Nobody is going to look back on the enormous toll of 2020 — the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, the vanished jobs, the businesses that close and never re-open — and think, “What really stung was losing the Home + Housewares Show.”
Most Chicagoans barely noticed when it was scrapped in early March. Heck, few notice when the show is held. Which is why I go. The Chicago Auto Show, a month before, draws the big media circus. I seldom go to that.
Why? Cars are easy; sponge mops are not. Six hours trudging past McCormick Place booths crammed with cutting boards and blenders, travel cups and bath mats, hand soap and slicers, and I’m in my groove. And, yes, there are celebrities: I once ran into Ron Popeil. We talked about his Veg-O-Matic.
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to read something that isn’t about the vaporous death that cannot be lied away.
So, I hatched a plan: present my own little virtual Home + Housewares Show; call a few companies and try to find out what new kind of vegetable brush got lost in the general conflagration.
That plan got as far as Matt Roberts and Greg Owens, co-owners of Liberty Tabletop.
“Matt and I worked for Oneida,” Owens said. “We both worked for them, running the factory.”
Oneida made silverware in Upstate New York for 125 years. But this was in the early 2000s, and China was beginning to not only eat our lunch but make the cutlery to do it.
“In the early 1980s, China made no flatware,” Owens said. “What is a fork? Stainless steel shaped and polished. If you could buy metal subsidized by your government, you’re going to gobble up business. That’s what happened. Oneida could literally buy the finished product cheaper than they could buy stainless steel to make it.”
More than a factory was imperiled. There was the town around it.
“Sherrill, New York, is the smallest city in New York state,” Roberts said. “Twenty-five hundred inhabitants. The closest thing to Mayberry in existence. It was built by the Oneida community, begun in 1848. Very industrious. They’ve made flatware continuously since the 1870s.”
Oneida closed its Sherrill factory on March 21, 2005. Roberts and Owens opened Sherrill Manufacturing March 22, 2005.
At first, they focused on doing what the Chinese couldn’t. “Certain intricate patterns, they couldn’t figure out how to manufacture,” Owens said.
They were just learning how to keep afloat when the great recession of 2008 hit. They survived the way we all do: somehow, declaring bankruptcy in 2010.
“We told our creditors: Look, we have this idea to create an American brand,” Roberts said. ”Our business model was created by fact that internet retail started.”
Plug “American-made flatware” into Google and up pops, No. 1, “libertytabletop.com.” That isn’t an accident. Liberty pays Google good coin, and enough people like the idea of their knives and forks being made in the USA that they’ll pay more.
“That is our marketing angle,” Roberts said. “The bulk of our raw materials are made in the United States. Most of our steel comes from Allegheny Ludlum in Pittsburgh, from North American Stainless Steel in Tennessee.”
You can also get unusual patterns, like skulls. I figured there had to be a story there, and there was. “We had a group of employees come to us and say, ‘There is a huge market for zombies and skulls,’ ” Owens said. “They made these prototypes out of brass. We had a staff meeting; everyone around table said, ‘No way we’re putting our name on the back of that. That’s ridiculous.’ But these guys wouldn’t give up.”
So they took a risk on their Calavera line.
“It flew off the shelves,” Roberts said. “I made a thousand sets; within a month they were gone. ... Immediately, we turned flatware into an impulse buy.”
It was for me. Thinking a piece of Calavera flatware could make a nice memento mori and a keepsake of 2020 — assuming it ever ends and I survive — I went online and purchased a tablespoon for $3.95.
“We’re poised for growth,” Roberts said. “We have about 50 employees, and we have the ability to triple that. This COVID could become a boon. People are buying from home and want things made in the United States.”