At the turn of the last century the world's first food slicer was invented in Holland by Wilhelm Van Berkel.
There, people were no longer content with simple bread and cheese. Social conditions and a moderate degree of prosperity fuelled their demand for more meat and sausage. Butchers were kept busy slicing with 16-inch long carving knives from 7 o'clock in the morning until 11 o'clock at night.
Van Berkel had worked his way up from a butcher's man to be the proprietor 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 implements 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.
It was to Van Berkel's credit that 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 would become the predominant benefits of the new machines.
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 attained with the slicer, and assured 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.
Food industry professionals of today are shocked at the totally unprotected knife edge, but have to smile at Mr Berkel's omission of a meat receiving tray. Turn of the century shoppers had to rely on a butcher's skills at catching their sliced meat before it fell straight to the floor!
Landmark developments since the turn of the century have included the electric motor, knife guards for protection from the circular blade, in-built sharpeners, larger meat tables, stacking trays and features to promote improved food hygiene such as the addition of a back-plate and self-oiling devices.
In Van Berkel's day, speed and quality of slicing were the order of the day. It was not until the 1930s that operator safety became a design consideration. Then later in the 1970s, Berkel pioneered corrosion-free machine finishes and led the way in slicer designs which promoted hygiene and improved food safety.
Today, the name Berkel on a slicer is still synonymous with the very highest standards of quality, safety and reliabilty.