After 26 years in business, House of Kustom owners Joe and Tanya Plutt plan to close the doors of their popular College Road furniture store and retire at the end of the summer. The couple sat down in their sunny, spacious showroom Friday morning and reflected on their lives and what they’ve learned in more than a quarter of a century of small business ownership.
Joe was born in Fairbanks and Tanya came here with her family in 1961. The couple met through friends, attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks together and were married in the late 1970s. Joe worked in the retail grocery field and Tanya worked at Fairbanks Clinic before quitting to become a stay-at-home mother to their two sons. They purchased the store from former owners Jack and Kathy Pendley in 1994 after Joe decided it was time for a change.
“I thought at that time it would be nice to have my own business and be my own boss,” Joe said. “We started looking and ran across this place. We talked about it and decided it might be fun to have a furniture store.”
The couple said the transition was relatively painless.
“The previous owners went with us to the furniture markets and kind of taught us the tricks of buying,” Tanya said.
“It didn’t seem to be difficult,” Joe added. “It’s not a high volume store so it was pretty easy to run. We fell into it quite comfortably and pretty fast.”
Even though neither of them had any prior experience selling furniture, Joe and Tanya applied themselves to the task and quickly became experts.
“We learned an awful lot. It’s really been helpful going out to the furniture shows,” Joe said. “A lot of it was trial and error. Some things work and some things don’t. For example, we used to sell mattresses, and we found that wasn’t a good fit for us because we didn’t have the space to show 20-30 different mattresses. You have to have a whole showroom just full of mattresses.”
The Plutt’s have built their reputation by providing quality furniture to discerning customers who didn’t mind paying top dollar for pieces that will last for lifetimes. Many of the recliners and couches are from the Stressless furniture collection by Ekornes, and almost all of the wood furniture pieces such as dining tables, bedroom sets, chairs, entryway benches and coffee tables are Amish-made.
“We have three different Amish lines,” Tanya said. “Everything’s very well constructed, everything’s solid wood, no veneers, and the joinery is dove-tailed. These are pieces that our customers are going to be passing down to their kids.”
The majority of their business is special-order, according to Joe.
“A quality piece of furniture is an investment and people don’t purchase it on an impulse. Usually it requires days, weeks, even months for people to decide on the exact right piece — the right finish, the right wood and so forth,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Joe pointed to a sleek, gray leather recliner and ottoman.
“For instance, people might like that chair but they don’t like the color. It’s available in 30-40 different colors and eight different wood stains.”
The Plutt’s have adjusted their inventory throughout the years as different styles waxed and waned in popularity.
“I would say the biggest change has been the mix of furniture that we offer now, as opposed to 26 years ago. We’ve constantly added and deleted lines over the years as customer’s tastes have changed,” Joe said.
When asked if he had any advice for anyone wanting to start a small business, Joe said he could only speak to what worked for him and Tanya.
“We found that offering a quality product and giving the best possible service definitely works. For us, we’ve kept it as a small mom and pop operation. That allows us to react quickly to changing economic conditions as fast as we need to,” Joe said. “We have part-time help, but we made the decision several years ago to shorten our hours to 35 hours a week, so that makes it easy to run.”
Tanya noted that running a furniture store has allowed her and Joe a lot of flexibility in their lives.
“With a furniture store, you can lock the doors at 6 o’clock and go home. With a restaurant you are married to that business 24/7. When we wanted to take off for a week or 10 days we’d just close the doors, because we’re not the type of store where people are going to panic if we’re closed for a week. When we would go to market we’d usually tack on a few extra days and we’d let the customers we were working with know that we’d be gone.”
When planning their retirement, the Plutt's decided to sell off their inventory and close the doors for good instead of selling the store to someone else.
“First of all, aside from the fact that this is probably a bad time to sell a nonessential business, there’s no way to guarantee that somebody we sold it to would hold to the same reputation that we’ve developed over the years, and that’s important to us,” Joe said. “We just want to leave on a high note.”
News of the couple’s upcoming retirement spread quickly after it was announced on the House of Kustom Facebook page Wednesday morning.
“We have had nothing but positive comments on it about the service, the quality and how much folks are going to miss us,” Tanya said.
The Plutt’s will sell off their inventory over the course of the summer and close at some point in September. Customers can still special order pieces up until that time because the Plutt’s will keep their off-site warehouse open for another year to fulfill those orders.
“We wanted to give our customers a lot of notice because there are many people out there who have been buying furniture in stages and may still be making decisions,” Joe said. “We didn’t want to cut out in the middle of that process, so this gives people time to get their special orders in and decide what they want to do and if they want to fill any holes or finish any collections they’ve started.”
The Plutt's plan to stay in Fairbanks after retirement.
“We’re going to stay busy, but without having the store we’re going to have more freedom to travel a bit more and be gone longer. I’m at the point where I need to get out more often in the wintertime,” Joe said.
When asked if he and Tanya had any regrets about buying the House of Kustom 26 years ago, Joe shook his head and smiled contentedly.
“We’re happy with the decisions we’ve made. It’s been fun. We’ve had ups and downs, but overall it hasn’t been difficult. I think keeping a low overhead and staying small so we could react to changes kept us from getting stressed out.”
Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.