LINCOLN SQUARE — Chaz Tiede is drawn to the dull and worn-out in Chicago, those in need of an edge.
Tiede, 34, is the sole proprietor of Matador Mobile Sharpening, possibly the only knife sharpener in the city who makes house calls. The Lincoln Square resident gets around by bicycle and charges $3 per blade.
Tiede started the business in late July after getting fired from his job at a cooking school in Chicago. Initially, his target market was chefs. The challenge, he realized, is that many chefs prefer to sharpen their own knives — though that hasn't stopped him from making cold calls via the unmarked doors in alleys where restaurant line cooks congregate.
Tiede is just starting to tap into the home cook market. Last month, he was at the food and fashion bazaar Dose Market inside the Chop Shop, 2033 W. North Ave., where he sharpened 53 knives. He'll be back at the market on Nov. 24.
He really is willing to make house calls and ready to take orders via phone, email, Facebook or Twitter.
"That's where I want to test my all-city, all-weather component of the business," he said. "I have yet to have one person email or text me, though."
A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, Tiede worked for nearly 10 years as a sales manager for a luxury hotel and resort company until deciding a change of scenery was in order. He found it in a $10-an-hour job in one of the company's kitchens.
But, he said, "I lasted about eight months."
He and his wife moved to Chicago in August 2012, where his interest and education in knife care and maintenance started to develop.
"It takes a lot of focus. In a lot of ways, it's like a golf swing, very methodical. The same mentality applies to the stone and the knife," Tiede said. "I like that at the end of the day, you can feel the end result with your fingers."
Tiede said his business was modeled after knife sharpeners in Spain, who set up shop curbside by hooking up sharpening wheels to the motors on their motorcycles.
He gets around on a bike from Heritage General Store, the bicycle/coffee shop on Lincoln Avenue (a regular pit stop of his), his sharpening and honing tools in a kit strapped to the back.
He makes unannounced visits to the back doors of restaurants to hand out "panic kits" stuffed with ibuprofen, electrolyte tablets, menthol cigarettes, his business card and $1 off coupons. On one such visit to Antique Taco in Wicker Park, he ended up sharpening several of sous chef Angie Ortiz's knives.
Ortiz had one caveat: "All my personal knives, they're very expensive knives. I said, 'Please be careful with my knives — I used different language than that — or I'll charge you double.'"
Tiede passed muster with all except Ortiz's Japanese knife, which even she has trouble sharpening; he didn't charge her for that one. Ortiz said she was considering having Tiede sharpen the restaurant's house knives on a biweekly basis rather than taking them elsewhere, as she does now.
With his scruffy duds and floppy hair pulled back with an elastic headband, Tiede could pass for a cook, a bike messenger or just a dude. That might explain why he's had decent luck with culinary students taking smoke breaks outside of Kendall College and Le Cordon Bleu.
"I sit there while they complain and whine, and then we'll start talking and I'll sharpen some knives," he said.
Startup struggles aside, Tiede said his decision to start such a niche business has "turned into a really good domestic situation:" he cooks often and — with properly sharpened knives, of course.