The floor rattles a little bit when the large gear that hovers above turns and discharges 750 tons of pressure. After a swishing, a clunk and a release, a round piece of metal takes its first step toward a destiny to serve thousands of dinners over decades of use.
Vita Craft pots and pans have been made in essentially the same way in Shawnee for more than 70 years — but most people in town have never heard of them. They are, however, a household name in Japan. That’s right. Japan.
Local workers, your neighbors, make hundreds of thousands of top-quality pots and pans each year in an unassuming brown building behind City Hall in Shawnee. These are the kinds of pots and pans professional chefs leave other brands to use. These are the kinds of pans grandma and grandpa used every morning to fry eggs. They last for decades, a lifetime. The vast majority of this Shawnee-made cookware is shipped to happy waiting customers across the Pacific Ocean, thanks to a Japa nese salesman who took the product home and now owns this Kansas company.
As cooking season heats up, and buying local grows ever bigger, Vita Craft leaders are trying to make their made-in-the-U.S. product as popular in the U.S. as it is in Japan. Kansas City has become the first test market in a fight to get American retailers to recognize the product and put it on the shelves. If their plan works, the company could be an overnight success 76 years in the making.
Vita Craft is at a crossroads. The direct sales model on which the company was founded has taken a dive in the last 20 years — gone, like the door-to-door salesman — to the Internet. Boom times of the 1990s, when the company ran three shifts, have been reduced to treading water with one shift filling mostly Japan-bound orders. To build U.S. business, they have developed a new line of commercial cookware to appeal to the retail and commercial market.
Vita Craft was founded in 1939 by three East Coast cookware salesmen who believed they could make a better product than the one they were selling. The company moved to Kansas City in its early years. Shortly after World War II, it moved to the Shawnee location at 58th Street and Nieman Road, where it still operates.
Folks like to say that things are not made the way they used to be, but that’s not true in the case of Vita Craft. That circular piece of metal is still punched out of the same machine that made the cookware generations ago.
The machines that start the process of a piece of metal turning into a Vita Craft pan have served for more than 70 years, forming millions of pots and pans in their decades of service. The forms are changed depending on the pot. The metal has been updated with the times. Grades of metals change.
“If these machines break, we fix them,” says Vita Craft President Gary Martin. “I have refused to cheapen the product.”
The machines use a forming process that makes the cookware the same thickness all the way around. “It takes a lot of pressure to do that without tearing it up,” Martin said.
Thus the need for the company’s four gigantic presses. Many other pots and pans are “stamped” in what Martin calls a cookie-cutter approach. At Vita Craft, the process is called punching, where they deep-draw the metal around to whatever size and depth they need. The result is a surface that heats evenly all the way around, like a mini oven on the stovetop. You could cook a cake in it.
Kerri Keeney, Vita Craft’s commercial mar keting manager, said the company’s pans also have a unique curve to the bottom that makes them stable on a stovetop and able to cook evenly.
“When you heat the pan it becomes flat so it will not rock on the burner or spin on the burner,” Keeney said. “If you have a pan that’s perfectly flat it will rock around. The curve is how we make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s something we’ve done for a long time. Not a lot of manufacturers do that. It’s not the industry standard.”
Dozens of hands will touch the piece of formed metal as it moves methodically through the process of becoming a Vita Craft pan. Hands will place it on several buffing wheels to give it shine. Hands will place it in a specialized machine that uses oil and a fine-grain sandpaper to put that universal swirl on the bottom and create a matte interior finish, which makes cleaning easier. Hands will put it in the racks for a high-powered wash. Hands will carry it to the polisher and give it a gleam. Hands will grab it with white gloves and measure it to make sure it meets exact standards. Then, a discerning eye — inspector Pat Aleman’s discerning eye — will look for imperfections and send it back for specks and flaws most people would miss.
Aleman has worked at Vita Craft for 20 years. That kind of tenure is not uncommon at the company. “I like the people I work with. I like what I do. People are surprised by what I do. There are a lot of people who don’t know about us,” Aleman said.
Sometimes when she and co-workers take breaks outside, people working next door at Shawnee City Hall will ask her what they do inside the building. They are nearly always surprised when she tells them.
They may be excused, though. The company has been super low-profile, not even putting the name on the outside of the building until 2003.
Part of what Aleman likes about the company is that she’s working with a product she has tested.
“I bought my set when I started here and it still looks brand new,” Aleman said.
The company has a tight-knit crew of 28 people running one shift a day, down from 60 to 80 employees running two shifts in better times as recently as last year. Aleman’s son works next to her putting handles on the pots she passes. Most of the employees are long-timers serving 10 years and more.
Upstairs, Gary Masters is one of the workers who start the whole process by operating that press with up to 750 tons of pressure. He has been on the job 15 years and can make about 1,000 of those pot shapes a day — depending on the size of the pan.
“I’m proud of what I do and the product that I make,” Masters said. “That’s one reason I keep doing what I’m doing. Most people are surprised anything is made in the U.S.A. anymore, let alone in a small city in Kansas.”
It might be hard to understand why Vita Craft, a company that has been making a solid product for so long, is not already a familiar name — at least in Kansas City.
It has to do with the company’s business model. When those three cookware salesmen start ed the company, the most common way to move merchandise was through a door-to-door salesman. They had in-home demonstrators and went to state fairs, bridal shows and trade shows, hanging pans for sale on racks in the back of trucks.
“It was kind of like the way encyclopedias were sold,” Martin said.
A Japanese college student named Mamoru Imura discovered the product when he was an American college student in the 1970s. The story about how he discovered Vita Craft is a bit of a legend. One story says he sold pots and pans to put himself through college. Another story (and the one the company tells on its website) says he heard about the pans from a family friend of the Rockefellers who said Vita Craft was the only cookware the family’s chef would use. In either case, he decided to become a sales representative and take the product back home to Japan. He was able to get the product into retail stores there. In Japan, the cookware is sold at department-store counters with demonstrators in the same way cosmetics are sold in this country.
In the U.S., the company stuck to that direct-sales approach through the years. As direct sales slowed with the dawn on the Internet, the Japan market already had a strong foothold. By 2002, that Japanese salesman, Imura, bought the company and became CEO of the Kansas corporation. He also owns Vita Craft Japan, a distributor.
The Shawnee location continues to produce about 200,000 to 300,000 pots and pans each year, sending more than three-quarters of that product to Japan.
In the last few years, the company has been trying to jump-start efforts to get into the retail and commercial market in the United States. Knowing the popularity of gourmet cooking and commercial-style cookware in this country, the company started developing a line of commercial cookware four years ago that can also be used in the home.
In the U.S., Vita Craft is still sold at trade shows. The product is sold to brides under the Celebrity Ultra cookware label. That program is still fairly popular, and those pots do actually say Vita Craft on the label. They sell their product under other blind labels, like USA Pan. Locally, the Culinary Center of Kansas City sells the pans under a private label that includes inspirational food quotes.
It is still sold in direct home sales, but it has yet to hit that big retail market. In order for that to happen they have had to change the company culture a bit.
“In direct sales, you aren’t selling yourself,” Martin said. “You’re selling the organization. We were like a blind manufacturer or invisible manufacturer. I’m changing that. I want to grow Vita Craft into the commercial and retail market.
“I make an excellent product, but if nobody knows my name they aren’t going to buy it,” Martin said.
Vita Craft Commercial became the official cookware of places like Johnson County and Kansas City Kansas community college culinary programs. The company brought chefs and specialty shop owners to their factory and gave them tours. Vita Craft started offering a private label option.
It is slowly beginning to work.
It has been no problem getting local foodies hooked on the product. The Sundry in Kansas City’s Crossroads district is dedicated to helping people shop and eat local. It is one of the first and still one of the few places where customers can walk in and buy Vita Craft cookware off the shelf.
A regular customer of The Sundry, Vincent Gauthier of Kansas City, was one of the first customers to buy a saute pan after the store opened a year ago. He had never heard of Vita Craft, but bought it because he is trying to learn to cook more like a professional chef.
“This is a pan that real cooks need to use, because you can’t get lazy with it like you can with a nonstick pan. You need to know what you’re doing,” Gauthier said.
The product seems more real and healthy to Gauthier. Vita Craft claims this as a selling point, saying even heat distribution and a vapor-seal lid allow vitamins and minerals to stay in the food. Gauthier also appreciates the Sundry’s buy-local model.
With a long list of local vendors, Sundry co-owners Aaron Prater and Ryan Wing say Vita Craft is one of their favorites. The Sundry has carried the commercial line of cookware on their shelves since they opened a year ago. It is also the cookware they use in their kitchen.
“I had used their pans before and knew them to be a good product. Professional kitchen pans typically look pretty rough and these hold up really well,” Prater said.
The fact that the pans are made to work with induction stovetops is also useful. Part of the Sun dry’s sustainable kitchen model is to use induction stovetops. They are twice as energy-efficient as cooking with gas.
Prater, who knew about Vita Craft from teaching at Johnson County Community College’s Culinary Institute, also points out how well the pressed pans cook.
“They are a nice heavy-duty pan. They hold heat very well, which makes a difference when you’re putting cold food into the pan. They are balanced,” Prater said. The weight makes them easy to move around the stove and they are sturdy. He finds they can take a beating and with some polish they look brand new.
Vita Craft is not inexpensive, but Wing believes it is a good value. “It’s not cheap cookware. In terms of a comparable quality pan I think they are more affordable,” said Wing.
An 8-inch chef’s pan sells for $85 at the Sundry. A commercial 10-inch frying pan is available for $129 on the company’s website. The cover for that 10-inch pan is not included and costs $39.
One of the things Wing and Prater like about the company is that its character is similar to theirs, focusing on consistent quality and friendly service.
“They’ve been really good to work with and are supportive. Given the amount of vendors we deal with when having a local-first stance, any vendor that’s proactive and friendly is great,” Wing said. “Their commitment to quality is impressive. It is really remarkable how high their standard is.”
Chef Jasper Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s Restaurant in Kansas City also has become a big fan of Vita Craft. He was introduced to the company about four years ago when he went on a tour of their Shawnee factory and then began to use the product both at home and in his restaurant. He liked it so much that he put his own name on a private label. The pans sold with Jasper’s name are the particular pans he enjoys most.
“We absolutely love them,” Mirabile said. “I love to support all things local. When I found out, after all these years I had no idea they were in Shawnee. My wife went absolutely crazy over the frying pans for home use and then we started testing a couple at the restaurant.”
They now use several on a regular basis at the restaurant, including one that looks like a wok, which Mirabile says works well to toss pasta or quick fry. He is also working with the company to develop a pan specifically designed for a dish he serves in the restaurant.
Jasper’s version of Vita Craft cookware can be bought online and at the Olive Tree in Hawthorne Plaza. Mirabile teaches classes specifically showing how to use the cookware, and finds people are eager to buy, especially when they find out the product is locally made.
The company is not only teaming up with local businesses in its marketing makeover. It struck up a partnership with Food Network chef Tyler Florence, who toured the Shawnee plant last month.
Florence told his Twitter audience that he grew up with the company’s product after his father purchased a set from a door-to-door salesman. Florence called Vita Craft “the best cookware made in America.” He plans to work with the company to develop a custom-designed Vita Craft product that will feature ergonomic handles that can be ordered for either left- or right-handed cooks.
As Vita Craft’s new strategy takes hold, it still anticipates sending the same volume to its Asian markets and is hoping the model they are building for retail here in Kansas City will work across the country.
The effort is about making jobs and keeping a company that has made a good product for 76 years going into the next generation, Martin said.
“If we can get discovered, and people knew we were a choice in what we offer, there would not be a whole lot of reason to buy some of that other cookware that’s out there,” Martin said. “You wouldn’t want to.”
Buying Vita Craft
Under the Vita Craft Label:
- The Sundry: 1706 Baltimore Ave.
- The Pot Rack: 626 Cherokee St., Leavenworth
- Ambrosi Brothers Cutlery Co.: 3023 Main St.
- Olive Tree: 4937 W. 119th St., Overland Park
- Celebrity China and Cookware: Direct sales only, 13611 W. 109th St., Lenexa
- Vita Craft Factory Outlet: 5726 Nieman Road, Shawnee
Under private labels