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June 15, 2020 | Tom Ballard

John Phillips of Phillips Forged and Primeaux says, “My work is my life, my life is my work”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a five-part series spotlighting the start-ups that participated in the latest “What’s the Big Idea 48-Hour Pitch Competition” organized by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and held on March 1 at Knoxville’s Scruffy City Hall. Today’s spotlight is on John Phillips, best known in the community for his Phillips Forged customized cutlery, who presented a new idea for carbon steel cookware under the Primeaux brand.)

To say that John Phillips takes his work seriously would be a real understatement.

“My work is my life, my life is my work,” he writes on the website for Phillips Forged, the business in which he first started “dabbling” in 2015, making customized, one-of-a-kind high-end knives. Each one took up 40 hours to complete.

“I love to cook,” Phillips adds in explaining the interest in knives. “I love to cook for my family, and one on my idols is Sean Brock.” He’s a well-known chef who earned his reputation in the culinary hotspot of Charleston, SC before also opening a restaurant in Nashville.

Several years ago, Phillips and Brock had one of those chance encounters when the chef visited a craft show in Music City, saw the knives Phillips was displaying, and practically bought everything available. A day later, he came back and bought the remaining knives.

“We sat and talked for three hours,” Phillips recalls, never expecting what transpired next. Brock, who has a very faithful following, posted something about the Phillips Forged knives on social media, and the craftsman received 2,500 emails within a day.

“We had a lot of orders,” Phillips says. “I’m still working through them two years later. He exposed me to a new audience by vouching for the quality of my work.”

Realizing that scaling the customized knife business was a big challenge, Phillips started considering other items that were important to chefs and settled on cooking utensils with a skillet being the first offering.

Primeaux is the brand name for what Phillips says will be “the world’s finest cookware,” made from carbon steel. Unlike the knives, however, he will be able to produce a higher volume of the skillets.

His partner in the new venture is Cameron Kite who has his own separate business designing and making fine furniture. “He’s a really talented designer,” Phillips said.

Both are University of Tennessee graduates who, according to Kite, “kept passing each other” over the years. They even worked in the same metal and fabrication shops, albeit at different times.

So, what’s the proverbial “go-to-market” strategy?

Phillips says the first step is to produce 20 to 30 prototypes that will be provided to local chefs to use and secure their feedback on improvements that might be needed. At the same time the prototypes are being developed, he and Kite are also designing machinery – a specialized forge and a hydraulic press – that can make the skillets in volume.

Phillips says he’s contemplating a crowdfunding campaign later this year to raise the $300,000 to $350,000 he thinks Primeaux will need to outfit its facility and start production.

“We will start with three sizes of skillets, but expand later to a full range,” he says.

While Phillips is not accepting new orders for Phillips Forged customized knives, he is contemplating a way to meet market demand by taking the more popular models and producing them in small batches. They would most likely be marked under the Primeaux brand.

Phillips is one of the early members of Knoxville’s “Maker Community.” He was particularly complimentary of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center which is heavily involved in the local marker activities and also the organizer of the “What’s the Big Idea 48-Hour Pitch Competition.”

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