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Good times in the Badlands

Forty-six years. That’s how long Don’s Custom Cabinet Shop in Rapid City, S.D., has been in business. So you’ve got to figure it’s doing something right.

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The shop’s primary market is residential kitchens and nearly all of its work is generated through customer referrals. It competes against big stores and usually succeeds.

“We’ve always worked hard at explaining to people that they can get a custom kitchen for somewhere close to a home-center price,” says Craig Erickson, son of founder Don Erickson. “Everybody automatically assumes that custom cabinets must be more expensive than the home centers. We beat the home centers pretty regularly in price. The difference is we stand behind our work and, if something breaks, we will replace it because we have the knowledge and background.”

The rural shop is near the Black Hills mountain range in the western part of the state, which offers a bittersweet mix of long winters and scenic and rugged beauty. It operates out of a 9,000-sq.-ft., barn-style building on Don’s property. Don is 87 and still involved, but has passed the torch to Craig.

“We keep dad busy,” Craig Erickson says. “He still works on face frames and does some of the alterations on our work, like cutting cases to fit a bigger refrigerator or something like that for past customers. Once in a while he does a delivery for us, but no lifting,” says Erickson, who juggles the roles as the shop’s manager and bookkeeper.

Erickson started working for his dad part-time at age 15 and full-time at 17. His friend since childhood, Todd Craig, is the shop foreman. It’s currently a seven-person shop that produces 30 to 40 kitchens per year.

Family roots

Don Erickson and his crew from a 1961 newspaper photo.

Don Erickson didn’t exactly set out to become a woodworker. There was some chance and lots of hard work involved for any opportunity that became available so he could support his family. As a teenager in the late 1940s, he worked as a ranch hand at a family farm in Hamill, S.D., before a devastating hailstorm ruined all the crops. He then moved to Rapid City, where he delivered beer for Budweiser and did other odd-and-ends jobs. In 1951, he married his now-deceased wife Betty, before being drafted during the Korean War and serving as an Army cook in Germany. He returned to Rapid City in 1953, working first for Lampert Lumber Co., then Buckingham Wood Products, where he ran a crew for a new cabinet shop.

Don and Betty built their house in 1958. The next year, Don started building kitchen cabinets for local acquaintances as well as contractors he met at Buckingham’s who regarded him as a master craftsman. He worked out of his basement and garage until 1963 when he built the first part of the current shop.

By 1970, he was in the position to quit work and started Don’s Custom Cabinet Shop. He’s since built eight additions to the shop, including a showroom, offices and assembly and finishing rooms.

Meeting demands

The shop is “booked solid” from a customer base of small ranchers to millionaires, according to Craig Erickson. Its market reaches parts of Wyoming and Nebraska. The bulk of the orders are for kitchens and baths with a few furniture pieces mixed in.

The shop often runs seven days a week to meet demand. “I’d like to be capable of getting more kitchens out the door, but working seven days a week I don’t want to take on more work. It’s hard to imagine — and I don’t think it will happen — but I wish people were doing my job. Sometimes I’m so busy here because there are certain things that only I can do,” Erickson says.

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“Finding good employees is very tough. It’s challenging getting everything done in the time frame it needs to be done. We keep track of enormous amounts of information that comes through. We’ve got a dozen custom kitchens in play at one time and you have customers calling to make changes to details.”

The shop designs with KCD Software and bought its SCM Tech80 CNC router in 2002. The goal is to provide customers with a turnkey product, though the message isn’t always received, according to Erickson.

“We really struggle with [customers] not realizing that we provide the countertops. They just assume they would order their cabinets here and have to go to a countertop shop to buy countertops. We run into a lot of people being surprised that we offer them, too.”

Face-frame cabinetry, rustic hickory and painted finishes are most often specified.

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“I think Houzz [.com] and magazines are contributing to design preferences. People are seeing more styles painted, so we’re seeing more requests on what they see. They bring pictures in to show us. We don’t turn things away. We always try to do it. We’re capable of just about anything.”

Customer satisfaction

Craig Erickson says the most gratifying part of the business is completing a project and waving goodbye to a happy customer. Part of the sales process includes a guided shop tour.

“Almost always, if they have time, I’ll take them through the shop and show them exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it so they understand what goes into the price,” Erickson says. “Our goal is to service the customer without them thinking we are very expensive and make sure nobody leaves unhappy. We try not to let there be one customer that has a bad taste in their mouth from us, so we work really hard to make sure that chain of negativity can never get started.

“Most of it is communicating with the customer from the beginning. What you learn from making mistakes is to catch them earlier and earlier and make sure if there are any changes in the plans we update them on the price. If there’s ever some sort of error, we get it fixed.”

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Contact: Don’s Custom Cabinet Shop, 23166 Radar Hill, Rapid City, SD 57703. Tel: 605-393-1330.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.

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