Shall I compare thee to a summers day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
St. Louis kitchen gadgets firm emphasizes quality, service
Monday, January 31, 2005
And for now, the last remaining mass-market kitchen-gadget maker in the country is staving off competition from Chinese producers and the “mega vendors” that sell a variety of kitchen gizmos for the display racks of discount stores and grocery chains.
The 200 million Swing-A-Way can openers sold since 1954 — roughly 3 million each year — occupy a spot in many U.S. kitchens. The opener has carried the Good Housekeeping Seal for decades, and was the first in space, selected by NASA for Skylab.
Swing-A-Way Manufacturing Co. has a simple recipe for surviving in a global economy while subscribing to an almost old-school, quaint focus on high quality and customer service.
“We try to be incredibly efficient,” vice president Mark Packer said, “and we try not to be greedy.”
Analysts say most U.S. manufacturers of kitchen gadgets have been purchased and incorporated into larger housewares companies that have outsourced their production — at great cost-savings — to China. Swing-A-Way resists that trend, Packer said, because it can’t guarantee the quality of something it hasn’t made.
There are headaches to be sure, but it’s worth the tradeoff, Packer said.
“They care about quality. They make an excellent product. They put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into making the best can opener they can make,” said Dave Palcek of suburban Chicago, who tracks the housewares industry for the trade magazine Homeworld Business. “You have to admire that.”
The original Swing-A-Way, introduced in 1938, was a wall-mounted can opener with a bracket that allowed the strong and sturdy unit to swing back against the wall of a butler’s pantry when not in use, hence the name. In 1945, the company pioneered a gear-driven cutting wheel that revolutionized can opening.
By the 1950s, new homes built for the families of returning GIs lacked the solid wood pantries of an earlier era. With no place to hide the hand-cranked, wall-mounted opener, Rhodes wondered who would buy it. The company responded with the first heavy-duty, hand-held can opener, the legendary Model 407, that incorporated the best features of the wall model. Soon after its January 1954 launch, it became a hit.
HFN, the New York-based home products newsweekly, in its recent 75th anniversary edition, named the Swing-A-Way one of the 75 most important household products in 75 years.
In December, a Boston Globe story listed the Swing-A-Way can opener as one of a dozen home products “that people rave about.”
And Sara Ostransky, associate editor of Cuisine at Home, declared the Swing-A-Way original and Comfort Grip models the best overall, “bar none,” and the least expensive of 22 manual can openers she and staffers tested for the Des Moines, Iowa-based cooking magazine.
The magazine gave a five-star rating to only two brands — Swing-A-Way’s original and Comfort Grip openers, and the German-made Rosle opener with a safety lid, which sells for five times as much.
The Swing-A-Way “was so easy to use,” Ostransky said in an interview, adding that she uses one at home and in the magazine’s five test kitchens. “It popped into the can easily, and rolled around the can with ease.”
Swing-A-Way, whose 1948 plant is in an industrial and working class neighborhood of south St. Louis, inspires about 50 fan letters a year, Packer said, from loyal customers as far away as Australia and Czechoslovakia.
Consumer letters describe the can opener as “a most faithful companion,” and “probably the best investment that I ever made.”
A Fountain Inn, S.C., woman said she finally retired a Swing-A-Way she received as a bridal shower gift 25 years ago, but she “can’t bring myself to throw it away.”
Besides quality and service, Swing-A-Way’s decades-long bond with consumers, and long-standing supplier relationships are a “huge advantage,” Packer said. The company’s volume and long history of making the same parts keep costs much lower than “if we were trying to start up from scratch today,” he said. Still, the company, which has 70 employees, has to “fight the cost battle on a daily basis.”
In recent years, Swing-A-Way successfully settled legal actions against three importers that were marketing can openers that copied the St. Louis product’s design and appearance.
Besides its mainstay can opener, Swing-A-Way sells an ice crusher, jar and bottle opener, seafood and nut cracker, peeler, ice cream scoop and a corkscrew with heft that was designed in the United States but is made in Italy. It’s also launched a new Signature line of products with a trademark plasticized rubber grip.
Rhodes started out selling his Kriss-Kross shaving blade sharpener that was endorsed by baseball Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, but the advent of the penny disposable blade ended that enterprise.
Legend has it that he took someone’s suggestion to make can openers, despite his initial reaction that “there isn’t a can in the world you can’t open with an ax.”