The sign outside the former LobSteer restaurant on U.S. 1 in Southern Pines proclaims that Spartan Blades is coming soon.
“We’ve had people coming in and asking about being short-order cooks and waitresses,” co-owner Curtis Iovito said with a laugh last week, “so we’re telling people it’s going to be a Greek-Japanese fusion restaurant.”
The confusion is understandable, given that the LobSteer operated on the site for 44 years until closing last year.
But Spartan Blades manufactures finely crafted tactical and field knives for the military, law enforcement, outdoor enthusiasts and collectors. The knives are sold in gun shops, cutlery shops and specialty stores in 30 states and 20 countries through a network of 120 authorized dealers.
“We’ve gained quite a bit of notoriety in the past few years,” Iovito said. “We had over $1 million in sales for the first time last year.”
Iovito and business partner Mark Carey, who met while serving in the U.S. Army Special Forces, currently produce 2,500 knives a year in less than 1,000 square feet of space in what used to be the mule barn at Malcolm Blue Farm in Aberdeen.
“The foundation is original, but the barn has burned and been rebuilt twice since the Civil War,” Carey said.
The company founders and two other employees are “literally tripping over each other in here,” Iovito said. “Our dealer orders are stacking up, and we need to reduce our delivery time. We’ll also be able to hire three new employees and double or triple production once we move.”
A six-figure renovation of the 5,000-square-foot former restaurant began last month and is scheduled for completion in May.
“We gutted the building,” Iovito said. “The only thing we kept was the bar, which we’re going to use in our showroom.”
The company financed the purchase and renovation of the building, incurring its first debt since launching in 2008.
“It will be retired pretty quickly,” Carey said. “We’re a small company, but we make mid- to high-end knives. And there is no accounts receivable here.”
Iovito began making knives “as a young sergeant” 20 years ago while serving at Fort Lewis in Washington state.
“I would do it on my own time on weekends,” he said. “I made one for myself, one for a buddy, and it grew from there.”
Iovito met Carey in 1997 when both were snipers for a counter-terrorism unit stationed in Southeast Asia.
“Then they sent us both here to Fort Bragg,” Iovito said. “We launched the company in 2008, which was a few years after we had retired from the Army.”
Ironically, he and Carey initially put together three business plans to manufacture sniper rifles, gun accessories and knives, respectively.
“We talked to people in each industry,” Iovito said. “We discovered that sniper rifles were too expensive and the insurance premiums were too high, and that the margins on gun accessories are bad.”
Carey noted that knife making “affords us the most latitude creatively.”
“And it allows us to service a lot of different product needs,” he said. “We make knives that retail from $150 to $695. Every order gets a handwritten thank-you note. When you sell a premium product, you have to have premium customer service.”
Spartan Blades buys its steel from a company in New York, but manufactures its knives in North Carolina, using companies in Aberdeen, High Point and Greensboro for cutting, milling, heat treating and coating each knife.
“We finish the knives here in our shop,” Iovito said. “We’ve got a great recipe that works.”
But no need for short-order cooks or waitresses.