How the Microplane grater escaped the garage
RUSSELVILLE, Ark. "You mean it's only going to be used in the kitchen?"
That's what Richard Grace, a founder of Grace Manufacturing, based here in the Arkansas River Valley, said in 1995 when he learned that his Microplane brand rasp — designed to be mounted on a hacksaw frame and used by woodworkers — was being bought in great numbers by home cooks to zest citrus and grate hard cheeses.
"I didn't set out to make cheese graters," Grace, an engineer by education, said recently. In 1977, he moved south from Michigan to a town 75 miles northwest of Little Rock in search of a warmer climate and more favorable small-business taxes.
"I thought I was making serious woodworking tools," he continued. "To see them used in the kitchen, that was frankly a personal disappointment." Grace Manufacturing, which now employs more than 300 people at a manufacturing plant here and an assembly plant in Querétaro, Mexico, has in the years since helped establish a new segment of the housewares industry.
"It used to be that you only needed to have a chef's knife and a paring knife in your kitchen," said Peter Degnan, director of merchandising for the San Francisco-based retailer Williams-Sonoma. "You don't think you need a food processor, but once you have one, you wonder how you ever lived without it. The same goes for the Microplane tools."
The direction of Grace Manufacturing was determined by a simple observation, made far from the kitchen. The year was 1985 or thereabouts. Grace's son Chris, now the company's chief executive, was in high school, working afternoons at the family plant, where the company was contract-manufacturing printer parts.
Those parts were sharp, not by specific design, but because etching steel printer bands with ferric chloride, a corrosive salt, resulted in bands with razor-sharp edges. (In 1992 the Patent Office assigned the company patent 5100506 for their proprietary masking and etching process.)
"Back then, if you worked in the plant, it wasn't a question of whether you were going to cut your finger, but when," Chris Grace said. "It got to be that, on the way to the Band-Aid station, you'd see a drop of blood every 5 feet."
With dot-matrix printers on the horizon, and obsolescence for their products not far behind, the company rethought its offerings. "The blood on the floor gave us the answer," recalled Chris Grace. "We realized we were good at making sharp things. And so we thought, what can we make that's sharp?"
The answer, articulated by Richard Grace and his children, was a line of woodworking tools.
Grace Manufacturing, which posts more than $20 million in annual sales, since has added a medical product line that includes a sphere-shaped tool called an acetabular reamer, used by surgeons to prepare human hip sockets for implants, and a device for grinding bone into paste that Chris Grace calls a "Cuisinart for orthopedists."
No matter the initial family reluctance to apply their patented technology to the cookware realm, Microplane now makes more than 40 products for the kitchen, including pizza cutters, herb mills, salt shavers and graters specifically designed to render chocolate ribbons.
Sales of culinary tools, based on that original woodworking application, account for 65 percent of the company's income. Unlike the consumer popularity of, say, Viking Range, the Greenwood, Miss., corporation that sold home cooks on professional-style stoves, and Demarle, the French concern that brought the Silpat brand of fiberglass and silicone baking mats to the United States, the success of Microplane in the culinary marketplace was not premeditated.
"We laughed when people told us they were using our products in their kitchens," recalled Microplane's website and woodworking-products manager, Maria Grace, one of Richard Grace's daughters. "But we didn't turn down their orders."
Some consumers loved the renegade notion of working in the kitchen with a tool designed for planing a 2-by-4. Others bought Microplanes because the tools' tiny scalpel-like ridges sliced precisely while traditional graters relied on stamped metal thorns to roughly shred foods. "I don't think that even chefs understood at the time what these tools made possible," said Leonard Lee, founder of Lee Valley Tools in Ottawa, Ontario. "When you grind a hard cheese, you get little cubes with little surface area. When you use a Microplane and shave a cheese into ribbons, you get five times the surface area.
"And when you maximize the surface area, you put more of the cheese in contact with the taste buds," said Lee, whose wife, Lorraine Lee, was one of the first to imagine the kitchen crossover possibilities in 1994. "That maximizes taste."
Early proponents of Microplane products included cooking-school teachers such as Shirley Corriher, the Atlanta-based author who, in the late 1990s, demonstrated the proper way to zest by stroking a Microplane across a lemon as if "playing a violin."
The press fueled the hype. In 1999, the Dallas Morning News promised, "This grater turns Parmigiano-Reggiano into baby-fine clouds."
In the intervening years, Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and a number of other television mavens who rely on just one name for identification have offered unsolicited endorsements of Microplane products.
Chefs and bartenders have begun stashing the tools in their knife rolls. At Blackbird in Chicago, Paul Kahan uses a paddle-shaped Microplane to shave fennel into vinaigrettes. At the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., servers use stick-shaped Microplanes to shave black truffles over pasta. Greg Best, an owner of Holeman and Finch Public House in Atlanta, uses one of the tools to break down star anise for bitters and ginger root for ginger beer. "I like the control I get when I Microplane," he said, using the product name as a verb, as many industry professionals do.
Chris Grace and his family now research the wants and needs of food-obsessed consumers, and, in an effort to comprehend their market, they watch the Food Network.
"If your child was an actor, you'd watch for him," he explained. "Same deal with us and our Microplanes."
But the Grace family has not joined the culinary cognoscenti. At a recent dinner, when a waitress asked Richard Grace what wine he would like with his steak, he replied, with a gusto that signaled he knows his own palate, "Which one is sweetest?"
Graters and rasps are, in the world according to Grace, sharp tools, designed for efficient work. Nothing more. "We're form-follows-function kind of people," Grace's daughter Maria said.
Grace Manufacturing is still driven by engineering. Chris and Maria Grace are now at the forefront. But Richard Grace still tinkers, for there's still work to do.
Despite numerous requests from wholesalers and retailers, Microplane has yet to develop a pepper mill or an ice shaver. Among Richard Grace's long-term projects is the development of a stainless-steel version of sandpaper, a goal that, if realized, could return the company to the woodworking forefront. Last month, the company faced down its toughest challenge when Grace Manufacturing's United States patent on its process expired.
In anticipation of that day, the Grace family had begun preparations long before, expanding into new markets and seeking unsuspected applications for existing products.
Following the lead of a customer who — when dressing for a summer wedding where she wore sandals — grated calluses from her soles with a Microplane, Grace Manufacturing started selling files in 2004 for shaving desiccated skin from human feet.
"Not everyone zests," said Chris Grace, sounding the pragmatic tone that characterizes the family ethic. "But everyone has calluses on their feet, or they know someone who does."