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On The Cutting Edge

  • 7 min to read

Machines the size of small cars whirl and hum, conveyor belts carrying lumber zip by overhead, sawdust and wood scraps crunch underfoot. The faint twang of a country music song drifts out of a nearby radio. There isn’t a clear path to follow as you move across the enormous factory floor, and aside from a pair of safety glasses, little else to protect you in this sea of pulsing machinery. Even on a cool day in late winter the air inside the factory is thick, warm, dry. It’s chaotic, but once you adjust to the wood particles stinging the back of your throat, it’s not bad. Really, it’s all kind of thrilling, because this is where Boos Blocks are made.

John Boos & Co. isn’t a household name, but if you pay close enough attention, you’ll begin to see the company’s logo everywhere. They are regularly featured on cooking-focused TV shows like Chopped, Top Chef and Master Chef. They are used in the kitchens of the country’s top restaurants and praised by celebrity chefs like Daniel Humm, Rick Bayless and Bobby Flay. And the next time you visit the meat, bakery or deli departments at your local Schnucks or Dierbergs stores – or the concessions stands at the Edward Jones Dome, for that matter – take a closer look at the stainless-steel countertops, work tables, sinks and shelving behind the service counters; on the right-hand side of each shiny piece of steel appears the John Boos & Co. logo.

To the average person, Boos products might hide in plain sight, but the factories where they’re produced in Effingham, Ill., are hard to miss. Almost smack-dab in the center of the state, Effingham is the small, quiet town the company has called home since its inception in 1887, when Conrad Boos built the first Boos Block out of sycamore wood to use in his blacksmith shop. The story goes that the local butcher in Effingham saw the block and wanted to buy one to use as a cutting surface, and the Boos business – named for Conrad’s son, John – was born. Some of Boos’ relatives still live in the Effingham area today.

No matter the shape or size, Boos Blocks and boards pack serious heft, made with solid, dense wood like Northern hard rock maple, the most common variety used by Boos. According to company president Joe Emmerich, hard rock maple trees grow very slowly and usually in colder climates, causing growth rings to be denser. The end results for Boos are hard, highly durable surfaces. The company also uses American cherry, red oak and black walnut wood species.

Some of its cutting boards are smaller or slighter than others, but you can’t really call any of Boos’ products thin. Especially not Boos butcher blocks, which are almost all imposingly thick. The company makes two distinct types of cutting boards and blocks: edge grain, made with 1¾-inch-wide strips of wood, each as long as the length of the wood, glued together with the edge-grain up; and end grain, made using many small squares of wood, each cut and placed standing upright. Visually the difference is obvious; edge grain looks like one solid piece of wood, while end grain appears more like a checkerboard, with varying shades of wood assembled in square or rectangular patterns.

“The end-grain actually wears better over time,” Emmerich says. “As the product developed over the years, we always stuck with that end-grain as one version of the cutting board. Some people prefer that primarily for a cutting surface. It also has a little bit of a style to it; not everyone manufactures it the way we do.”

The first step in building Boos Blocks begins just off the company’s lumber yard in Effingham, inside a structure half exposed to the outdoors. Here, a three-man team sorts lumber to gauge its grade. Two of the men move individual boards from a large wood pile and lay them side-by-side so that the third man can inspect each, piece by piece, using what’s called a grader’s stick to approve each board for processing. After the lumber is inspected, it rests in an outdoor staging area for a couple of weeks, the first step in a rigorous drying process. Lumber is then transferred to silo-sized drying kilns for 18 to 28 days. The gigantic, wood-fired kilns run around the clock seven days a week, with tall smoke stacks that can be seen from miles down the road extending into the sky, steadily exhaling cloudy puffs of smoke. The kilns are heated by the facility’s equally humongous boiler, which is fueled by sawdust and other wood scraps generated inside the facility. Covered in bulbous sockets, controls and a network of intersecting pipes, the decades-old boiler (emblazoned with the words “Made in West Germany” on its side) heats the boiler room to a toasty, if not balmy, temperature. It’s hard to imagine standing in that same room on a hot summer day.

After lumber leaves the kilns it enters the production line, where it’s cleaned and molded. Workers then mark defects on each board by hand using fluorescent markers and crayons. These marks are later read by the computer program that operates the machine that cuts lumber into some of the cutting boards, kitchen countertops, work tables, dining tabletops and more. Nearby, cutting surfaces are sanded on both sides to make them dually functional, while non-cutting surfaces like countertops and work surfaces are only sanded on one side. Once products are sanded, they’re shaved, branded with the Boos logo, oiled and packaged for sale before being shipped to retailers in St. Louis like Bertarelli Cutlery, Session Fixture Co. and Ford Hotel Supply Co.

Thicker butcher blocks (specifically, 10- to 16-inch thick blocks) are made using the company’s oldest piece of continuously operating machinery, the screw press. It’s an intimidating, hulking machine that looks sort of like a human-sized vise, used to slowly apply pressure to extra-large butcher blocks (think 400 or 500 pounders), squeezing together wood and glue in permanent place. These days the screw press only runs about once a week for eight hours, but Boos used to make every block it produced using the machine. It can only turn out about 100 blocks a month, compared to the thousands made each month in the facility today.

The first time you use a Boos Block, you begin to understand what sets it apart from other cutting boards. Emmerich says that the wood Boos uses – particularly hard rock maple – treats knives gently, keeping them sharper longer. Over time that not only benefits knives, but leads to higher-quality output in general. When you set a heavy kitchen knife down on the surface of a Boos Block, it lands with a significant thud. Like a well-made knife, Boos Blocks have a way of enduring for generations.

In early 2013, leading up to the company’s 125th anniversary celebration, a woman visited the Boos Butcher Block Showroom & Outlet, the company’s retail store in Effingham, and struck up a conversation with manager – and Boos celebrity – Norbert Bruce. She told Bruce about the Boos Block in her kitchen; about how it had been in her family as long as anyone could remember. Bruce’s curiosity was piqued. He asked the woman to send him a photo of the block and promised to help her identify its age – something he regularly helps people across the country do with Boos products. When Bruce saw the photo, he immediately knew it was a rare find.

“I instantly recognized it was one of our very first solid sycamore blocks, three-legged sycamore stump block, manufactured, we figure, around 1899 to 1905,” Bruce says.

“I talked to her for months about bringing it to the showroom for the 125th anniversary. One leg is always shorter than the other two, and there’s a reason for that: It tilts just enough so the blood runs off into the sawdust. And it still had some of the original red paint on it. That block was 42-by-16-inches and in 1905 sold for $14.19. And Boos was still making money on that, at $14 and change. Beautiful block, heavy, too. Still heavy as can be.”

Bruce says stories like this aren’t uncommon, though usually less buried in time. “I don’t want to use the word packrat, but I don’t throw anything away that I think a customer might use to restore a block,” Bruce says. “It’s an honor to restore a 70-year-old block for someone.”

Other Boos employees describe Bruce as the company’s “go-to man” for chefs and industry insiders across the country. “[Chefs] turn into a bunch of little kids in a candy store as soon as they walk in the door,” Bruce says. “I find out what they’re looking for and find a link between them and me and the Boos butcher blocks – and it’s always there, if you look deep enough.”

Between its stainless-steel and wood factories and corporate offices, Boos’ operations consume about 187,000-square-feet of land in Effingham, with 180 employees spread out across several buildings. The company is currently in the process of expanding its steel plant by 40,000-square-feet, with plans to add another 40,000-square-feet next year.

With eyes toward the future and expansion already in motion, maybe it doesn’t really matter if John Boos & Co. is a household name. The company has managed to build an extraordinary empire simply by hiding in plain sight.

Hollywood Squares

Written by Brandon Chuang

The saying goes that you’re only as good as the company you keep. If this is the case, John Boos & Co. is very, very good. Celebrity chefs from around the country recognize themselves as fans of the Effingham-based company. Here’s just a very small sampling of what noted Boos fans have to say.

“Cutting on wood is the best. Once I found out that Boos was right over the river, I knew I needed more of it. We’ve formed a great relationship, and they have since provided cutting boards and counters for Niche, Taste and Pastaria.”

–Gerard Craft, owner, Craft Restaurants Ltd., St. Louis

“High-quality tools help produce high-quality food, and what makes [Boos] so special is their impeccable craftsmanship and durability. We use them in all of our restaurants, and in my home as well. And if you think cutting boards are just surfaces for cutting, why don’t you prep on concrete?”

–Paul Kahan, chef-owner, Avec, Big Star, Blackbird and Publican, Chicago

“Boos has been in my kitchen for as long as I can remember. As any chef will tell you, the details are what really matter, and Boos really pays attention to the details. If [you’re] searching for the highest quality knife, why not care deeply about the surface you give it?”

–Kelly English, chef-owner, Restaurant Iris and The Second Line, Memphis, Tenn.

“Boos is special, plain and simple. There are other cutting board makers out there and people who will special make some, but none have the look and craftsmanship of a Boos Block. We use them in the kitchen for prep, but we also use smaller boards for serving; some of the bigger boards we use for getting a good look to our buffets and the food we serve on them. My first and only choice in wood boards in Boos.”

–Josh Galliano, chef-owner, The Libertine, St. Louis

“A great wood cutting board is very important in any kitchen. It needs to be durable and meticulously constructed so it can take abuse from constant and extensive knife use — and it needs to be sturdy, yet elegant. It’s for these reasons that I’ve always liked Boos Blocks in the kitchen.”

–Daniel Humm, chef-owner, Eleven Madison Park, New York City

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