It may look like a Mister Softee truck from afar, but outside, customers line up with their cooking knives for sharpening rather than for King Cones, Spongebob popsicles, or soft serve.
Late last year, a white truck rolled up in North Brooklyn, the Green Point Knife Truck, that hopes to carry on the legacy. The operators are not grinders who came from the family trade. Instead, Ryan White and Patrick Bradley worked in the film and television industry as Directors of Photography, including for Rachael Ray, Gordon Ramsey, and Guy Fieri. Looking for a change of pace, they found a truck listed online and decided to leap with their 20-year knife sharpening hobby-turned-obsession. Since opening its doors last fall they’ve stationed the truck around Greenpoint and Williamsburg.
For decades, knife-sharpening trucks have been a New York staple. A handful of these mobile services still exist, but others have shuttered or decreased operations as the craft has fallen out of fashion — not unlike other specialty services like handmade, glass-bottled seltzer delivery. In 1997, the New York Grinders Association told the New York Times that the profession once had hundreds of tradesmen with this skill set, a group of immigrants mainly from Italy or Germany. To date, the most well-known of the bunch is Mike and Son (a green truck), though there are competitors like Del Re’s Grinding (a red truck); elsewhere there’s Astoria Cutlery, which also does pickup and delivery. Each has its territories.
Even cooking beginners know a sharp knife is safer. For a chef, a relationship to their knife is an extension of who they are, it’s an intimacy that many might prefer to be in control of — plus the technique of sharpening can be a flex. Nevertheless, the appeal and charm of these trucks have persisted. That’s especially true for home cooks seeking professional help.
“I’ve always loved knives and collected knives,” says Bradley, who points out that on-set shop talk often went back to knives. “It’s so fun to work with your hands and bring back that old-school trade.”
As luck would have it, their first-ever customer was the actor Bill Murray, which came to be because the truck was parked in front of 21 Greenpoint, owned by Murray’s son Homer, whose restaurant is also now a customer.
Outsourcing her knives to a mobile truck is worth the time saved, says Jenny Olbrich, co-owner of the Esters, a bar and pizza spot in Greenpoint. While not every food business supplies knives to its back-of-house staff, Olbrich does and says bringing her knives and mandolines to the Green Point Knife Truck has been a lifesaver. “To properly sharpen can take some time, and it’s not always something I want to prioritize when there’s so much going on; the cost isn’t so relevant, it’s such a worthy investment to me and they do such a beautiful job,” she says. She’s such a fan that she bought all her chefs truck gift certificates for Christmas. Olbrich is one of several Green Point Knives’s hospitality clients; the truck also sharpens for Van Leeuwen ice cream.
Despite the name, it’s not all knives: They also sharpen florist shears, a graphic designer’s paper cutter, barbershop scissors, and even leather and woodworker tools. In addition, they do charity work for firehouse kitchens and soup kitchens. They’re savvy in other ways, too: The truck’s roof is covered in solar panels which charge out marine batteries and power their machines.
The Green Point Knife Truck uses traditional whetstone techniques, low RPM belt grinders (that don’t get the blade too hot, where they can go down to a low grit), and Tormek machines (which use water-cooling); there’s also leather finishing, files, and polishing. “The goal is to get the knife sharp while taking off the least amount of material,” says White.
They pride themselves in customizing their approach to what the knife needs and making sure nothing is too aggressive (which can cause knife degradation and breaking). “We get knives all the time that are different angles, and we make sure to know if it is a 50/50 bevel or 70/30 bevel,” says White; it’s important to maintain the angle through the process and make sure customers know what they have.
“Someone will bring in their dad’s or their grandfather’s knives, that were just sitting in a basement or a drawer somewhere. And we bring them back to life for them,” says Bradley. Recently, a customer had brought in a knife of a chef friend who had passed away that had a button from his former kitchen coat on the handle. It is the stories that have kept them going.
Green Point Knives is more than just tool sharpening: They sell top-of-the-line Japanese knives from the renowned Kikuichi and are building out their online shop with options between $65 to upwards of $2000. They also sell Hedley & Bennett aprons, cutting boards, linens, knife blocks, and knives.
Social media has become the main way for mobile knife sharpeners — even the old-school ones — to communicate their whereabouts and ensure business doesn’t grind to a halt. (Follow the Green Point Knife Truck on Instagram for the latest location; pick-ups can also be arranged.)
“I can’t tell you how many times a day people come up to us and just thank us for doing this thing that used to be all over the city when they were growing up,” says White. “It's such an honor to carry on this work and history from all the people we’ve learned this craftmanship from.”