like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Chef’s knives are worth investing in, but bread knives should be bought cheap and replaced frequently.
The company has built some buzz among local chefs and bakers, but most of the company’s customers are serious home cooks.
STEELPORT is Khormaei’s second local manufacturing venture, and the second in kitchenware. In 2012 he co-founded FINEX Cast Iron, a manufacturer of high-end cast-iron cookware. The company sold to Lodge Manufacturing Company in 2019, with the stipulation that the headquarters and manufacturing stay in Portland.
Since FINEX launched, more domestic manufacturers of higher-end cast iron have cropped up — like South Carolina-based Smithey and Pennsylvania-based Lancaster.
And while Khormaei wants STEELPORT to do well, he’s also hoping to see a similar rebirth of U.S.-forged kitchen knives. Portland feels like a good place to do that, he says.
“We have a lot of businesses here that aren’t driven purely by financials,” he says. “There’s a lot of passion here.”
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