As a fourth-generation butcher, Byron Longenecker understands the importance of maintaining well-honed cutlery, but he never imagined that his artful technique as a knife sharpener would evolve into a full-time profession.
The high demand for keenly sharpened knives in the food service industry, and well-kept shears in the cosmetology business, has given Longenecker an edge in the Flathead Valley, where he owns and operates Montana Mobile Sharpening.
Longenecker’s signature bright yellow trailer is loaded with specialized sharpening equipment and can often be seen parked outside local restaurants, salons, delis, pet-grooming businesses, and private residences, all of which depend on sharp blades in order to achieve success or host a dinner party.
In addition to the basic utility that Montana Mobile Sharpening provides, Longenecker said the business also evokes a nostalgic fondness for a craft that has been around for centuries. And while Longenecker said the craft has been dying in recent decades, he believes it’s still relevant in a modern context.
“It’s definitely a vintage trade, but the community has been very welcoming,” he said. “There is definitely a community sense that people seem to really love. I’ll pull up to someone’s home, sharpen their cutlery and they tell me about how the old sharpener used to come through their family’s neighborhood with a cart and a wheel stone. There’s an authenticity to it.”
Montana Mobile Sharpening has developed a stout list of clients that spans the Flathead Valley, where Longenecker services the kitchens at Kalispell Regional Healthcare and Flathead Valley Community College, as well as at smaller operations, such as Sykes Diner and Bullman’s Pizza.
Sharpening scissors, shears and hair clippers has become a fast-growing component of Montana Mobile Sharpening, in part because stylists rely on their shears — the costs of which can run more than $2,000 — as essential tools for their trade.
“For stylists, shears are their babies. That’s how they make their money, so they can’t just go without them for a day or two,” Longenecker said. “That’s where the mobile aspect comes in handy. I bring my services to them, so they don’t have to miss any time out of the chair.”
A Montana native, Longenecker moved from Hamilton to Kalispell in 1999 before attending seminary school and becoming a pastor. Although he still provides counsel to individuals, he said the rigors of pastoring was an emotionally draining endeavor, and prompted him to seek out a new line of work.
Growing up with a father who worked as a meat cutter, and whose father’s father worked as a meat cutter, Longenecker had an innate sense that in order to most efficiently debone a prime rib or portion out a beef tenderloin, a knife must be sharp enough to shave the hair off your arm.
“I grew up a butcher’s kid, so I knew how to sharpen a knife,” he said.
He initially launched his business in Billings before moving back to the Flathead with his family, and now maintains a suite of machines in his trailer, employing different methods and techniques to carefully hone the edges of any blade or knife.
But for Longenecker, sharpening knives and shears is as much an art form as it is his livelihood, requiring a range of techniques and monk-like patience to attain greatness. A successful sharpener must also earn the trust of his clients, who are wary of turning over their precious steel to any amateur off the street.
“This is why the mobile sharpener, or any craft that demands excellence, will always be needed,” Longenecker said. “It’s not about making a buck or seeking my own success. That’s too small of a vision. Any craft or art done well is a gift of excellence to be enjoyed by others.”
Similar to roving doctors and dentists who once provided mobile services by horse and buggy, Montana Mobile Sharpening offers house calls for residential customers in addition to larger-scale businesses.
Longenecker attributes some of his success to a widespread longing for simpler times, when people placed more value in long-lasting quality.
“Not to get too philosophical but it seems that because we are in a fairly narcissistic culture we struggle to not view things and the world around us as disposable. If a material item doesn’t cost much, or if relationships don’t benefit us in some way, it’s disposable. Old, bent, broken? Throw it away and seek new. I believe deep down people know this isn’t the way it was meant to be,” he said.
“The local sharpener may appear to be simply recycling edges but it’s much more than that. It’s about restoration,” he added. “It’s about the indispensable value. I’m in the business of the old made new. That’s why I’ll always be welcomed with smiles and have work in my community.”