Saori Kawano, president of Korin Japanese Trading Corp., still recalls that dark time back in 1993 when a stream of angry American chefs stormed through her cramped TriBeCa warehouse one after another. The Japanese-made knives they had purchased from Korin had chipped, some on their first trip to the cutting board. The chefs fumed that they had not used the knives improperly, and demanded their money back.
This was not what Kawano had envisioned when she decided to jump start her ailing business by opening up a new niche market in Japanese chef’s knives. Like many small businesses, her Japanese tableware and restaurant supply company had been hit hard by the combined effects of recession and the first Persian Gulf War: between 1990 and 1991 Korin’s sales plummeted 60 percent, from $1 million to $400,000.
At the time, most serious professional chefs used German-made knives in their kitchens and weren’t familiar with their delicate, supersharp Japanese counterparts. Because Japanese blades are extremely hard and thin they retain their sharpness longer, but are much less flexible and tend to chip and break easily. Their steeply angled cutting edges make for precision slicing but call for a completely different method of sharpening. A trial run giving away the knives seemed to result in satisfied customers, so Kawano had gingerly entered the market. But almost immediately, she was inundated with complaints.
“High-level chefs have such a passion about their knives,” explains Kawano. “They expect so much from their knives that when they are let down they get so emotional, so angry. It was a nightmare.”
Kawano was not one to be daunted by market forces: she had already transformed herself from a 28-year-old immigrant waitress and single mom (peddling her wares off her daughter’s stroller) to president of her own company. Instead giving up on the knives, she embarked on a focused educational campaign to teach American chefs everything she could about the glories, use and care of both hand-crafted and manufactured Japanese chef’s knives.
In 1995 Kawano published a 16-page catalog with information on the various knife makers and the uses of different models. Next, she enlisted the help of celebrity chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Nobu Matsuhisa, both loyal patrons of Korin as well as fans and expert users of Japanese chef’s knives. Kawano included interviews with them and 8 other well-known chefs discussing their passion for Japanese knives in a glossy, 32-page catalog released in 1999. Updated and expanded catalogs followed in 2004 and 2007, the latest an encyclopedic 96-page compendium of Japanese knife-making lore and 24 celebrity chef interviews.
In 2004 Kawano released a DVD, “The Chef’s Edge,” on which her ex-husband, Chiharu Sugai, teaches the basics of traditional Japanese knife sharpening. Although the catalogs and DVD were hits, Kawano didn’t make chef’s knives a seller overnight. “It took seven years to start making a profit on them,” she notes.
Korin’s extensive selection of Japanese chef’s knives (prices range from $40 to $5,000) is now well known to a cult following of both professional and dedicated amateur chefs, and the business as a whole is robust; Kawano is on target to meet her sales goal of over $10 million this year.
Bonnie Wong, president of the non-profit organization Asian Women in Business, credits Kawano for succeeding in a market in which more entrepreneurs fail than succeed. “A lot of people think they have to go high-end, because that’s their own taste,” she says, “but too many of them don’t know how to target that market.” The most common ways to crack the luxury market, says Wong, are getting products placed in luxury magazines or concentrating on a highly targeted audience. One jewelry designer Wong knows has succeeded by zeroing in on the Hamptons and becoming a hit among a certain social set there.
Kawano has created her market by educating customers, Wong agrees, but she’s also been savvy enough to do the equivalent of getting a Hollywood star to wear one’s jewelry: she’s targeted famous chefs to tout the knives she sells.
“It’s brilliant, it’s a super-niche strategy,” says Edward Rogoff, professor of entrepreneurship at Baruch College in New York City. “First of all, only by demonstrating the product and educating customers will they start buying. This is also a process that follows opinion leaders, and you need to get to the right people. It’s like making bats for major league baseball players and then getting little league players.”
“She got Iron Chef [Masaharu] Morimoto, and she made sure everyone knew that,” says Wong. “She sold to top chefs who knew what they were doing.” But Wong, who knows Kawano, says there’s another factor that has been key to the entrepreneur’s success: “The woman is tenacious. She doesn’t give up.”
P.S. This is the story that I submitted to Crain’s, not the version that was published. I have not done this with any other stories in the archives but in this case, the edited piece was so disappointing that I decided to use my original version instead.