How This 60-Year-Old Company Reinvented the Humble Kitchen Whisk
Best Manufacturers, the sole U.S. maker of kitchen whisks, has innovated everything you can put in a pot.
CREDIT: Courtesy Best/Getty Images
Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
"I refer to bean mashing as a brutal sport," John Merrifield says.
You can see why. In Mexican restaurants, cooks spend hours each day crushing pinto beans with garlic and cumin to make refries. They smoosh the ingredients, bang the masher against the side of the pot to dislodge clinging legumes, then smoosh some more. Given all that abuse, "some of the bean mashers we sell look like riot gear," Merrifield says. "You look at it and say, 'How could anyone break that?'"
Bean and potato mashers are hot sellers for Best Manufacturers, a nearly 60-year-old Portland, Oregon, business. But the company's primary products are whisks (called "whips" in restaurant kitchens), of which Best is the sole U.S. manufacturer. Part of Portland's substantial base of small manufacturing companies, Best occupies 10,000 feet in an industrial area near the airport. Inside the concrete warehouse-like structure, 13 employees use machinery to cut tubing for handles and bend stainless steel wire into different shapes.
Best, with projected revenues of around $1.5 million, sells 65 models in every size and configuration. There are supple 8-inch balloon whisks whose gently rounded, wide-spaced tines aerate creams and meringues. There are four-foot-long kettle whisks, metal monsters that can take on enough chili to feed a cafeteria full of schoolchildren. There are mayonnaise whips and wood-handled whips and flat whips that prevent roux from scorching while you work out the clumps.
A little over half of Best's revenues derive from sales to restaurant suppliers and institutions: hospitals, schools, prisons or anywhere someone's cooking a mess of grub, typically in a massive steam-jacketed kettle. Almost all the rest comes from wholesaling to gourmet kitchenware stores and similar retailers. A tiny percentage comes from other applications, such as mixing ice baths for organ transplants.
Kitchen Kaboodle, a housewares retailer with four stores in the Portland area, has been selling Best whisks since launching in 1975. "When we first started carrying them there weren't a lot of choices other than perhaps bringing in French whisks," says Lynn Becraft, Kitchen Kaboodle's president. Now the offerings are abundant, but Best's are still the highest-quality available and the biggest seller. "How the tines are placed into the handles. The springs have a lot of give," Becraft says. "It's a great product fairly priced."
CREDIT: Courtesy Best
Merrifield's father found his destiny in a classified ad. In the 1950s Joe Merrifield was a traveling greeting card salesman who wanted to own a business. He had acquired a couple of 88-cent stores but those failed. So Joe was intrigued when, in 1959, he spied a notice in The Oregonian newspaper from a guy wanting to sell a tiny venture making whisks by hand. "My dad was a salesman," Merrifield says. "He just looked at it and said, 'I can sell more of these.'"
Initially Best Manufacturers sold exclusively to the restaurant industry, which was thriving thanks to increased expendable income and the growth of car culture. There were other whisks on the market, both American-made and imports. But Best produced the only whisks that complied with National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) specifications, meaning they could be cleaned in the dishwasher, and contained no toxic materials or cracks and crevices that bacteria could stake out.
While that was appealing to restaurants, the home-cook market was a bust, even in era when Julia Child wrangled meringues on TV. Joe Merrifield dropped attempts to sell retail after a venture with superstore Fred Meyer didn't work out. Circumstances changed in the '70s, though, when specialty kitchen stores like Crate & Barrel, William Sonoma, and Sur La Table began expanding into national chains. All three became Best's customers, as did Bed Bath & Beyond. "As people up-scaled their home kitchens, they wanted better-quality tools," says Merrifield. "When that line of distribution opened up it was a pretty big deal for us."
Merrifield joined Best in 1978 after graduating college and abandoning his plan to start a novelty clock company. His brother, Jeff, came onboard nine years later. Both had grown up in the business, sweeping floors after school and, later, assembling wires into whisk heads for 3 cents a pop. In 1990 the brothers bought out their father, and in 2008 John Merrifield bought out Jeff.
Cooking up experiments
Like many specialty manufacturers, Best delights in innovation. About 35 years ago the company invented a non-toxic epoxy to seal whisk heads onto handles, preventing germs from infiltrating at the point of connection. It was the first in the country to make wood-handled whisks and also pioneered flat whisks, designed to move food around the surface of a pan.
Although staunchly whisk-centric, the brothers occasionally experimented with other products. The most successful is a reusable bread bag made of polyester and sealed with Velcro. Merrifield created that in the early '90s when people were buying bread machines that produced oversized loaves. (Now consumers use the bags for ordinary bakery bread and rolls.) However attempts to sell similar bags for coffee and to warm and serve tortillas sputtered.
Another hit is the Flour Duster, a gadget that powders cakes or breadboards, for example, with thin coatings of sugar and flour. A woman who had received such a gadget as a wedding present from England asked Merrifield he if could repair it for her. "I told her, 'I can't fix the one you have. But I am going to have a prototype made, and I will send you one,'" says Merrifield, who ultimately sent her a dozen.
The company has also partnered with individual inventors to produce their brainchildren: for example, a "spoon rest" you can clip to the side of a pan to hold a whisk or other utensil while you cook. An ardent supporter of American manufacturing, Best helps U.S. makers of restaurant-supply products such as stainless steel tongs to distribute them in the retail channel.
CREDIT: Courtesy Best
Adjusting to a tough environment
Unfortunately, says Merrifield, made-in-America has not delivered much competitive advantage. Revenues have gradually declined as "the big three"--Williams Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, and Sur La Table--dropped Best in favor of their own brands, manufactured overseas. Other companies outsource production of wide swaths of kitchen tools that dominate retailers' walls in coordinated, eye-catching packaging. "It seems like rhetorically there is a lot of interest" in American-made," Merrifield says. "But the American consumer doesn't factor in the country of origin as a value added."
E-commerce has not helped. Best does not sell direct to avoid competing with its retail accounts. It does sell through Amazon, but the margins are a challenge. "It is hard to sell a $12 item from Portland, Oregon to a consumer in Minnesota over the Internet and make that a good sale for the end-user," Merrifield says.
Best has coped by adopting lean manufacturing, which has helped keep prices down. It is stepping up exports and considering more private label and new distributors. The NSF certification still sets its products apart. "It's not like all whisks that come from China are unsanitary," Merrifield says. "But no one is necessarily monitoring the contents that whisk has in it."
And innovation continues apace. In the works are diminutive tools for mixing individual protein shakes and refreshing condiments still in their jars. After hours spent fishing M&Ms and other items out of an Instant Pot, Merrifield and his team concluded they could produce a superior tool for removing hot food from that slow-cook phenomenon.
"It is a little bit hard to grow right now, but we have a solid business with loyal customers," he says. "We will just keep chugging along doing what we do best."