The sharpest knives in the drawer

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IF you happen to have just bought the best salad spinner on the planet, here's some bad news: At the giant International Home & Housewares Show beginning Sunday in Chicago, Oxo International is introducing one that is even better — and so gorgeous you could actually serve from it.

But if you hate your steamer basket, here's some great news: Oxo has finally tackled the infuriating design of one of the most essential kitchen tools. When you try it, you'll wonder why cooks ever settled for anything clumsier.

And then there's the new Oxo pastry brush, with silicone bristles cut to capture and convey liquids, and the new Oxo kitchen shears, with a special stripper to separate herbs from their stems, and the new Oxo mixing bowls, stainless steel on the inside to retain heat and cold and plastic on the outside to protect the hands.

Every one has been "Oxoized," as company employees say, to add what they variously refer to as the "wow" factor, the "eureka" factor or just the "why give a damn" factor.

Ever since Oxo came out with a Good Grips vegetable peeler in 1990 that changed the way America prepped mashed potatoes, the company has become so known for its hyper-clever takes on everyday things that the wow factor should be increasingly difficult to come by. But spending a few hours at the company's sprawling, sunny home base in the Chelsea Market here, where about 40 employees devote their days to sweating the extremely small stuff, makes it pretty clear that there is almost madness to the method.

God, after all, took a rest on the seventh day. "Oxonians," as they call themselves, can work for years to perfect a single product only to start trying to find something wrong with it as soon as it arrives from the factory. Good is never enough.

"A lot of this is just a culture of people constantly looking for something wrong, not only other people's products but ours as well," said Alex Lee, the company's president, sitting in a room with a Planogram, a model for store displays that hangs floor to ceiling with every one of the 500-some Oxo innovations.

Some of those are revolutionary, some evolutionary, but all come to those four walls in much the same way: all ideas, all the time. You might not want to be married to an Oxonian, many of whom admit they are anal-retentives who would pick the most microscopic nit, but it's hard not to admire what they produce.

Spinner successCONSIDER the new salad spinner. Oxo's original version worked like a one-handed dream, with a very simple pumping mechanism modeled on a child's toy substituting for the old pull cord that had to be tugged repeatedly to spin the basket holding the greens.

Then consumers started asking for a lid that could be used to turn the spinner into a storage container. The greens would last longer that way, Lee said, but there was no real reason for the lid, aside from the fact that "consumers were hesitant to put the mechanism in the refrigerator."

So a snap-on white plastic lid was added. And then consumers started saying they wished they had some way of "knowing when the greens were done," according to Michelle Sohn, category director for kitchen products.

That inspired a change to see-through plastic for the top with the pump, in two layers that pop apart for easy cleaning.

Once top-down visibility was a possibility, the formerly clear bowl could be made of stainless steel, as some European salad spinners are. The result is a utilitarian product made worthy of the dinner table.

"We never consider anything finished," said Larry Witt, Oxo's vice president of sales and market development.

Even the swivel vegetable peeler has been modified repeatedly and now comes in three styles, including one with a replaceable blade.

The steamer basket, completely new this spring after years in development, provides a different illustration of how Oxoization works. First, Sohn said, "We took the thing and tackled all the things people hate." No. 1 on the list turned out to be the ring in the center, which is too small to grab, gets too hot to handle and takes up too much space when something like a whole cabbage or slab of fish needs to be steamed.

The Oxo pop-up handle is easier to grab, is made from a heat-resistant material and comes with a slit in the center where a fork can be slipped in to make a secondary handle. It also unscrews, and the whole steamer folds flat for storage.

Finally, the spiky legs were replaced with flat feet that are taller than normal so that more water can be placed underneath for longer steaming without refilling the pot.

Throughout the whole process, "we did a lot of vegetable steaming," Sohn said. Products are always tested in the Oxo kitchen, in employees' homes, at a cooking school. And once the first steamers were in from the factory, Sohn said, she immediately handed one to a tester.

"I asked her to unscrew the handle but wouldn't tell her why." Watching to see how easily and instinctively she could do it was just another indicator of how well it worked. Or didn't.

The staff is constantly considering products to Oxoize as the company founder, Sam Farber, first did by adapting regular kitchen tools to make them more comfortable for his arthritic wife to use. A wall in the company's common room, where staffers meet and eat, is covered with single gloves found on the street, each a reminder that "hands come in all sizes." The theory of universal design, meaning one tool should fit all of them, compels Oxo to look for ways to change anything for the better.

"We do a lot of shopping, we do a lot of talking to consumers and chefs," Sohn said. "We do consumer testing, we do a lot of surveys, we talk to people we know, people our sales reps know, all over the country."

Oxonians also apparently do a lot of yelling. Sohn said product meetings among the staff can be brutal, in a culture where criticism is not just encouraged but venerated. Everyone is looking for trouble. But then, Sohn said, they all sit down and eat together to stay friendly.

Oxo takes advantage of its location on an upper floor of the Chelsea Market, a former Nabisco factory that is now Manhattan's best one-stop food source, with shops selling fish, bread, produce, meat and takeout. Oxonians can go downstairs and corral casual shoppers and professional bakers to give feedback on products under development or under consideration.

Input from outsideAND that is a crucial Oxo technique. As Lee said, people are often better at showing than they are at telling; mostly they could only articulate that the problems with the traditional Pyrex measurer were that it was "glass, hot, greasy." But watching them struggle with the cup revealed the ultimate flaw: You cannot tell how full it is without lifting it up to eye level.

The Oxo measurer has markings down the inside, large enough to read without glasses. And the latest version is made of a hard plastic that stands up better to repeated runs through the dishwasher. (Improvements in materials and technology account for many Oxo upgrades — the silicone potholder can now be bonded with fabric; plastic can adhere to stainless steel in a mixing bowl.)

The measuring cup is one of five Oxo products that were not in-house eurekas but came to the company from outside in the last 10 years. "We have some very passionate consumers," said Gretchen Holt, who handles media for the company, demonstrating to editors why "they should give a damn" about an Oxo breakthrough. Ideas also flow in from retailers and wannabe inventors.

An ice cube tray that releases one cube at a time came from a man who only insisted that the tray carry a line saying it was invented in Peru; a potato masher was suggested by a "mom in Toronto who was not looking to make money" and took a case full of mashers as payment; a mango splitter was devised by a minister from upstate New York who travels to underdeveloped countries in the tropics where mangos are a staple.

"He came up with a prototype and a video of him using it," Sohn said, but other prototypes may show up as "two paper clips stuck together with gum." One idea that did not work out was a turkey lifter that just didn't sell.

Oxo can "spend 18 months on a product and then make a decision not to go forward," Witt said. "We might find seven things needed but if they were incorporated, it would cost $900," Sohn added. "We don't believe in making something unaffordable." And that is one reason why the company is careful about embarking on products, let alone dreaming them up from scratch. As company president Lee said, "When you create something new, you create a hundred other problems."

Surprisingly, what Oxo does not do is design. The staff is made up of product managers and engineers, all focusing on the idea end. They then work with nine industrial design firms, including two in Japan, to translate pie-cutter-in-the-sky notions into eminently usable gadgets.

"The ideas of what to make and what features to offer come from here," Lee said, then designers at companies such as Smart Design in New York and Bally in Pittsburgh do the rest. Once the prototypes come back, temps are hired to test them repeatedly — throwing a chip bag clip against the floor 10,000 times, running a measuring cup through the dishwasher into soapy infinity — and the second-guessing begins.

Many products are also tested at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York, where students are "heavy, heavy users — one month at ICE is the equivalent of years in someone's home," Holt said. The cutting boards Oxo started selling this year tested so well, in fact, they are now bought by the school; special edges keep the boards from slipping.

Sohn said the company did not target either chefs or home cooks but intended all its products to be equally useful to both. But many turn up in restaurants, particularly the mandoline, which she said is in the kitchen at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York. And that mandoline may be a long way from a potato peeler, but Oxo approached it with the same goal.

"We started looking at how can we make a mandoline better," Lee said. "One of the first things you identify is that it's very dangerous. People get it out and they're afraid of it. We spent a lot of time with Smart Design trying to figure out how to make it safe. But you don't always get what you want. You can't make it safe. It's like a knife — how can you make it cut smoothly without losing what makes it dangerous? So we abandoned that.

"We eventually identified a whole bunch of things that could improve the mandoline: The blade slides out; the legs are spread out to make it more stable as you're slicing; a two-sided blade hides underneath. Each change was very incremental, addressing a very particular thing, and in the end we got a product that is very highly rated. It might not jump out to the consumer, but it's improved."

Tongs, reinterpretedTHAT was also the case with Oxo's reinterpretation of kitchen tongs, Lee said. "The designer wanted to reinvent them, but the French have been using the classic kind for a hundred years." And so the basic design stayed the same, but Oxo added pads on the sides to make them easier to grip in greasy hands, designed the sides to lie flat on a pan, made them fold flat for storage and added a hook for hanging.

In January, Oxo introduced precision tongs, with a tip designed to pick up tiny foods. While those were developed for the Japanese market, as were products such as a miso soup maker and a daikon grater, they crossed over into universal design.

Not everything turns to squishy gold in Oxo's hands, though. Lee said an attempt to make a better bagel slicer was a disaster because it was designed using bagels from the tri-state area around company headquarters.

When it was unveiled at the housewares show in Chicago that year, the local bagels were smaller and did not fit. After struggling to adapt it to fit bagels of any size, the company ultimately gave up. "If we had known how hard it was," Lee said, "we would have designed it from scratch."

Oxo has already expanded into home and garden products and has just developed a line of tools such as hammers and screwdrivers. But no one there seems to think just anything in the house can be Oxoized. Lee said people are always coming up to him at parties and suggesting he tackle a garage door opener, for instance.

For now, they're sticking to basting brushes and poultry shears, the ones that will be in stores in the next month or two, the ones that evolved to solve problems ordinary Americans never think about.

But then while we are sleeping, Oxonians like Michelle Sohn are literally dreaming of the next little thing.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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