NEWPORT

June 9, 2010

Grinding their niche

Drumstick maker succeeds with kitchen gadgets

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

NEWPORT -- In a factory on the shore of Sebasticook Lake, a worker loads wooden pepper mill tops onto a huge machine. They've been lathed and sanded, and soon will march like little soldiers past paint jets for a finish of cinnamon red, turquoise, dark orange, cobalt blue or some other equally luscious color.

click image to enlarge

Pepper grinders made at the Vic Firth factory in Newport.

Gregory Rec

"Most of the machines here are one of a kind, especially in the drumstick area," says Vic Firth, owner of the factory. "We designed every one of them." Did he say "drumstick area?"

Yes, this is the same Vic Firth whose drumsticks are used by symphony percussionists and rockers everywhere, including Ozzy Osbourne's drummer Mike Bordin, Joey Barnes of Daughtry, Anton Fig of "The Late Show with David Letterman" and the drummers for Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Pink, Lou Reed, Elton John and Jimmy Buffett.

Firth's lakeside Maine factory is best known for manufacturing up to 85,000 drumsticks a day. But the company also has a "Vic Firth Gourmet" division. Its high-end pepper mills and salt mills are as coveted by home cooks as the drumsticks are by musicians.

Firth's lakeside Maine factory is best known for manufacturing up to 85,000 drumsticks a day. But the company also has a "Vic Firth Gourmet" division. Its high-end pepper mills and salt mills are as coveted by home cooks as the drumsticks are by musicians.

Vic Firth Gourmet is also known for its rolling pins made with real ball bearings for a smoother glide. Just six weeks ago, the company rolled out a new muddler for making mojitos, mint juleps and other cocktails that contain crushed herbs, fruits and spices.

"It's got kind of a unique design," said Mike Gault, vice president of manufacturing at Vic Firth Gourmet. "It's larger than other muddlers, so it's easier to handle, and each end of the muddler is sized for a specific tumbler size."

But it's the pepper mills that have the most personality. They are known for their strong grind and sleek design -- and for the patented stainless steel grinding mechanism that can be removed for cleaning.

Vic Firth pepper mills can be found in stores such as Crate & Barrel, Macy's and Sur la Table, and on the dining tables of the Four Seasons in Boston and the Hilton in Orlando. Emeril Lagasse used them on his cooking show, where Firth once appeared to play the drums while Lagasse prepared chicken drumsticks.

How did Firth go from being the man whose innovations revolutionized drumsticks -- he now holds 55 percent of the world market -- to being a manufacturer of pepper mills and other kitchen products?

A native of Sanford, Firth spent 50 years as the principal timpanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, playing with some of the world's best conductors. He began making his own custom drumsticks in 1963, sorting and pairing them by weight, pitch and size.

It turns out all the things Firth wanted to "fix" about drumsticks resonated with other percussionists as well. Sales soared.

"We had a factory in Kingfield that couldn't keep up with the demand, so we finally moved the operation over here to Newport," said Firth, 80. "Along with the mill that we purchased came all these other businesses."

At the time Firth bought the Newport mill, it was also making caps for perfume and liquor, wooden fruit, baseball bats and vacuum cleaner parts. Eventually, Firth decided to jettison everything but the drumsticks and the gourmet division, which was doing well.

Dave Crocker, Firth's chief engineer, is responsible for the nuts and bolts of the mills sold by the company, but Firth designs their shapes and styles himself. He gets inspiration everywhere, from ballet dancers to old Roman gates. The Kismet style, 7 inches tall with the look of a curvy minaret, was inspired by the idea of "Arabian nights."

(Continued on page 2)

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