The owner of Calgary-based kitchen knife retailer, Knifewear, is planning to take his concept to new Canadian markets as it continues to see success. The innovative concept began with a single location in Calgary’s trendy Inglewood area, and has since expanded to four and, soon, five locations. Remarkably, the retailer boasts the largest selection of Japanese kitchen knives outside of Japan.
Former sous-chef Kevin Kent got started in the knife business in 2007 by selling handcrafted Japanese knives out of a backpack on the back of his bicycle, while working in a restaurant in Calgary. He became obsessed with Japanese knives and ventured to Japan to find blacksmiths versed in the craft. He quietly opened his first retail store, Knifewear, in Calgary’s trendy Inglewood neighbourhood in 2008, and it was an immediate hit among those looking for high quality kitchen knives. According to its website, the store became “a destination/hang-out for those who love Japanese steel and are addicted to sharp. We carry knives not found in any other shop in Calgary. We like exclusive, scary sharp, high performance blades.”
The retailer now works with over 40 different Japanese blacksmiths of varying sizes, and has branched into selling knife-related accessories. Chefs remain an important part of the business, representing about 20% of sales, according to Mr. Kent.
The company differentiates its brick-and-mortar stores from online by offering “expert knife knowledge, an enjoyable purchasing experience, after sale support and knife passion”, according to its website. Success has seen the brand expand beyond its two Calgary locations, opening stores in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona and Ottawa’s Byward Market areas. Knifewear is now looking to open a Vancouver store, after a series of highly successful pop-up locations in that city.
Mr. Kent explained that new Knifewear stores will ideally be in the 1,000 square foot range on urban streets, and that long, narrow ‘bowling alley-like’ retail spaces are ideal for displaying its wares. After opening a Vancouver store, Mr. Kent said that a Toronto location ‘makes great sense’, and that he’d even like to open a store in Kyoto, Japan.
Although some independent retailers choose to stay small, Mr. Kent explained that he has no problem with his retail concept growing to become a chain. Alberta Venture recently ranked Knifewear as the province’s 12th fastest-growing growing company, up from number 18 the year before. Although the retailer may be growing, it’s the ‘fun’ and interactive nature of its operations that will keep it down to earth. Mr. Kent explained that he’s full of ‘silly ideas’ that when implemented, often succeed, including a documentary film about Japanese blacksmiths that won an award at the Edmonton International Film Festival. He explained how success can stem from doing what you love, and that one of his goals is for customers to say “I went to a knife store and had a good time”.