I don’t suppose my ideal Christmas present is on everyone’s list but I’ve always wanted a big bad boy bacon slicer and the Berkel is tops.
Wilhelm van Berkel, was born in Holland on 5 February 1869, son of a pub owner and brother of a butcher. He was the inventor of a cutting machine with a movable meat table. This way meat products could be cut neatly and regularly Up until that time butchers were kept busy slicing with 16-inch long carving knives.
Van Berkel had worked his way up from a butcher’s boy to become the owner of three successful shops. Then he began the deliberate search for a winning way to slice sausages and other meats mechanically.
This quest took years, often working through the night, ruining costly pieces of meat and starting many times over. During his search he saw the attempts of others who had devised mechanisms for slicing meat. No matter how ingenious these were – with spiral or elliptical knives – they could not be put to any practical purpose at all.
Van Berkel’s search was eventually rewarded. His find was the concave knife and an upper table sliding automatically towards the blade. He succeeded in constructing a prototype which more than proved its worth in his own pork shop.
He realised at once the far-reaching possibilities of his invention. He applied for a patent and immediately began to consider ways of mass producing his slicing machine.
This invention was set to revolutionise the butcher’s trade, where quality of cut and the speed of the slicer were very important.
By 1898, Van Berkel has started production at factories based in Rotterdam, and soon slicers were in demand all over Europe. Master butchers simply could not believe that hand-sliced meat or sausage could be matched or even excelled by a machine !
With his experience in the trade, Van Berkel confidently took to the road to win over all the butchers. He skillfully demonstrated the results that could be achieved with the slicer, and reassured butchers they would be fully employed coping with the increased business generated.
Van Berkel’s foresight and commercial spirit quickly led him to foreign markets. Berkel Ltd was established in London in 1908 and was manufacturing slicers in England for a period after the first World War. In America, Berkel started manufacturing as the U.S. Slicing Machine Co. Inc. in 1909. By 1915, the company had outgrown its facilities in Chicago and moved on to La Porte, Indiana.
Now part of Avery Berkel, slicers and food processing equipment are still sold under the Berkel brand throughout its companies and distribution network.
Van Berkel’s Patent Model A was the first commercially produced slicing machine to come out of the Rotterdam factory in 1898. This somewhat clumsy looking machine is today a museum piece. A hundred years ago it revolutionised the butcher’s trade across Europe, though it was anything but cheap to buy. The price was often more than the total value of the inventory of many a butcher’s business.
After the 1st World War Van Berkel also started with the production of balances and related products for the butcher and the Food Industry. Sale offices and factories were built in several countries, in the United States under the name Slicing machine Co. Inc. and in United Kingdom under the name of Berkel Ltd.
Here’s a clip in which Emilio Mitidieri discusses and demos one of his antique Berkel meat slicers on The History Channel’s “Modern Marvels: Cold Cuts”, from his showroom in San Francisco’s Mission district.
There’s also a super-cool animation here demonstrating how a Berkel works !
Charlie the Butcher