by Ken Adelman
The Washingtonian, January 2006
“Kitchens have become the main room in the
home,” Karl Keul says. “I hear constantly from Washingtonians that when they
entertain, everybody ends up in the kitchen.”
Falls Church firm, Cameo Kitchens, remodels and installs 140 to 150 Northern
Virginia kitchens a year—says, “Guests feel less formal in the kitchen than in
the living room. They open up a bit more. It’s as if that’s where you take only
your real friends.”
Keul was born
in Bad Kissingen, Germany, in 1943 to an artistic family, some of whom still own
a gallery in Wiesbaden. His father, an oil painter, and his mother, a homemaker,
sought ways to leave Germany after World War II. Finally, in 1950, a US Army
major sponsored their move to North Carolina, where they lived in the officer’s
home for 18 months. Keul’s father painted portraits and Bible scenes on church
learning English for a year, Keul began school. He quit at 17 to join the US
Army, where he received his diploma. He later attended Appalachian State College
in Boone, now part of the University of North Carolina.
He came to
Washington in 1965 for a job with a kitchen cabinet wholesaler. After four
years, he joined a small kitchen-remodeling company in Arlington owned by
William Dembo. “Bill was a man of absolute integrity,” Keul says. “He became
something of a father to me.”
During his 17
years there, Keul developed a following—“people calling in asked for me to do
their kitchen, since I had done their friend’s kitchen—that kind of thing.” When
Dembo passed away in 1984, “I felt like I could do this business, too.” Keul and
his wife, Bonnie, sold their small real-estate holdings to open Cameo Kitchens
The firm now
does $5 ½ million to $7 million in business a year, with 28 full-time
employees. Says Keul: “We have no interest in expanding our volume beyond 140 to
150 kitchens a year, or expanding our staff beyond what we can control.” Thus
potential customers now wait seven to eight months before their kitchen
installation can begin.
a family business. Keul’s brother, George, has worked there for nearly 20 years.
Two of their three daughters are employees too—Kelly is office manager, and
Katie is secretary. Kory attends college in Richmond. One son, Greg is a
draftsman at Cameo. Their son-in-law, Lee Duer, designs and orders the cabinets
and material. Two other sons live in California—Kevin, an artist, and Casey, a
inspected a kitchen installation in Arlington, we talked about what he’s
Why is kitchen
renovation so popular?
Because of low
interest rates and the general perception that a remodeled kitchen is almost
mandatory. When dishwashers first came out, they were a luxury; now they’re
standard. That’s become the same with a remodeled kitchen. People like to
modernize, get rid of older appliances and builder grade cabinets, and get a
real showplace. They want countertops that are easier to clean, more storage,
and better appliances.
What are the biggest
mistakes in renovating?
One is to
consider the renovation just another purchase. Remodeling a kitchen is
completely different from buying a car, for instance. Kitchens depend solely on
the people who design and install them. You can’t get the same product from any
number of dealers. Kitchens depend on the crew for the best design and
common complaint I hear is not about the quality of cabinets or appliances; it’s
about timeliness and quality of installation. There are many horror stories in
this business, all centering on disorganization and bad installations.
The owner of
a prominent local kitchen firm says that if a kitchen dealer tells you your
installation will be done in less than six weeks, that person is lying. Well,
nearly none of our kitchens take six weeks. Regardless of price, our standard
installation is three and a half to four weeks from start to finish. We finish
on time nearly all the time.
Can you really
install a kitchen in three and a half weeks?
contract is for four weeks. We make that time frame easily, with time to spare.
Remember, our installers work for us. We’re not dependent on other people.
demand punctuality and professionalism. They’re better educated than in most
other areas, with a much higher ratio of attorneys. Overall, our customers are
very intelligent and ask detailed, insightful questions. We have to know our
material inside and out.
renovations happen because owners don’t want to give up their existing homes for
new ones, which they can only get way out in Loudoun County or wherever. They’re
in a place close to their work, and their home has appreciated a lot in value.
They want to stay in their neighborhood but get a more modern kitchen.
How long does the
design take, before the installation?
get designed in three or four hours. Some take days. It depends on the
customer’s ideas and the space available. It’s hard to put lots of things into a
small space and make it work out without compromises.
What do people want
in their kitchens?
of counter space. Older kitchens generally had little. They had wall ovens and
cooktops. If you put in a range instead, you immediately pick up 24 to 27 inches
of counter space.
people want a work island. It has a comfortable feeling and opens up access from
different sides. You’re able to spread out more.
How much does an
average kitchen renovation cost?
In this area,
around $45,000 to $55,000 for a really good design, top-grade cabinets, and a
professional installation. On top of that comes the cost of new appliances.
Intricate tile work can also get expensive.
What’s the most
expensive kitchen you’ve done?
A quarter of a
million dollars. We renovated the fellow’s kitchen and installed an office, bar,
and sitting room—with lots of bookshelves, cabinets, and specialty work.
What’s new in
kitchens over the last 15 years?
changed. Fifteen years ago, we did mostly Corian, and even Formica countertops.
Now we’re doing mainly granite. We do ceramic tile in nearly every kitchen,
either as a backsplash or on the floor. We used to do mostly vinyl floors, which
can easily be damaged. Today, ceramic tile is almost indestructible—it’ll last
many years. And most people prefer its natural look, whereas vinyl looks
easy to keep clean and needs no sealing. Granite must be resealed every 18
months or so. And if not properly sealed in the first place, it may absorb some
colors from spills.
have to worry about all this with Corian. Wipe it and it’s clean. My own home
has Corian countertops. If you leave a hot pan on Corian, it’ll scorch the
surface, but Corian can be buffed out. For $100 or so, someone will come out and
remove the scratch.
more wine coolers built into kitchens. They usually hold 24 bottles. We’re also
seeing fewer trash compactors. Out of the 140 or so kitchens we’ll remodel this
year, we’ll install maybe one or two compactors. They’ve fallen out of favor,
probably because trash stored up for a while starts to smell. And the bag
becomes so heavy that it’s hard to remove.
quieter dishwashers these days. Before, running your dishwasher would drive
people out of the kitchen. Now, especially with a Miele or Bosch, you can hardly
tell it’s running.
customers want a remodeled kitchen to be larger. The walls of the previous
dining room get removed to make one big area. By taking out supporting walls, we
can make a big room out of a small kitchen.
that makes entertaining easier. They realize they’ll be entertaining in the
kitchen anyway—that’s where everyone ends up at any party—so they might as well
have the space to do it well.
nowadays run their kitchen cabinets right up to the ceiling. They want to use as
much space for storage as possible.
more roll-out shelves, spice racks, and custom features inside cabinets. People
want to use every square inch of space.
What’s your advice
for someone considering a renovation?
know who you’re dealing with. Do these people really care about me? Will they
give me a lot of references? Get six to eight references of jobs recently
completed. Check them out. You may be surprised at what you find.
Second, get a
firm that has its own employees doing the installation. The trend is to use
subcontractors. The kitchen company sells you the design, cabinetry, and
countertops, maybe even the appliances. Then it turns you over to a different
company to do the installation. That’s great for the renovation company, since
it ducks out of responsibility for the installation, but it makes it harder for
the customer to end up with a happy kitchen experience.
lots of time on your first appointment. Describe in detail what you really want
in your kitchen. The contractor should listen hard and take copious notes. Do
you want to remodel the kitchen in order to sell the home soon? Or live in it
for years? Tell him your family’s habits. How many are in your household? Do
they generally eat at the table or on the run? Do you entertain a lot?
discussion should take two or three hours. The contractor should take down every
dimension of the room, then return to the office to have the kitchen designed
around this family’s likes and dislikes, based on the way they live.
Station, we must have done 10 or 12 kitchens in one small subdivision, but every
kitchen we’ve done in that little neighborhood with similar houses looks
different. Each was designed to suit that particular family.
someone entertains a lot, they’ll need more eating space, a larger refrigerator,
and a different type of stove. I’ve had customers with back trouble—they
shouldn’t reach down to work an oven. They need a wall oven and cooktop. That’ll
drive the design of their particular kitchen.
contractor doesn’t ask the right questions, he can’t design the kitchen that’s
best for that family. The best thing a customer tells us is: “This kitchen feels
right. It’s exactly what we wanted.”
customers, we’ll initially make two or three complete designs. We like to show
them different ways to do their kitchen. They can then choose which they prefer.
Any of the designs would be fine, but they can best decide which one feels
customers an isometric sketch—a perspective drawing—and walk them through it. We
explain what’ll be inside every cabinet, how every inch of their kitchen will be
used. This cuts down on, even eliminates, surprises.
Does that cost them
No. We don’t
charge more for making several designs. Until recently, we didn’t charge for
making designs at all. Then we began to charge $250 to make the initial design.
We did that since we became overwhelmed with business. We could no longer do
free estimates, as each one may take 10 to 15 hours. Every sketch is hand-drawn.
We don’t use computers to design our kitchens or make our drawings.
Have you ever made
After 20 years
in business, the wrong cabinets we’ve made wouldn’t fill one half of one of our
work trucks. I’m talking maybe seven or eight cabinets total.
remodeling a kitchen recoup most of the cost when selling the house?
generally get dollar for dollar what you put in. It’s not like purchasing an
automobile or furniture. You can use your kitchen, and thoroughly enjoy it,
realizing that you’ll generally recoup all of your money.
What’s your own
We bought a
home in Burke in 1988, with a nice builder supplied kitchen. Since then, we’ve
replaced the countertops, but I’ve never taken the time to replace our cabinets.
I’d like to remodel my kitchen, but I work around 70 hours a week and don’t have
the energy or time.
What have you
learned overall about kitchen renovation?
That to do it
well requires lots of time and attention to details. You have to be alert and
aware of what’s going on all the time.
We have four
designers in our little company, two of whom have over 20 years in the business.
Before we present any design or quote to the customer, I go over the drawings
and all of the figures scrupulously. Nothing is presented that I don’t
personally go over.
years in the business, I’ve found that the key to success in kitchen remodeling
is not to make mistakes. I keep on my desk a quote by Jay Leno: “It takes
persistence to succeed. Attitude also matters. I have never thought I was better
than anyone else, but I have always believed I couldn’t be outworked.”
It’s not the
money I do it for. It’s the fact that our name is attached to each project.
We’ve never done a kitchen at Cameo that I’m ashamed of.
Do you remember each
People will call and say, “Karl, 15 years ago, you did my kitchen.” They’ll
mention something and I’ll say, “Oh, yeah, that’s right by your refrigerator,
which is on the south wall.”
Your lessons of
Do your best
for everybody and you can’t go wrong. If you do your best for your customers,
there’s no need for advertising. They’ll do your advertising for you.
career as something that will never be perfect. It requires constant thought and
it’s because of that approach that we’ve never been let down by a customer.
We’ve gotten paid on every single job. And we’ve never hired an attorney. We’ve
never been sued or even threatened with a suit.
we’ve found a way to please our customers. That’s why I sleep okay at night.
NOTE: As of 7-6-09, due to the current economic conditions, Cameo Kitchens no
longer charges for estimates.