A North Carolina cabinet shop rebuilds better-than-ever after suffering a fire that destroyed virtually everything.

 

Jessica Neal Wineland, design coordinator at Cozy Kitchens, says the attractive new building is indeed a woodworking shop, but in disguise. She said that before the fire the building was just “a typical old cabinet shop in a metal building.”

Kitty Hawk, NC, woodworker Cliff Neal watched two million dollars go up in smoke Sept. 3, 2003, as fire gutted his Cozy Kitchens showroom and shop.

Nine volunteer fire departments responded to the 3 a.m. blaze at the 17,000-square-foot business on Bodie Island, part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. They had it under control by 10 a.m., but by then, “there wasn’t much to control,” Neal says.

Neal and his co-owner wife, Margaret, lost the building, equipment and inventory. It was at the height of their season, Neal says, and inventory was “stacked to the rafters.” Insurance covered part of it, he says, but to rebuild, “we had to bite off quite a chunk.”

Fire investigators feel that the blaze started in the spray facility, he says, and they attribute it to spontaneous combustion where some oily rags were kept. “Kind of embarrassing,” he adds.

Neal, 55, lacked one week of having the building completely paid for. He had come to Kitty Hawk three decades before as a young surfer, entranced by the high waves breaking off the coast. He taught himself carpentry and woodworking, married a woman from the area and, in 1977, opened Cozy Kitchens.

One of his early woodworking attempts, a set of bookshelves, burned in the fire. His earliest project – a short surfboard he made by cutting the middle out of his long surfboard and doweling the ends together – never came close to working. But it taught him that he liked to work with his hands and turned him toward his life’s work.

The fire taught him several things as well. In the 26,000-square-foot shop-showroom that has replaced the original Cozy Kitchens, “the housekeeping is impeccable,” he says. “There’s not a place that’s not vacuumed once a month. That includes rafters and lights.”

David Henley uses the Biesse nesting machining center, which was purchased following the fire and has become a time- and labor-saving machine for the company.

He also learned how much he can depend on his friends, neighbors and employees. “We’re a close-knit group of people down here,” his son Nathan says of the island, reached by bridges from the mainland. The smoke had barely settled when the mayor and the town council showed up, offering help, and a neighboring builder came by to offer temporary office space.

Cozy Kitchens Vice President David Locklear’s attitude was, “Well, we burnt down. Let’s get to work,” Neal recalls. Office manager Kim Endre was just as determined to get going, he says. At 10 a.m., with the fire still smoking but contained, the management team walked through the woods to the builder’s office, accepting not only his offer of space but the pens and paper he provided.

“We didn’t even have that,” Neal remembers. By afternoon, they had an office set up and were making calls to suppliers and customers.

“There wasn’t a single competitor, and I probably have a dozen, who didn’t contact us and offer to help, including Home Depot,” Neal says.

One woodworker, who had equipment similar to Neal’s said, “I’m not busy right now. You want to use my place?” Another offered the use of his spray facility. Two other builders in addition to the one whose office they were using offered office and warehouse space. They snapped up all five offers, Neal remembers.

Cozy Kitchens had been shipping eight to 10 kitchens a week, about half custom work and the other half manufactured kitchens from Executive Kitchens and Wood-Mode, plus appliances from all major manufacturers. Custom work now dominates at the $6 to $7 million business, Neal says, because of the prevalence of remodeling in his area and the nationwide downturn in new-home construction.

“Wednesday, we burnt down. Thursday, we received an order (of manufactured cabinets) into new warehouses. Friday, we shipped them out and installed them,” Neal remembers. “We were in a borrowed cabinet shop on Friday, and in two weeks’ time, making new kitchens from there.”

“We cut it in one spot, took it to another to paint it, took it back (for assembly),” remembers Nathan, who as vice president of operations supervises the shop with foreman Scott Tustin.

Employees who showed up the day of the fire – all but two of the workforce of 35 – at first found their way blocked by fire department barricades. They walked through a neighbor’s driveway and the woods to get to the site, Neal says. “They were determined.”

Two weeks after the fire, Hurricane Isabel immobilized the island and bought them a little extra time. It also gave them a way to repay some of their neighbors’ kindness. Their inventory of 3/4-inch, plain-sliced, bookmatched cherry plywood was water-soaked from firefighters’ hoses, but was still good for covering windows against the approaching storm.

“Hey, there’s plywood at Cozy,” they told their neighbors via radio. “Come and get it.”

“It went real quick,” Neal says.

Viewed from a second-story balcony that encircles the showroom in the new building, one of the kitchen vignettes looks like a dollhouse. But it is a full-size, working kitchen where receptions are held and visiting chefs prepare meals for charity fundraisers.

Rebuilding to a New Level

Having nothing to build from, the Neals could design their replacement shop-showroom just the way they wanted. And, in one of the redeeming aspects of the disaster, the family came together to do it, says Neal. Nathan had been working elsewhere, but wanted to be in on the rebuilding. Daughter Jessica Wineland had just graduated with a degree in industrial design from The Art Institute of Seattle, and she took a hand in planning the new showroom. As design coordinator, she also is responsible for advertising and marketing.

Before the fire, Neal says, “all of our machines were state-of-the-art – from 1982.” They included one small CNC machine bought in 1999.

After the fire, Nathan and Scott Tustin pushed to get a nesting CNC machine that would take the place of beam saw, table saw, line boring and edge boring machines.

“They wanted to take that next step. I was real apprehensive,” Neal says. “I couldn’t understand how you can make a cabinet without a beam saw. But I’m so glad we took it.”

They bought all-new Biesse equipment, including a Rover B FT nesting machining center that has proved to be “a space-saver, time-saver and labor-saver,” says Nathan. The Neals also bought a Polymac Ergho 3 edgebander, an FSE Polymac dowel insertion machine, an Artech Levia 95 widebelt sander and a Cosmo NK case clamp.

“We have a panel saw, but the only thing we use it for is cutting countertops,” Nathan says.

Finishing is done in-house in a spray booth built by Carolina Virginia Manufacturing, using Kremlin spray guns and M.L. Campbell conversion varnishes. In all, the investment in equipment accounts for some $600,000 to $800,000 of the $2.5 million rebuilding total, Neal estimates.

Cherry crown moulding and kick contrast with the yellow paint and rub-through on these cabinets made by Cozy Kitchens. Photo by Amy Dixon Photography.

The shop makes kitchen and bath cabinets, mantels and entertainment centers. Doors are solid cherry, maple and other species or thermofoil, and interiors are either prefinished plywood or melamine. Approximately 95 percent of cabinets are European style, though the company will build face-frame cabinets if the customer wants them, says Nathan.

The cabinets are sold from a new showroom that, from the outside, could be mistaken for one of the upscale homes dotting the island. Ponds with sculpture and greenery surround the building; roses grow up to the front porch. Jessica laughs that the two-story structure covered with Hardie Board to resemble wood is a woodworking shop in disguise. The combined showroom-shop is concrete block and metal, Neal says. “We made it as fireproof as possible.”

Inside the showroom, sofas and tables are in the center of a large room, surrounded by vignettes of kitchens. In one vignette, a working kitchen, visiting chefs sometimes whip up meals for charity events. A reception preceding the Parade of Homes is held here. Offices open off a second-story balcony.

Though Margaret made sure that the former building was surrounded by meticulously landscaped grounds, it was “a typical old cabinet shop in a metal building,” Jessica says. “Rather dark,” her father concedes.

Now, he says, “One of the first things people say when they come in is, ‘Wow.’ We wanted it to be a comfortable place to come, not like you are going into a mass merchandise area.

“In July of 2004, we were able to get in the manufacturing portion of this building. In August, we were able to get into the showroom. In less than a year, we were in our new facility,” he says.

“Our community was just so generous and so helpful,” he adds. “We just kept going. We never stopped.”

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