Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Have you tried it barefoot?"

That's Robb McMahan, CEO and founder of GelPro, telling me that his company's chef-friendly floor mats -- created for his wife, a long-suffering home cook -- feel even better when used sans shoes.

Since I use mine at a stand-up computer workstation in the Post-Gazette newsroom, I think I'll have to pass on that idea until I use one in my kitchen at home. Besides, it has worked pretty well for me with shoes, too.

Let me backtrack a bit and stress that anything with give is better than standing on a hard surface for hours at a time. Chefs who spend long hours in kitchens are on to this, and so are the makers of comfort mats that soothe tired legs and feet.

I discovered kitchen comfort mats when standing for long hours at work became a necessity. I'm an editor, not a chef, but after suffering with a herniated disc and subsequent surgery, sitting for any length of time can still be uncomfortable, sometimes painful.

So standing, for me, is a relief -- at least from the disc problem.

The kind folks at the Post-Gazette have provided me with a stand-up work station to alleviate my back pain, for which I am eternally grateful. But standing for large chunks of the day created a whole other set of problems I hadn't anticipated -- the stress on my knees, feet and hips from standing for hours at a time.

So I Googled "stand-up work station" and "ergonomics." And that's when I discovered comfort mats, some made for individuals who spend a lot of work time at, say, a drafting table, but mostly for hard-working chefs.

When I called the company, GelPro, I had already spent a couple of weeks on a floor mat from Crown Mats Matting Floor. I found it on Amazon.com for $20, though it came from ReStockIt. It was described as being "made of Zedlan, a compound with highly elastic properties; three times more resilient than a vinyl foam mat." I bought a 24-by-36-inch, 3/8-inch-thick royal blue mat that reminded me of an exercise mat when I opened it. It claimed to reduce strain on feet, ankles, legs and back.

It did all that, but besides looking like something from a gym, it felt somewhat slippery and never quite lost its curled edges.

The top of the line, from what I could see, was GelPro out of Austin, Texas, so I called and asked about trying one out for a story. GelPro sent a 20-by-36-inch mat covered in "truffle color medium basket" weave in synthetic leather that sells for around $100 (depending on size and design, the price range is $100 to $300).

It not only looked better, but also had solved more problems than even I anticipated, such as being stain-resistant on top and having a nonslip bottom "infused with an antimicrobial additive which suppresses mold and mildew."

If you've ever spilled a hot mess onto a foam mat in the kitchen, you know why these features are such a bonus.

According to the GelPro Web site, antifatigue mats take the sting from standing in a stationary position on a hard surface by "forcing subtle movements of leg and calf muscles, which in turn promotes a less restricted flow of blood back to the heart. The muscle movement also helps prevent spasms and muscle tension. Anti-fatigue mats also lower the overall shock forces that are transmitted to body joints with each step. Without sufficient cushion, these impact forces can have a debilitating effect by the end of the day."

Mr. McMahan, an engineer and inventor with an entrepreneurial spirit, was inspired to create his first GelPro Anti-Fatigue Floor Mat by his wife's aching feet.

At the time, he was vice president of engineering for a medical device company.

"My wife basically cooks a ton, because she's such a great cook. We were having Thanksgiving dinner, and it was one of these deals where after spending four, five, six hours cooking she said, 'My back and feet are killing me; go buy one of those foam kitchen mats."

The mat lasted less than a month, a victim of kitchen spills and constant use. Others lasted longer, but were not stain-resistant and even got moldy when liquid was trapped between the mat and the floor.

Mr. McMahan, who had experimented with gel mats in his job with the medical company, felt he could do better. He quit and he and his wife put their life savings into creating the mat, which they began selling in a kitchen gourmet store in their hometown of Austin.

The mats flew out the door, Mr. McMahan said, and the company has grown so much that there are plans for a second factory to make customized mats and other ventures. In 2006, at the fourth annual Gourmet Golds Awards, part of the Gourmet Housewares Show, the GelPro chef's mat was the winner in the textile category.

The GelPro mats are now in retail stores, locally at Bed, Bath & Beyond, Rolliers Hardware and Artifacts. Higher-end versions will be rolled out to be sold by Neiman Marcus.

There's also one under my feet as I write this.

For someone who stands in one spot for hours at a time, it's a lifesaver. For a chef who is constantly on the move, I imagine it might be even more comfortable, putting a literal spring in his or her step.

See this review on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.