Rivendell Woodworks is a father-and-sons shop in Concord, Calif. celebrating its 45th year in business. Founder Kanda Alahan and his three sons – Nandi Evje, Jeremy Evje and Kendiah Alahan – have been business partners since 2005
“I like that it’s not just me. It’s all four of us, which makes a big difference in the quality of work and our incentive to succeed,” says Kanda, who has three additional employees, plus part-time help as needed.
“Everything we do is truly custom. We shepherd the job from idea to completion. We’ll take plans already drawn up, but we refine them to the point where it can be built precisely how the customer wants.”
From toys to cabinets
The shop, located northeast of San Francisco, designs, builds and installs custom cabinetry. But that wasn’t always the case.
After graduating with an anthropology degree from Sonoma State University, Kanda took a series of odd jobs and eventually started a toy making shop, Rivendell Toys, in 1975.
“After college I picked wine grapes up in the wine region and then worked as a waiter and realized I didn’t like working for other people. So, I decided I’d try my hand at my hobby, woodworking. I made a few things like toys and a redwood burl table and took them to a consignment store, but the only things they were interested in were my wooden toys and rocking horses. So, that’s what determined what I started in in woodworking,” he says.
The name Rivendell was inspired by the Lord of the Rings book.
“I figured this magical valley in Middle Earth where elves lived and made magical things was called Rivendell, so we started out as Rivendell Toys. Then it eventually became Rivendell Woodworks. It’s nice when people recognize it,” says Kanda.
Kanda says t was difficult to make a living selling toys at craft shows, so he joined his brother who was building homes in San Diego.
“My brother was a contractor and the very first house he built, he invited me to build my very first kitchen. That was in 1982,” he says.
Kanda was a full-time cabinetmaker in the Bay Area by 1991. Four years later, Rivendell Woodworks moved into its current 6,000-sq.-ft. shop in Concord. His sons had been involved on and off throughout the years before going all in.
“My sons, in their childhood, were rocking horse test pilots and helped on the weekend making extra money in the shop and often did some of their own things for periods of time. But they came back and one by one started working for me as regular employees. In 2005, they formally asked to become my partners - it was Jeremy who instigated that request - and I was more than pleased to invite them in.”
A blessing in disguise
Most jobs are generated through repeat customers and referrals. “We’re a small company and most of our work comes through contractors, as well as some architects and designers. Having good relationships with them ensures that they will be feeding us work on a fairly regular basis,” says Kanda.
“We have done work as far as San Jose and south of there and as far north as Napa Valley, but most of our work is concentrated in the east side of the Bay in Oakland, Berkley and the higher income neighborhoods in the areas around us. We occasionally go into San Francisco, but we don’t like to do that because facing the traffic is not worth it.”
An average kitchen project is quoted in the $40,000 to $80,000 range. The shop’s biggest job to date was around a half million dollars for a home in San Francisco.
“We of course do smaller jobs, too, a bathroom vanity here and there, but our bread and butter, the meat of our work, is doing full kitchens, says Kanda.
A majority of projects embrace European-style design. The shop outsources finishing, which tends to be paint or clear coats on fine hardwoods.
The shop floor features a Weeke Vantech 480 CNC, Holz-Her Streamer 1057 edgebander, Butfering Optimat sander/planer, Altendorf F45 sliding table saw, SawStop table saw, and Microvellum software for shop drawings and cut lists.
Kanda says the CNC was purchased after a fire damaged the shop in 2013, which started from an electrical short in a chop saw. “Rather than looking at the downside of the experience, we decided to make the best of it and finally purchase the top item on our wish list. The fire came as a blessing in disguise as it gave us the impetus and inspiration to make the most valuable purchase in our company’s history.”
Dealing with challenges
Work is continuing to roll in despite California’s Covid-19 restrictions that began in March. The shop did have some layoffs. “But we did get our PPP loan and hired everyone back,” says Kanda. “The shelter in place started here before anywhere else in the country so we’ve been in this condition a long time. Things have lightened up a little. Hopefully, this will pass, and it will eventually, but the world is changing so we have to change with it.
“The crash in 2008 was difficult for us like it was for everybody and we did have a reduced workforce. The higher-end clientele is less affected by downturns in the economy than regular people and it didn’t affect us as much, but we did have difficulties during that time.”
The market is saturated with custom cabinet shops, but Rivendell has always stood out.
“There is competition, but I feel that with our high-end niche in the market the competition is not so much another cabinet shop, it’s when the client decides if they want a new kitchen or new Tesla or another expensive item,” says Kanda.
“We’re one of the few shops that does custom work to this level. A lot of contractors that we work with know the level of work we offer and try to sell the client on using us, so it’s interesting because we don’t feel pitted up against other shops often but if we are, if we don’t get the job, then we weren’t the product they were looking for.”
The family agrees they need to relocate to a larger shop in the next five years. But the immediate concern is operational improvements, according to Jeremy Alahan.
“One major goal within the next year is to have our schedules align with our work going on with the company,” he says. “Scheduling is a challenging aspect of this line of work because clients get cold feet, they pull back, they delay their project, then you have to shift things around.”
Kanda is pushing his sons to become actively involved with the Cabinet Makers Association and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, which he credits for helping him grow the business.
Now 70, Kanda is eying retirement and wholeheartedly believes that his sons will carry on quite well. “I’m an optimist. I’m always positive that things will work out. We’ve been through difficult times several times, but we’ve gotten through them and we’re growing. As I approach full retirement, I think the company is in good hands with my sons. They’ve taken it further than I could have on my own and they’re much better craftsmen than me. I’m pleased with where the company’s going.”
Contact: Rivendell Woodworks, 2570 Cloverdale Ave. No. 10, Concord, CA 94518. Tel: 925-676-9663. www.rivendellwoodworks.com