The Little Factory That Could

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By Margaret LeRoux / Photos by Adam DeTour

You may know all the best sources for local food, but did you know there also is a local, even historic, source of kitchen knives to help you prepare it? R. Murphy Knife Company in Ayer, Massachusetts, about an hour northwest of Boston, has supplied chefs with locally manufactured cooking tools for 160 years.

Not long ago the company captured the attention of local chef Jeremy Sewall. He chose one of R. Murphy’s oyster shucking knives, a modest little implement with a two-and-five-eighths-inch long carbon stainless steel blade, for Island Creek Oyster Bar and his newest restaurant, Row 34.

“Your knife is the most important piece of equipment you touch all day,” says Sewall. “With an oyster bar where you’re shucking thousands of oysters a day, finding the tool that works really well is everything. With all the emphasis on using local ingredients, I love that I’m also using a local tool.”

The R. Murphy Knife Company’s local roots are strong; it was founded in 1850 in Boston as a cutlery business. By 1906 the company had expanded to manufacture a wide range of industrial knives and moved to its current location in Ayer. The shoe and rubber industries were its biggest customers. A catalog of R. Murphy wares of that era lists several knives for leather cutting as well as corkscrews and oyster shucking knives.

The company remained family owned until 1954. Fifty years and two owners later, sales were languishing. Although R. Murphy was the go-to company for many industrial knives, it no longer made its own line of cooking knives. There had not been a sales or marketing staff in 40 years. The two computers in the company were used for printing mailing labels and invoices, and tracking sales; accounting was done by a ledger system.

“It was a little factory lost in time,” says Mimi Younkins. She and her husband and business partner, Mark Furman, bought R. Murphy Knife Company in 2009.

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Furman and Younkins ran a construction business and had done some work for the former owner. When the company was offered for sale, Furman, whose background includes a degree in electrical engineering and a MBA, was receptive. “Although I didn’t know anything about knives,” he said. Recalling the time he put his wife’s Sabatier chef’s knife into the dishwasher, Furman added, ”I only knew how to ruin them.”

Furman and Younkins set out to revive R. Murphy’s retail sales. They hired a sales representative, revived the company’s array of oyster knives, and developed a premium line of chef’s knives.

“I became the marketing department,” Younkins said. She took classes in website development and blogging. Meanwhile, Furman spent most of his time learning about the knife making process and refurbishing the building.

Unlike its domestic and international competitors, some of R. Murphy’s machinery dates back to the previous century. There’s a patent from 1890 on a huge press that stamps out knife blades from strips of carbon steel. All the equipment is operated by a lean staff of only 10 employees; the bigger companies use robots.

“Our employees have to know how to operate at least three different machines,” says Furman. “We can’t afford to stop a process if someone is sick.” He notes that all their employees live in Central Massachusetts. A few, like Robbie Orr, the eagle-eyed operator of the machine that stencils R. Murphy’s name on the knife blades, lives only a few blocks away from the factory.

Besides local employees, Furman and Younkins are dedicated to buying local materials whenever possible. “We buy local if we can, then regional or national,” Younkins says. They get carbon steel from Ohio and stainless steel from Pennsylvania. Plastic knife handles come from a factory in Connecticut and several plants in Maine make wooden handles for oyster knives and most of the company’s industrial knives. Pecan wood for some of their exclusive chef’s knives is repurposed laminated flooring from an old Chrysler plant in Cleveland. They are making some wooden handles from a 400-pound red oak burl found in their back yard in Framingham. Elegantly grained rosewood from Honduras is used for their chef’s select knives.

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The R. Murphy factory floor is almost a living history museum and the show stopper is the heat treating process. “We call it cooking the knives and it’s very popular with chefs who have visited,” Furman says. The heat treater, Rudolfo Figueroa, lowers racks of knife blades into a bath of molten salt. He follows century-old recipes that take into account the number, size, and mass of the blades. After they’ve been cooked at 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit, the red-hot blades are removed and transferred to a quench tank—a 400-degree salt bath. Then they are air-cooled and soaked in successive baths of cleaner and coolant.

Tempering is next. The blades spend about an hour in another salt bath heated to 450 degrees. Heating and tempering give the steel the hardness it needs to be a knife blade. After tempering, they’re frozen to below 140 degrees Fahrenheit to help the blades retain a sharp edge. They’re sent to a plant in Millbury, Massachusetts for this cryogenic process.

The blades are sharpened by grinding wheels. The first grind gives them the correct angle; successive honing creates fine, sharp edges. “We grind to five thousandths of an inch,” Furman says. “Some edges are ground to zero.”

After grinding, every blade is checked by an employee with a micrometer to measure the thickness of the edge. “We have much tighter control on the process because we’re not automated,” says Furman. “Our employees adjust the grinding wheels to give the blades a consistent edge.”

The newest of the factory’s grinding machines were made in the 1970s. In contrast, the wheels used to edge the blades are high technology, state-of-the-art.

The final step is the company’s “wicked sharp” process, a buffing that results in “a blade that cuts effortlessly,” Furman says.

Making super sharp blades for use in the kitchen is the flashy side of the knife business, but 200 different kinds of industrial knives represent the bulk of R. Murphy’s sales.  They’re used in flooring, roofing, food processing, insulation, leather and rubber manufacturing such as tires, gaskets, and weather stripping. The company made about 260,000 knives last year and only 5% were cooking knives. Younkins and Furman are determined to increase that ratio.

A series of fortuitous encounters over the last four years boosted their efforts. The first occurred shortly after the couple bought the knife company. Younkins’ stepsister, Sarah Adler, was in Boston for a friend’s wedding and attended a gathering that included Jackson Cannon, at the time the bar manager for the restaurant Eastern Standard and the soon-to-be-opened Island Creek Oyster Bar.

“Jackson was explaining the restaurant’s approach, farm to table serving locally farmed oysters. ‘I know your knife farmer,’ my step-sister told him,” Younkin said.

Cannon agreed to see a sample and sent Murphy’s sales representative to Island Creek’s chef, Jeremy Sewall.

“If you’re in the restaurant business you’re approached by everyone who has equipment and they all think theirs is the best,” Sewall said. “I met the Murphy sales representative and was impressed with the quality and craftsmanship of the knives. They’re a bit of a throwback, being made of carbon steel.” The company also makes stainless steel versions of many if its oyster and chef’s knives.

Sewall says he liked the feel of the Murphy knives and asked if the company made oyster knives. R. Murphy was happy to oblige; the company makes two dozen different kinds and 34 versions of shellfish knives. Sewall settled on the New Haven with its classic bent tip.

He then recommended the knife company to the crew at Island Creek Oyster Farm. They had been struggling with shucking knife tips that kept breaking off. Furman re-designed the knife, giving it a stronger tip and named it the Duxbury Shucker in honor of the location of Island Creek’s oyster farms. Island Creek became the company’s first private label customer with their version of the Duxbury Shucker that has a distinctive, orange plastic handle.

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It wasn’t long before R. Murphy oyster knives got into the hands of oyster farmers and oyster bars all along the East and West coasts as far as Alaska. They all have their own names and color-coded handles, too. The company also sells upscale versions of oyster shucking knives; the Damariscotta and the Wellfleet lines have Bubinga wood handles.

The relationship Younkins and Furman developed with the Island Creek Oyster Bar associates led to the Chef’s Collaborative, a Boston-based, national network of chefs concerned with fostering a sustainable food supply. At the Collaborative’s sustainable food summit in Seattle last year, Younkins connected with oyster farmers in the Pacific Northwest. R. Murphy is currently working on a knife designed specifically for shucking Kumamoto oysters.

Furman also was asked by two chef members of the Collaborative’s board to develop knives for chefs who do their own butchering. He made improvements on a 6-inch boning knife and an l1-inch slicer; R. Murphy now sells them as part of their chef select line.

“With the developing interest in nose to tail cooking, chefs are looking for implements that handle well and are sharp enough to do the job,” Furman said. The boning knife’s thin, curved blade makes quick work of separating joints and cutting as much meat as possible from the bones of lamb, veal calves, and pigs. The slicing knife can cut cured meat into wafer-thin pieces.

Younkins’ skill at making connections has advanced the company’s marketing, but the quality of the knives has gotten them beyond introductions. It also helps that many cooks and chefs have rediscovered the organic appeal and superior performance of carbon steel cutlery. It takes and retains an edge and re-sharpens easily. Although R. Murphy has also manufactured stainless steel knives for decades, Younkins is vocal in her appreciation of carbon steel blades. “They don’t stay shiny, but they do stay sharp,” she says.

Moving from the kitchen into the bar, R. Murphy has collaborated with Cannon to develop a signature knife for his new restaurant and bar, The Hawthorne. The bar knife was modeled on an implement the company made a hundred years ago for the shoemaking industry. It has a flat, rectangular blade made from stainless steel that won’t corrode after prolonged contact with acidic lemons and limes. With a quick flick of the wrist, the sharp edge of the blade gets out the seeds.

Younkins and Furman draw inspiration for some of their new products from the company’s existing inventory. They recently repurposed a pottery knife as a serious pumpkin carver, and a semi-circular blade made to trim lead in stained glass making has been resurrected as a distinctive looking cheese knife.

The couple never guessed that R. Murphy’s oyster knives, a staple of the business for over a hundred years, would create a buzz in the food media. Last year their New Haven Shucker was named best oyster knife by America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated magazine. The Wall Street Journal touted the company’s Wellfleet oyster knife.

“We bought the company as a business opportunity, but once we understood its history and met the people involved, we fell in love with it,” Furman says. He acknowledges that the process of designing, manufacturing, and marketing knives has consumed their lives. “Mimi and I have business meetings that often continue into the weekend,” he adds.

The spotlight from the oyster knives has energized the entire company. “Our employees have been drawn into it; they have a sense of pride in what they do,” Furman said. The little knife factory is no longer lost in time; it has come into a time of its own.

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Margaret LeRoux is a regular contributor to Edible Boston who writes about good food and the people who grow, prepare and appreciate it. Even though she knows her way around a cutting board, she’s a lot more dexterous with a pen than she is with a knife. You can reach her at margaret.leroux@gmail.com.