Whole Foods Knife-Sharpening Station Has Some Shoppers on Edge

By Leslie Albrecht on January 8, 2014 7:12am 

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 Some worry the in-store blade sharpening station is dangerous, but store officials say it's safe.
Brooklyn Whole Foods Knife-Sharpening Station Has Some Shoppers on Edge
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GOWANUS — Brooklyn's first Whole Foods store is too cutting edge for some shoppers.

Concerned customers claim the gourmet market's in-store knife-sharpening station is a safety hazard that could send blades flying through the air, according to a recent post on the blog Effed in Park Slope.

"I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to be standing in front of an 8" chef's knife doing 80 miles an hour at my skull," wrote an alarmed shopper, who added that he contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the sharpening service.

Another shopper said she was horrified when her toddler "shoved his hand" into the grinder, which wasn't in use at the time. "OMG!!!...It's not safe at all," the worried mom wrote.

But store representatives said there's nothing to fear from the blade-sharpening counter, which is the first of its kind in the upscale grocery store's New York City locations.

"These guys are professionals and we feel very confident having them out there," said Whole Foods spokesman Michael Sinatra. "It’s something people are not used to seeing, and because of that they question it."

A custom knife maker, Chris Harth of NYCutlery, is the store's primary knife sharpener. He mans a small counter tucked between the meat department and the chips aisle. There are no barriers around the station, and shoppers push their carts just inches from his work, as Harth presses cleavers and chef's knives into a spinning whetstone.

Harth said people who aren't familiar with the mechanics of knife sharpening are probably mistaking his machine for grinders found in hardware stores. Those machines turn so fast that they send sparks flying and screech like subway cars. Harth's equipment spins at a leisurely pace and can't get hot because its mechanism is covered by a thin stream of water.

It would be impossible for his grinder to send a knife flying into the air, he said. "It's very safe," Harth said. "There’s almost no way you can hurt yourself on the machine during its operation."

The store has received no formal complaints about the knife sharpener, and OSHA had no record of gripes against it either, a spokesman said. Harth follows the agency's guidelines for knife sharpeners by using a clamp to secure blades and wearing Kevlar sleeves on his arms.

Though one of the people who complained to Effed in Park Slope said he saw a shopper bump into Harth from behind, Harth said that's not true. He added that he started discussing the design of the sharpening station with Whole Foods more than 18 months ago, and the machine he uses was chosen with safety in mind.

When the knife sharpener hears customers make comments under their breath about the potential dangers of the knife station, he said he takes the opportunity to explain how his grinding stone works.

But mostly people have been "ecstatic" about the service, Harth said. He does brisk business putting new edges on high-end cutlery that people received as gifts years ago and have grown dull.

"I’m saddened a little bit that people are scared," Harth said. "I don’t think people should be. [Knife sharpening] isn't a hipster thing, it’s a service that used to be more common."

After the blog post with the complaints, store managers spoke with Harth to learn more about his safety procedures in case customers had questions, he said. That wasn't the only action the store took. After an online commenter complained about the high price of the cutting boards Harth sells, the store chopped prices on the boards by about $10 a piece, Harth said.

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