Wisconsin Cutlery & Kitchen Supply: Knives Out

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Wisconsin Cutlery & Kitchen Supply is the one stop kitchen store stocked with the essentials for any home chef, from the everyday cook to the master chef. Owner Michelle Dietz not only aims to provide quality products and services in her store—avoiding the frivolous and trendy—but a lot of attention is focused on teaching the proper usage and care of knives. She assures me she’s not trying to show off or knife shame anyone.

“I started out in the beginning as a very enthusiastic customer,” says Michelle. From there, she joined the Wisconsin Cutlery staff in 2011 and purchased the business in April 2016. Michelle’s outgoing personality and passion for her business translates to a pleasant shopping experience, greatly enhanced by her experienced staff. Together, they agree that knives are treasured items, and they take great care working with them.

“Sometimes it can be daunting, but [my staff] welcome the challenges,” says Michelle. “We have buckets of practice knives because we don’t train on people’s knives. It takes months for them to be dead on with sharpening the knife or tool, understanding the differences and needs on each item and how to take apart garden tools to get to the sharpening while not injuring themselves in the process.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

“It’s amazing how much sentimentality people have attached to their own knives. I remember a woman worried about her knife not being very nice and [asking] if we could sharpen it. ‘Of course, it would be weird if you brought in a knife that had no issues.’ And in talking with her a little longer, it was her mom’s inexpensive knife. But her mom passed away, and she started cooking at home. That not so fancy knife was hugely important. And we see that time and time again.”

When Michelle took over the business, they were at 17,000 sharpenings a year. In early November 2021, they exceeded 29,000 sharpenings. “We concentrated a lot more on sharpenings, we’ve changed out almost all of the equipment; instead of a giant 36-inch wheel, now I have a belt grinder that is reversible and adjustable and can be worked on with more ease.”

And Wisconsin Cutlery goes beyond knives. If it’s got a blade, they can polish and sharpen it back to its former glory. Hunting knives, scissors, garden and sewing tools—the staff are experts. “We can tailor the grit, the speed, and the grind to what we are sharpening, like an axe needing a convex angle rather than a concave angle,” says Michelle.

Though it’s been years since Michelle was trained by the previous owner, she recalls when starting as a woman inexperienced with the trade that changing out the equipment was a scary thing. As her comfort and familiarity with the machines grew, she realized there was still a lot to learn. Not a day goes by when she and the staff don’t teach themselves something new. The staff hoodies read “never underestimate a woman with a belt grinder”, encompassing the knowledge and fearlessness necessary to take on any sharpening.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

That’s why they believe there’s more value in teaching someone about a knife, how to hold and take care of it, than getting a knife sale. “I could just as easily shut my mouth and get that sale, but that’s a transactional thing,” says Michelle. “And transactions like that don’t build a business. It’s not about getting all the knives; it’s about knowing how to use the knives you have.”

Michelle has a phrase for remembering to sharpen knives at home, keeping them at their best while atoning for your sins of neglecting them: Hone & Atone. “A good knife should last you many decades, and for some people, that’s forever. You shouldn’t be coming to me every week, every month. But come every year. What you should be doing in between is honing.”

Cutler Lea demonstrated for me the importance of home maintenance and safety when handling kitchen knives. “Sharpening puts a new edge on a knife; honing maintains the edge currently there,” says Lea. “Honing helps straighten back after use so it cuts through cleanly. Honing should be a very gentle, weekly maintenance—no fast or hard peacocking displays with the knife.”

Working alongside neighbors Penzeys Spices, Conscious Carnivore, and the like, Michelle finds it vital to support other local brick-and-mortar businesses. “You can’t be brick and mortar and think you can compete with the internet, and this is important,” says Michelle. “I’m not competing with other small, locally owned stores in the area; we all have a place here. We fight together for the survival of local brick and mortar.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Michelle says their sales have never been this good, and that’s because their team has never been this tight. Both sides of the business—retail and sharpening—feed each other. During the pandemic, people who never cooked before, who would prefer to go out, were trying it at home and now need knives sharpened. Having so many new and returning customers means having to grow and evolve, and Michelle is enjoying just trying to keep up with the demand of sales and services.

But everything still circles back to teaching, even if it’s the most fundamental skills for a hands-off chef like myself. Like learning how to hold a chef knife properly—revolutionary. Michelle inspired me to try something new. When I said, “I’m not the best chef,” she asked, “Are you a cook? Do you enjoy it? Then there is space for you; take it up.”

Some find cooking a therapeutic way to unwind and explore, while others, like myself, find it confounding but appreciate the beauty in starting with basic ingredients and evolving into a scrumptious meal. “When you’re in the kitchen, unless you’re insane, you’re cooking with love,” says Michelle. “You are feeding yourself and loved ones, so that gets transferred to those sacred objects.”

Krystle Engh Naab is a freelance writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Wisconsin Cutlery & Kitchen Supply

Shorewood Shopping Center
3236B University Avenue
Madison, WI 53705
(608) 204-0560