First established in 1979, House of Knives is a successful independently-owned retail business that offers a broad selection of quality products, a high level of customer service, and a sharp focus on product knowledge.
House of Knives President Andre Eng established his strong work ethic growing up on the family farm. While still at high school, he began a culinary and retail career, helping his brother Allan grow House of Knives from a single location to 15 stores. Thirty-four years later, Mr. Eng and his wife own the business, which is now vertically integrated to produce kitchen and sporting cutlery and accessories. The company focus is on growing the business by inspiring through education, investing in both stores and online, corporate sales, and design and manufacturing. Mr. Eng spoke with The Canadian Business Quarterly about the journey from owning a single franchise to buying out the brand, the focus on education that drives the company’s vision, and the importance of investing in quality long-term products.
“We’re proud to say we’re the largest independently-owned cutlery gift store chain in the world,” Mr. Eng says. “There aren’t many similar stores to us, simply because we’re a bit of a Frankenstein specialty store.”
Stores frequently receive comments from customers amazed by the number of items the brand sells outside of knives. The company’s name can be confusing, but House of Knives is a lot more than merely knives. From wet shaving, kitchen gadgets and multi-tools there is something for everyone.
Mr. Eng’s connection to the company began thirty-four years ago, when his brother bought an independent House of Knives franchise store.
“Back in the 80s, when the House of Knives concept started in Canada, there were close to 50 stores across the country. They were owned by the Minit Corporation, and they franchised the concept. My brother owned one of about 10 locations that were franchised in Canada.”
After finishing his studies at culinary school, Mr. Eng teamed up with his brother Allan to start running the franchise, growing the business, and eventually acquiring the franchise rights for British Columbia, with corporate running all locations east of BC.
In 2008, after many years working together with his brother, Mr. Eng and his wife purchased the company from Allan.
“Fast-forward to 2011. Minit had been closing their locations, and just closed their last location in Alberta. At that time, we negotiated the rights to the name and acquired it so we had our freedom from paying royalties, and then we could control the brand and grow it as we saw fit.”
The company’s current footprint includes 15 locations across Canada – 12 in British Columbia and 3 in Alberta. The Alberta factions all opened after 2011, when Mr. Eng acquired the rights to franchise outside BC.
“[Acquiring the brand] was a natural state that had to occur, because you know the way the business world works, every percentage of margin counts. So, the cost of doing business and having to pay royalty on top of it was not a long-term plan that was going to work.”
As Mr. Eng’s franchise grew over the years, it had increasingly moved away from the corporate mindset adopted by other stores under the brand, with many customers noting differences between Mr. Eng’s stores and those operating in the east.
“Because we’ve always been owner-operator, we’ve always made a dedicated effort to have a much larger selection of products, a greater focus on customer service, and carry a much larger variety of goods than corporate did.”
Within such a competitive retail environment, the company has worked hard to differentiate from larger chain retailers selling similar products. This is especially difficult in the modern climate of larger stores selling a wide variety of products.
“For us, it’s always about the education and the product knowledge,” Mr. Engs explains. “Our vision statement is to improve the lives of those we encounter through education and innovation. Through my 34+ years in business, I still make routine visits to the vendor factories on a yearly basis.”
Mr. Eng is about to make one such trip to visit their many vendor partners’ factories in Germany, which he has done a number of times over the years. This is important to stay connected with changes in the industry as well as to nurture their vendor relationships.
“We like to stay on top of the current trends as well as understand the manufacturing nuances behind what goes into making our products, and it’s that kind of information that we can articulate through our salespeople to our consumers.”
The company also puts a lot of work into progressing and changing, particularly in terms of how it serves its customers. Much of this involves knowing everything about the products it sells, and showing customers how best to use them.
“It’s no secret that online is having a tremendous effect on all industries and all businesses, and with everyone being so time-starved these days, everyone is trying to find ways to gain back time, and online definitely does that.”
The way the landscape has been affected by the rise in online shopping has meant that physical stores must find new ways of giving customers the best possible service, and providing something online retailers can’t.
“We’ve had a greater focus on creating better experiences within store. Currently if you walk into one of our stores, you can actually try out a large variety of our knives by cutting up potatoes, so you get a better sense and feel of how they work for you. That’s one way we really try to differentiate ourselves, that’s an experience you can only get in store.”
There has been a big change in food and lifestyle over the last few years, with the way we consume food and think about cooking being influenced by many different factors, such as social media, celebrity chefs, and the rise of food delivery apps. This has seen a shift in the retail landscape as well.
“We do knife skills training with high school students, and part of the message to them is that eating out all the time, eating processed, packaged foods, is not a healthy lifestyle. Any nutritionist will tell you that the best thing you can do for your health is to cook for yourself! I think there is a movement going back to basics, where people are more conscious of what they’re putting into their bodies. Part of that starts with healthy cooking.”
These sessions are designed to teach young people basic knife skills, having started with a focus on using the right knife for the right purpose, but evolving to empower people with the skills and knowledge to work more effectively in the kitchen.
Often it’s a shame that people don’t eat healthy simply due to a lack of knowledge on how to perform a certain task, like filleting a fish, or mincing garlic quickly and cleanly.
“Here, locally, we teamed up with BC Chicken [marketing board] this summer and we’ve produced a series of videos, empowering people on how to use their knives as a proper tool, so they can carve, spatchcock, or section a chicken.”
These videos are designed to inspire people to save money while learning how to cook and eat healthier. Buying a whole chicken not only saves you money, but you also have the benefit of using the bones and carcass to make stock so you can create soups or sauces! For some, soup just comes out of a can!
“It’s all these little nuances in terms of empowerment. It’s like the old saying goes: ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ So by empowering them to use the tools properly, we truly do feel that everyone will not only eat healthier, but will live a healthier lifestyle as a result.”
Like all retailers, the company looks to have a proactive business and to continue growing into the future. It has launched a number of initiatives designed to raise its profile, especially in this age where fewer people are travelling to physical stores.
“If they’re not going to come to us, we’ll go to them. We’ve started doing more community efforts in the last couple of years, working with non-profits, which go into elementary schools and teach kids as young as in kindergarten all the way to grade 7 not only how to cook, but understanding the whole farm-to-table movement, where food comes from.”
This teaches children respect for and understanding of healthy eating. Even young children use knives, and it is just as important for them to learn from an early age how to use them safely and efficiently.
“It’s all about community and collaborations,” Mr. Eng says, “working with these non-profits that in turn create healthier lives for all these kids. That’s just one segment that we’re working towards. The other one is, we’ve just launched our corporate gift program.”
The company has been fortunate to have decade long relationships with some of the world’s finest tool companies like Victorinox Swiss Army and Leatherman.
“Gone are the days where companies just put their logos onto any trinket and give it away. People are so conscious about the environment and what the footprint is. Nobody wants to give a gift that’s going to last for a week and then end up in a landfill somewhere. So to give something of quality, like a Swiss Army knife that you know is going to last, is invaluable.”
“When you make an investment in something that’s going to last forever, over the long run, it’s actually less expensive. I always tell people, think about the thousands of dollars you’ve spent on the many gadgets for your kitchen that you never use, like the juicer, bread machine, or blender. But when you invest in a high-quality set of knives, there’s no better value as you’ll use them 365 days of the year, two to three times a day – guaranteed.”
With its focus on community, edge-u-cating, and empowering everyone on how to use their tools properly, House of Knives is poised for future growth. Find out more about House of Knives by visiting www.houseofknives.ca.