VF Gourmet Succeeds with Kitchen Gadgets

June 2, 2010 12:54 pm in Endorser & Company News by Education Team

from the Morning Sentinel, Waterville, ME

for+ms+color+3+cols+soupnu+copy.JPGNEWPORT — In a factory on the shore of Sebasticook Lake, a worker loads wooden pepper mill tops onto a huge machine. They’ve been lathed and sanded, and soon will march like little soldiers past paint jets for a finish of cinnamon red, turquoise, dark orange, cobalt blue or some other equally luscious color.

“Most of the machines here are one of a kind, especially in the drumstick area,” says Vic Firth, owner of the factory. “We designed every one of them.” Did he say “drumstick area?”

Yes, this is the same Vic Firth whose drumsticks are used by symphony percussionists and rockers everywhere, including Ozzy Osbourne’s drummer Mike Bordin, Joey Barnes of Daughtry, Anton Fig of “The Late Show with David Letterman” and the drummers for Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Pink, Lou Reed, Elton John and Jimmy Buffett.

Firth’s lakeside Maine factory is best known for manufacturing up to 85,000 drumsticks a day. But the company also has a “Vic Firth Gourmet” division. Its high-end pepper mills and salt mills are as coveted by home cooks as the drumsticks are by musicians.

Firth’s lakeside Maine factory is best known for manufacturing up to 85,000 drumsticks a day. But the company also has a “Vic Firth Gourmet” division. Its high-end pepper mills and salt mills are as coveted by home cooks as the drumsticks are by musicians.

Vic Firth Gourmet is also known for its rolling pins made with real ball bearings for a smoother glide. Just six weeks ago, the company rolled out a new muddler for making mojitos, mint juleps and other cocktails that contain crushed herbs, fruits and spices.

“It’s got kind of a unique design,” said Mike Gault, vice president of manufacturing at Vic Firth Gourmet. “It’s larger than other muddlers, so it’s easier to handle, and each end of the muddler is sized for a specific tumbler size.”

But it’s the pepper mills that have the most personality. They are known for their strong grind and sleek design — and for the patented stainless steel grinding mechanism that can be removed for cleaning.

Vic Firth pepper mills can be found in stores such as Crate & Barrel, Macy’s and Sur la Table, and on the dining tables of the Four Seasons in Boston and the Hilton in Orlando. Emeril Lagasse used them on his cooking show, where Firth once appeared to play the drums while Lagasse prepared chicken drumsticks.

How did Firth go from being the man whose innovations revolutionized drumsticks — he now holds 55 percent of the world market — to being a manufacturer of pepper mills and other kitchen products?

A native of Sanford, Firth spent 50 years as the principal timpanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, playing with some of the world’s best conductors. He began making his own custom drumsticks in 1963, sorting and pairing them by weight, pitch and size.

It turns out all the things Firth wanted to “fix” about drumsticks resonated with other percussionists as well. Sales soared.

“We had a factory in Kingfield that couldn’t keep up with the demand, so we finally moved the operation over here to Newport,” said Firth, 80. “Along with the mill that we purchased came all these other businesses.”

At the time Firth bought the Newport mill, it was also making caps for perfume and liquor, wooden fruit, baseball bats and vacuum cleaner parts. Eventually, Firth decided to jettison everything but the drumsticks and the gourmet division, which was doing well.

Dave Crocker, Firth’s chief engineer, is responsible for the nuts and bolts of the mills sold by the company, but Firth designs their shapes and styles himself. He gets inspiration everywhere, from ballet dancers to old Roman gates. The Kismet style, 7 inches tall with the look of a curvy minaret, was inspired by the idea of “Arabian nights.”

“You get some unique shapes,” Firth said. “But some of them are not so easy to do because you’ve got to allow for a rod and you can’t do a square, you can’t do triangular. It’s also got to be comfortable in your hand.”

There’s a pepper mill designed by Crocker that looks like a lighthouse, and a snowman pepper mill to keep throats and tummies warm in winter. A specialty mill called Columbia, aka “the upside down mill,” looks like a sleek spaceship. It’s designed to be stored on its top so it won’t leave pepper dust on the table.

A stainless steel pump-and-grind model has become especially popular with women who tote the mills around in their purses.

“We got the idea for that from a trumpet valve,” Firth said. “Put three of them together, and you can play the trumpet.”

The wooden pepper mills come in natural rock maple or cherry, or with a color finish. The most popular color, Gault said, is cinnabar (red). The company just added turquoise, goldenrod (yellow) and eggplant.

Firth recently made some pink pepper mills for a breast cancer fundraiser, certain they would do well after the surprising popularity of his pink drumsticks. (“Who would have ever thought these rock and rollers would buy a pink drumstick?”)

Firth has teamed up with famous drummers to design signature drumsticks. He’s done the same with a couple of celebrity chefs, whose endorsements have helped to increase sales of the pepper mills.

The celebrity collaborations began with Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, chef/owners of the Border Grill restaurants in Santa Monica, Calif., and Las Vegas, and Ciudad in Los Angeles. The women have authored numerous cookbooks and made frequent appearances on the Food Network.

Firth still recalls with amusement his first meeting with celebrity chef Mario Batali, whom he met at Batali’s New York restaurant OTTO. They started discussing what color Batali’s pepper mill should be. Batali was not the big star that he is now, so Firth was unfamiliar with the chef’s proclivity for orange, especially orange kitchen clogs. “He said, ‘Oh, it has to be orange.’

“Orange? Who wants an orange peppermill?” Firth said. “He said ‘Well, I like orange.’ I said ‘Me too, but I don’t want an orange pepper mill.’

“Then he said, ‘Look at my shoes.’

Today, Vic Firth Gourmet produces 2,500 to 3,000 pepper mills per month. Depending on the size, style, and where they’re sold, the pepper mills can range from $20 to $70 each.

The company is based in Boston, so Firth drives up to Newport once a week to check out the operation. He greets the factory workers with a smile as he roams the floor, stopping occasionally to shake hands or chat.

He shows off one of the muddlers in progress, which are so new that right now they are only being shipped to Bargreen’s, a distributor of barware, and Sur La Table, which just picked up the item. But they are wildly popular already, thanks to the cocktail craze.

“We sort of did that on a whim,” Firth said. “The demand has gone crazy. We can’t make them fast enough.”

Firth travels a lot to market his drumsticks in places like Spain, Germany, London and Japan. Soon, he’ll be off to London to hold a master class with Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones.

Wherever Firth goes, when he eats in a restaurant he’ll ask for some pepper. When the mill comes, “I don’t have to look at the bottom to see if it’s been made by me.”

If a restaurant uses one of his mills, Firth gushes about how well it works, he confesses with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. “I never tell them it’s mine.”