Corey Milligan exuded pride as he gave a tour earlier this month of New West KnifeWorks’ new location on Lupine Lane in Victor, Idaho.
It’s not just the products he sells — “the most badass s--- the world has ever seen” is how he describes them — but also the fact that the space is both a retail shop and a factory.
“Where in America can you go to a place where they make something and you can buy it?” asked Milligan.
With colorful handles and high-grade-steel blades, New West’s knives have been described as “kitchen art.” And indeed, the ones in the Victor showroom are fanned out on walls and posed on pedestals like artwork in a gallery.
“They look cool but are high-performance,” Milligan said. “Our core user is people who love to cook.”
One fan is Brian McDermott, the executive director of the Teton Regional Economic Coalition and a self-described “chef-y” type. He described how he “introduced” a piece of fruit to a New West KnifeWorks knife.
“The lime quartered itself,” he said.
The Victor store, in the same neighborhood as Sego Skis, sculptor John Simms and Kate’s Real Food, among others, celebrated its grand opening in July. (As with Milligan’s other three stores, this one lets you not only shop for blades but try your hand at throwing tomahawks, another Milligan product that’s sold through his Mtn Man Toy Shop business.)
New West’s other stores are in Jackson (the original), Park City, Utah, and the Napa Valley town of Helena, California. More will be coming — Denver and Chicago are two of the cities Milligan has his eye on.
He started by selling his knives at art fairs, and 20 years later he still wants to market only directly to customers. It costs a lot to make a New West knife, he said, so going through kitchenware retailers doesn’t make financial sense.
“There’s not enough margin,” Milligan said. “Plus it’s more fun to interact with your customers than a buyer from Williams-Sonoma.”
And those customers are growing in number. Word of mouth plus rave reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bon Appetit, Saveur, Food and Wine and other media outlets have put the company on the map for foodies and professional chefs. After accolades about the knives aired on an NPR show, the company’s website jammed.
“We’re the most famous teeny-tiny knife maker in the world,” Milligan said.
The challenge, he said, was making enough product. Having outgrown its space on Gregory Lane in Jackson, New West looked for other options in Wyoming, but couldn’t find the right fit.
More space to work with
The Teton Regional Economic Coalition, based in Driggs, Idaho, helped Milligan make connections for the financing on the Victor property, McDermott said.
But though the organization’s goals include recruiting businesses, McDermott said he doesn’t consider New West’s factory opening in Victor as some kind of victory over Jackson.
“We don’t view this as competitive,” McDermott said. “We try to take a regional approach and a cooperative approach.”
Aside from the local economy the move is good for New West, too.
Milligan said he’s thrilled with the number and quality of job applicants. People are excited, he said, about the work but also the opportunity to have a job in Victor and not have to drive over the pass.
And New West has a lot more room for knife making since it moved production to Victor early in the year. There’s 6,000 square feet to work with versus the 1,600 it had at Gregory Lane in Jackson.
“Getting this building changed everything for us,” Milligan said.
The company has room for machines that streamline production. New West aims to ramp up from about 700 knives a month to 1,500. It’s also bringing the custom knife side of its operations in-house. That’s been handled in Idaho Falls.
New West will be getting a machine to grind the steel blades for the knives, something it previously paid a vendor to do. With an on-site machine it can do the job faster and better and with more flexibility.
“We can fulfill our orders with less inventory,” Milligan said. “We can be more nimble.”
New West uses a laser to etch its logo into the steel and a computer numerical control router to cut pieces for knife handles. The company has already reached capacity on the first one, so it’s purchased another.
Alongside the sleek new machines are some that look a bit Dr. Frankenstein-ish. They’re the ones New West put together itself. One, which creates serration on blades, is so proprietary that Milligan didn’t want it photographed. Now he’s building a better version.
“We had to invent this thing,” Milligan said. “We didn’t make serrated knives for years because we didn’t have a way to do it.”
Anti-stick mountain design
Another in-house invention is used to etch a mountain design into the blades of the Teton Edge Santoku.
A typical santoku has dimples on the flat of the blade to keep food from sticking. The dimples are created with a process involving heat, Milligan said.
In the New West santoku the mountain design replaces the dimples. The company’s homemade contraption enables a cold process that combines salt water plus an electric current to rust away the steel and leave the design. It doesn’t damage the steel the way heat does, Milligan said.
“Doing this is unique in kitchen knife-making history,” he said.
All told, the New West factory is combining new technology with hand crafting techniques, and as Milligan sees it, the sky is the limit.
“People think the stuff we make now is cool,” he said. “Just wait.”