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Vita Craft, Kansas City’s Cookware Secret, Marks 78 Years in Business

By Robin Mather

The seed of an idea hatched over a round of golf in 1939 has grown into a cookware manufacturing business that flourishes today in Kansas City, Kansas.

20151117_132842Glen Slough, Eddie Durwachter and Win Cook, all direct cookware salesmen, weren’t happy with their company’s opportunities. The trio decided to manufacture a superior product with better design, and Vita Craft was born. The budding company flourished with direct sales only, but in 1943 the company closed briefly because the war effort diverted the materials need to manufacture the cookware. When the War Production Board granted Vita Craft a license to resume making its products in 1945, the company was back in business and hasn’t looked back since.

From its beginnings as a direct-sale company, Vita Craft is now moving into the retail market with its own line. Cookware retailers who are interested in its products will find Vita Craft at the International Home and Housewares Show.

Vita Craft has been pleasing customers for decades with its waterless, greaseless cooking systems. Its careful construction means food can cook quickly and easily with virtually no additional water or fats, cleanup is easy and the pots and pans can last a lifetime – or two.

B6702.6001In addition to its high-quality construction, one of Vita Craft’s chief selling points is its lifetime guarantee for consumers, and the company backs that 100 percent, says Gary Martin, Vita Craft’s President today. “I’ll still replace handles, no matter how old the pan is,” he says. “If you have a Vita Craft pan, I’ll take care of it. And if you have someone else’s pan, I’ll try to fix that, too.” The company also partners with a number of cooking schools, and gives those clients a three-year warranty, because they use the pans much harder than an ordinary home cook would do, he says.

“Home users take care of their cookware, because they see it as an asset,” he says. “Commercial users see it as a cost of doing business, and expect to replace it every couple of years.”

TylerFlorenceThe company also does private-label manufacturing, including a special line for chef and Food Network star Tyler Florence. “Vita Craft was the first set of pots and pans that I learned to cook with when I was probably eight years old. No kidding, it’s the most durable, easy-to-use cookware I’ve ever had,” Florence says. “And I think they’re stunning.”

In his cookware line, long upswept handles offset the pans’ weight, making them easy to lift even when filled with food. The metal knobs and riveted handles lend the pans a contemporary appearance shared with Vita Craft’s commercial line. As for Vita Craft’s own line, Martin says, “we knew it required some redesign when we began to go into the commercial and retail business about six years ago.”

The changes are cosmetic, not structural. “We still make our pans with five plies: surgical stainless steel, and an aluminum core that goes all the way up the sides to the rim,” he says. “Our handles are phenolic resin,” – like Bakelite, he adds – “And not plastic, so they can take the oven’s heat – up to 400 degrees.”

But the oven-safe handles may be the least of the cookware’s features. The pots, pans and lid are dishwasher safe. Vita Craft’s pots and pans are designed to accommodate a self-storing lid. When food is heated in the pan, the lid creates a vapor seal that means the food inside can be cooked quickly and easily in its own juices. The vapor seal is created by heating the food over medium heat, then reducing the heat to low for the appropriate time. Users know the vapor seal has been created and it’s time to reduce the heat when the lid is hot to the touch and spins freely.

There’s another Vita Craft benefit that its users love: stack cooking. The company has designed its pans so that lids can be inverted and other pans can stack atop them. The five-ply construction conducts heat up the sides of the pan and transfers heat to the upper vessel. “We engineered 32 basic variations into the system,” boasts the company’s website.

Stack cooking means that a roast and vegetables can go in the bottom pan, additional vegetables can go into a pan that sits atop the bottom pan, and a cake can bake in a top pan resting on the middle pan. Using lower temperatures and just one burner means stack cooking energy savings, says the website.

DSC_5580With 70 percent of its sales in exports to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, where it is consistently praised as the best cookware available, most of the company’s domestic sales come from a few remaining direct sales people, with a few in-home salespeople and some bridal business sales. Marmaru Imura is the CEO and major shareholder in Vita Craft. He’s based in Kobe, Japan, and also happens to have been the largest Vita Craft distributor. He learned about Vita Craft while he attended Harvard University. The story goes that he learned about Vita Craft from a family friend of the Rockefellers, whose chef would only use Vitacraft cookware. “Over in Japan, the cookware is in department stores – they would have a space inside the store staffed with their own people,” Martin says. Imura is responsible for making Vita Craft into a household name in Japan.

Imura bought the company in 2002, and has said that his goal has been to make sure that Vita Craft remains a “made in the USA” product, according to the company’s website. Vita Craft makes its pots and pans in the 78,000-square foot plant where the company got its beginnings. Over the years, it has expanded, built on and converted buildings as it grew, but it still incorporates the company’s original footprint. With about 31 employees, all but one of them full-time, Gary says, the company’s now running two shifts. “We have been up to three shifts, but it’s a little bit seasonal,” Martin says. Several of the employees have been with the company for 30 years or more, and for some, Vita Craft has been their first and only job.

Since Martin joined Vita Craft in 1993, he’s been a hands-on boss, including interview potential employees. “They should have some mechanical aptitude, but the most important thing to me is that they should have some ethics.” As we tour the plant, employee after employee greets Martin, calling him by his first name and smiling at me. “I never could do the invisible boss thing,” he says. Again and again, Martin points out equipment that has been in use since the company began. “We’re still making cookware the same way as they were making it in the beginning,” he says.

“Vita Craft’s an old company, but we’re not old in thought. We evolve with the times. We’re a real brick-and-mortar store with real people who have real families. We work hard, and we go home dirty at the end of the day,” Martin says. There’s pride in his voice when he says that. Pride, and a great deal of love for the work he does.

Hammer Stahl Partners with Celebrity Chef & Television Host Andrew Zimmern as Exclusive Cookware Sponsor of AZ Cooks

Hammer Stahl has signed on as the exclusive cookware sponsor for the new digital series, AZ Cooks, hosted and created by Andrew Zimmern, the four-time James Beard Award winning TV personality, author, teacher and chef. Zimmern is universally recognized as one of the most versatile and knowledgeable personalities in the food world, and the digital series brings this world traveler back home and into the kitchen.

While Zimmern is best known for traveling the world and expanding people’s culinary boundaries, AZ Cooks focuses on cooking tips and practical instructions. The informative and engaging digital series includes how-to-videos which introduce viewers to classic dishes and family favorites, and also aims to empower cooks of all skill levels by decoding the sometimes intimidating dishes inspired by his travels. Zimmern demystifies food ingredients and preparation, and delivers easily digestible, straightforward information to the home chef.

“We are thrilled to partner with Andrew Zimmern. He embodies the love of great food and is passionate about its preparation and enhancing people’s culinary skills, which we embrace with our brand,” said Bobby Griggs, Vice President, Hammer Stahl. “We look forward to working with Andrew and leveraging his expertise to enhance the one-of-a-kind cooking experience we deliver to home cooks, with new inspirations and new techniques.”

This partnership is the first of its kind for Hammer Stahl and the digital series will showcase its signature American Clad cookware. Crafted in Tennessee, American Clad is the product of a proud 150-year history of small batch, high-quality stainless steel cookware manufacturing in the U.S.

Hammer Stahl, unlike other cookware manufacturers, recently chose to upgrade its entire American Clad line to the more highly-prized 316Ti interior surface from the traditional 304SS. The new 7-ply 316Ti titanium-enhanced stainless steel – the most durable, clean and inert cooking surface on the market – helps ensure that food retains its natural, authentic flavors, a quality Chef Zimmern can get behind.

“What really transforms food is using the right tools, with the right ingredients, to create the best results.   With American Clad my food retains its clean, natural flavors,” said Andrew Zimmern. “Hammer Stahl and I share the belief that cooking at home can be a transformative event, and an opportunity to share traditions and explore cultures through food.”

“We are excited to see what Andrew creates in our cookware. Through AZ Cooks, viewers will have a great opportunity to see the full potential of our product and what it can offer them in their own homes – while inspiring new recipes at the same time,” said Griggs. “Andrew is renowned for his wide breadth of food knowledge and AZ Cooks aims to bring that explorational zeal and, like Hammer Stahl, help to bring culinary literacy into the home kitchen.”

American Clad cookware featured on AZ Cooks will be available for purchase on AndrewZimmern.com. For general information, visit www.hammerstahl.com.

Cast Iron Teapots from SCI

SCI for webSCI (Scandicrafts Cuisine Internationale) carries an impressive collection of artistically crafted cast iron teapots. Each teapot is designed with exquisite detail. All uniquely display a warm sense of tradition with a contemporary flair.

Each of SCI’s teapots comes with a matching cast iron trivet. Some sets also include matching teacups. Each teapot includes a removable stainless steel mesh infuser, making it perfect for both loose leaves and tea bags.

Cast iron teapots are ideal since the cast iron distributes the heat evenly inside the pot to better extract the flavors and health benefits of your tea. A distinctively appealing taste is acquired only from brewing tea in a cast iron teapot. Cast iron teapots develop a seasoning from repeated use, producing richly flavored cups of tea that are each more delicious than the last.

Suggested retail prices range from $63.00 to $80.00.

Small Batch Cast Iron

By Micah Cheek

Even in a world of advanced nonsticks and lightweight aluminum saute pans, cast iron maintains a strong presence for functionality and strength. There is a whole internet subculture dedicated to finding and restoring vintage cast iron, in part because vintage cast iron was polished to a smooth finish after being cast. This increased the cast iron’s nonstick properties, but significantly raised the cost of production. Gradually, consumers turned to less expensive options with a rougher, more pebbly texture. Now, consumers are looking for higher quality cast iron with a more refined surface.

One cast iron producer, Stargazer Cast Iron, was started out of an interest in vintage cookware. “I got into cast iron as a hobby, I was collecting it and obsessing with it,” says Peter Huntley, Chief Executive Officer of Stargazer. “I thought I had something to contribute here. Even with the vintage ones, there were some design changes to be made, so that’s where my design came from.” Huntley used his background in both design and dinnerware industries to build his ideal pan from the ground up. One big factor was the smooth surface that older designs had. “I had experimented at home with different materials. It seemed attainable to me. It seemed like the kind of thing that should be done in production rather than the end user having to,” says Huntley. “The surface finish is what got the ball rolling, but we’ve made some other changes. One of them is weight. We kept weight in mind in every step of the process. The weight of cast iron is what makes it retain heat, but we’ve made it very manageable.”

Luke Trovato, Chief Marketing Officer of Stargazer, notes that the growing market for high end cast iron has to do with utility and sourcing. “Initially we were figuring out which demographic would be there, we’ve found that we sell across all demographics, a lot of people are interested in American-made products,” says Trovato. “It’s branched out a bit. We haven’t had a ton of advertising, but it’s definitely growing from the cast iron group. There are some people who are looking for their first cookware. A younger crowd buying cookware for the first time is looking for a workhorse for the kitchen. There’s a rededication for cast iron, so that’s something we’re looking to build on.”

The folks at Stargazer were also surprised to find how often cast iron was being bought as a gift. “From the social media aspect, it caught on and people spread the word. When people get their orders, there’s a ripple effect out of that,” says Trovato. “We’ve had people who get theirs, like it, and then buy a couple more as gifts.” The community that forms around cast iron is also always looking for new ways to cook with the material. “Dutch ovens and griddles are popular ones, we’ve had requests for a wok as well. We’ve had requests for lids, we’re looking at something like a universal lid that can fit everything,” says Trovato. “Some guy wanted some huge pot from us, he even gave us dimensions and it was enormous.”

New buyers of small batch cast iron might be confused at the color of the cookware that comes out of the box. The deep black color of most cast iron comes from two stages of production. After the casting process, mass produced pieces aren’t polished and retain a rough finish. After that, preseasoning takes place. At an assembly line, a thick layer of seasoning oil is applied by a sprayer and treated at high heat to speed up the process of seasoning. These factors combine to make the dark grey and black surfaces that cast iron is known for. But, Trovato notes, this doesn’t have to be the case. Stargazer’s polishing and hand-seasoning makes a pan that looks different from mass produced models. Stargazer pans have thin, hand-applied layers of oil seasoned at a lower heat, which makes the finished pans distinctly lighter in color. “Ours start a little bronzer. People are curious about why it looks different. A lot of people don’t realize it starts silver, just like any other metal, and as you cook with it more it’ll turn black,” says Trovato.

Another appeal of cast iron is a distrust of nonstick cookware. “You’ve seen a lot more concern about where [customers’] foods come from. Those concerns tie into the health concerns around nonstick coatings,” says Trovato. “I’ve had more than a couple customers mention things like ‘space age nonstick coating,’ there’s some skepticism around it. The more natural feel of cast iron is something that really appeal to them.” Consumers are also looking for something that will last longer. “I do think in general there’s a shift away from disposability, people will know they’re going to be replacing [aluminum nonstick pans] in two years,” says Trovato. “If they invest in cast iron they’re never going to replace it. People just want something more permanent.”

Keeping College Kids Cooking

By Micah Cheek

It’s time for parents to prepare their kids for college, and kitchenware has an important place in keeping students fed and happy.

College housing is notoriously persnickety about what kinds of appliances are allowed inside. One major college forbids the use of all of the following for use inside a dorm room: Coffee makers, hot plates, toasters, toaster ovens, popcorn poppers and any other electrical appliance with a heating element. This leaves students with only a microwave if they don’t want to use a hall kitchen. Luckily, the microwave doesn’t have to limit a student to Hot Pockets. Silicone and plastic steamers and microwave containers like those from Lekue make it easy to steam vegetables, cook eggs and even boil pasta using only the microwave. For more information, visit www.lekueusa.com.

Approved appliances can be used in hall kitchens, and having a stovetop or an oven available opens up lots of options. Chef Will Brown from Atlanta, Georgia recommends some basic tools to get the best out of a kitchen when pressed for time and space. Having one appliance that can complete a number of tasks is a big help. Brown recommends a pressure cooker with some smart technology to make things easier. “You’re able to make three to four meals in minutes. It measures everything for you. You put it in the pot and it weighs it and sets the time for you,” says Brown. The new Electric Pressure Cooker from T-fal is designed to function as a versatile and easy-to-use tool in the home kitchen. The pressure cooker has 12 automatic functions, including Rice, Oatmeal, Slow Cook, Reheat, Soup, Baking, Yogurt, Baby Food, Brown, Pressure Cook and DIY. This multicooker has a delayed start and is an even easier alternative to stovetop pressure cooking, and carries a suggested retail price of $99.99. For more information, visit www.t-falusa.com. Remember to check colleges’ guidelines, because some schools allow more or different small electrics than others.

Thick-walled aluminum pans are a great pick for everyday searing and frying, and the light weight can make it easier for students to use and store. “Cast aluminum is not that heavy, and you still get that even distribution,” says Brown. Nordicware has nonstick-coated cast aluminum saute skillets in both eight and 10 inch sizes with suggested retail prices ranging from $60 to $80. For more information, visit www.nordicware.com.

Chef Brown also recommends outfitting a basic set of flavoring options. “Have a base of garlic powder, onion powder and oregano; those always make the meal taste great,” says Brown. “Then make it into your own. Some people like green onion — you can use it in anything.”

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