Portland takes pride in its maker savvy and its lingering industrial chic. In Northwest Portland, there's ESCO where they make the teeth that go on the giant, steel buckets for open cast mining. A few blocks away, there's Finex Cast Iron Cookware, whose hexagonal pans sell for $250 in Williams-Sonoma.
Cast iron has made a comeback after the age of cheap aluminum and Teflon — especially as cooking shows have inspired home cooks to emulate celebrity chefs.
At Finex Cookware, they aim to make a few cast iron cookware products, but do them well.
Based in an old industrial building on Northwest 21st Avenue, where Alphabetville runs out at York Street, Finex's headquarters has some old Portland charm. There's nowhere to get lunch, the streets are blank with windowless warehouses, and the Finex offices are in portable buildings tacked on to the north side. The building was formerly a machine shop and still has an internal crane. Now, however, it's light manufacturing.
"Frankly, it fits with our brand really well being that it's in Portland and close to the shopping district. But it is just on the industrial side of that," said Michael Griffin, director of marketing for Finex.
Inside the small wooden front door is a tiny showroom. There are sleek dark pans next to a wooden frame holding thick chunks of metal. These are rough casts, complete with seams and rust, and show the evolution from molten metal to sizzling pan.
Finex was founded in 2012 through Kickstarter. The goal was to make just the 12-inch skillet, which remains their best-selling product. Based on that success, they've launched bigger and smaller pans and Dutch ovens.
According to Griffin, Finex ware has its own details that denote quality: the cooking surface is much smoother than most cast ironware — almost non-stick. The hexagon shape gives better pouring spots. The fitted lid aids even cooking and can be turned slightly to create reliable steam vents. And the handles, made from 300-series stainless steel springs, are based on those you'd find on a wood stove. They conduct heat so that the handle is always strong, but never too hot to hold.
"We've looked to the past and try to elevate in a lot of the traditional crafts, like the traditional method for making a stay-cool handle," Griffin told the Business Tribune on a recent tour.
One other thing only an experienced cook would wonder about:
"If you're baking cornbread, deep-dish pizza or high-baked goods, these angled sides allow you to get a spatula behind the crust cleaner and get the first piece of it a lot nicer."
There's a touch of hipster pride in the DNA. Local graphics and branding guru Aaron Draplin did the logo which is found on the base, as well as the boxes.
What's changed since they started, Griffin says, is that the reject rate has gone down and the manufacturing process is continuously improved. Finex pans are rejected if they have a bubble or defect in the cooking surface, and for other flaws such as scratches and dents. "We don't believe in seconds," Griffin said. Instead of selling scratched pans cheap, they retain their quality control by sending that pan back to the forge to be melted down and cast again.
"Primarily we want to give people a clean canvas," he said. "We say every skillet tells a story. As you cook in this piece of cookware, the seasoning's going to darken and patina get more to that black, traditional, cast iron look."
Saeed Rad is the supply chain manager but he jokingly introduces himself as the janitor. He is key to the operation. He can do anything from buying the iron to drilling the caps and fitting the spring handles. He used to work in high tech, at Planar in electroluminescent products, before LCDs became big.
Formerly from Iran, he ran a restaurant called The Red Sea. Once a quarter he makes dinner for the staff, on Finex ware.
Some of the work is hard, such as picking up 200 10-pound pans. That is tiring work.
In a time of low unemployment, there's an almost casual mode to the work. In rush times, people are hired from an agency or an ad on Craigslist. Josh Christler is appreciated for his ability to season the pans where others have tried with the flaxseed system and failed. As with many startups, friends of the founders are highly prized.
Rad was friends with the Finex owners, who asked him to join the company.
He now works two days per week, ramping up to five in the busy season. (He has a home business doing bodywork on Airstream trailers.)
"Today is my day off, but I have to go to work. I've taken over the production now. In addition to my responsibility, I need to be here to make sure the system is running."
At Planar, he started as an electronics technician and moved up to management, then left because he didn't see eye to eye with the CEO. He went back to Portland State University and got a degree in finance. For a while, he built luxury homes in the Portland area. He admits he's done a bit of everything, but is drawn to the hands-on nature of this work, and working for his friends.
Staff numbers ramp up at the end of the third quarter as most orders come in for the holiday season. As well as through retailers, who take 50%, Finex also sells directly on the web, for which it keeps most of the price.
Finex could have the iron pans cast in China more cheaply but again, quality control would not be enforceable. The pans are cast in foundries in Vermont and Wisconsin.
They arrive by rail car in wooden crates and are checked for cracks and flaws. Then they go to a machining facility in Clackamas (a contractor) where the rough edges are removed and the cooking surface is milled smooth. Then they return to Finex Northwest Portland to be finished and shipped.
It can take nine weeks to make a pan, so when a retailer demands another 500, Finex has to be ready for them.
Each cast pan has a stem for to which the stainless-steel handle is added. Each pan goes in a stone tumbler for 30 minutes to smooth it down. Then it is dropped in a cement mixer that is filled with flaxseed. An attendant, Joshua Christler, watches them tumble for a few minutes, takes them out and brushes off the excess seed.
If they are completely oil coated, he then transfers them a few dozen at a time to a confectioner's oven, where the seasoning is baked in. This makes the pan turn from grey to a slightly bronzed look. It is then ready for cooking straight out of the box, although cooks often prefer to build up their own seasoning over time and never use soap to clean it. Finex adds a little oak wood scraper and a scourer to every package. The latter is a silicon sponge surrounded by stainless steel chain mail, which has the right texture for removing food particles.
In an age of disposable merchandise, the goal here is the making of an authentic heirloom. "You can drop them, but nothing would happen," said Rad. "You'd have to run one over with a truck to damage it, and then it would just be the handle."
A mix of sand and clay is pressed hard around a pan.
The form is opened up, the pan removed, the form is put back together and liquid iron is pumped in.
The iron is a highly specific blend, about 98% iron, with manganese and carbon measured to the 10th of a percent.
When it hardens, the mold is broken away and the skillet blank or pan blank is removed. Then the seams are trimmed off and it is sent for machining.
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)