03 February 2010

A Hot Business in Old Stoves

Chicago Sun-Times

Business is heating up for Jack Santoro, owner of a company specializing in antique stoves.

With the economy teetering toward a recovery, many consumers are more likely to salvage their old stoves and other kitchen appliances rather than shop for replacements.

Others just treasure their old stoves, touting the superior quality to modern ovens. They're "built like a tank" and designed to last a lifetime, said one industry expert.

But when they do break down, finding replacement parts for the kitchen dinosaurs can be aggravating and time-consuming.

Santoro, owner of Ventura, Calif.-based JES Enterprises, has simplified the process by establishing the Old Appliance Club. It is an antique-stove and -appliance clearinghouse for obsolete stove parts, service and free information. The club has grown to more than 6,000 members since it was formed in 1995, connecting stove enthusiasts from around the world.

The idea is to minimize downtime and help consumers find parts they need by sending out one e-mail, instead of making tons of calls.

Before starting a free search, Santoro asks people to e-mail pictures of the stove and parts needed as well as the part's measurements and model number. He then circulates the picture to warehouses across the country that stock, repair and sell antique stoves.

If the part cannot be found, a replacement sometimes can be fabricated. Although manufacturing a part can be costly, it might be the only way to save a stove.

That was the solution for Jacqueline Shedden, a private chef in New Jersey. She "fell in love" with a Chambers Stove, so much that she designed her kitchen cabinets around it. After the stove was installed, an inspector told her it did not meet code and that she couldn't use it until it was equipped with a safety valve. This is a common problem among older ranges that are match-ignited in the oven section, Santoro said.

Shedden thought she was out of business. But then she found Santoro, who crafted a safety valve for her for $400. He got it back to her in less than two weeks.

"It was amazing," she said.

Shedden said she will never buy a new range again, only antique stoves. At work, she uses Viking equipment.

"I'd like to take it and throw it in the garbage," she said. "I don't find it big enough, it doesn't heat right. It's like working with a Teflon pan compared to a black iron skillet that has been taken care of and has been used for many years."

Many share Shedden's enthusiasm for vintage stoves. Santoro receives 10,000 to 12,000 e-mails a month from people requesting information. To handle so many requests, he relies on specialists throughout the country, a network formed through the Old Appliance Club.

Queries have increased each year as people try to save money by fixing old ranges instead of buying new roaster ovens, and as stoves are inherited and the new owner wants to keep a piece of family history alive, Santoro said. There's also been an uptick in demand for old stoves as more people with rentals opt for "period" mid-century style.

Others obtain ranges and refurbish them as a speculation project for extra money, he said.

"Some people buy them and keep them like they're a bank account, because they don't go down in value," Santoro said.

Andreas Fresh of Ojai, Calif., was reluctant to put his 1920s Magic Chef up for sale on Craigslist for $5,000. It was passed down to him from his father, who purchased it new.

"If we don't sell it for what I want to get for it, we will keep it because I love it so much," he said. "It's the stove I grew up with."

The stove is the "heart" and "warmth" of a home, Fresh said. He called newer stoves soulless, "made to be disposable and not to be fixed."

Modern appliances aren't built as solidly, said Edward Semmelroth, founder of AntiqueStoves.com. Semmelroth, a Michigan resident, teamed up with Santoro on the site, which directs people to the Old Appliance Club for help locating parts.

The site garners about 1.5 million hits a month, and offers how-to manuals. Santoro is building a large library of technical information for antique stoves available in hard copy and as a PDF download. He also published a magazine about old appliances for 10 years, "The Old Road Home," but put that on hold because he's so busy.

When people buy a modern appliance, they might expect it to last 10 years, Semmelroth said. An older stove seldom breaks, he said.

Santoro agrees.

"Most of the antique stoves hold up really well," Santoro said. "A lot of stoves are heirloom stoves -- they've been passed on from generation to generation. Our focus is to keep these stoves running."

Most people don't want to tear out their stove and counters, which is typically much more costly than repairing an old stove, said Erika Santoro, Santoro's wife who helps run the business.

"First of all, they usually like their stove," she said. "They function well, and they were made well."

After 50 or 60 years, the stoves might need a little TLC, but once a part is rebuilt, a stove will probably last a "very long time," she said.

Recycling is great, but remanufacturing is much better because it saves tremendous amounts of energy, Santoro said.

Those in the industry see customers with strong attachments to their vintage stoves. For some, "it's the most dependable thing in their house" and has served them through generations, Semmelroth said.

"It's like a family member," he added. "These things were built to never be hauled to the dump."

He compared an antique stove to a car that a consumer could be happy with for the rest of his life -- it's efficient and never breaks down.

Vintage stoves start around $3,000, Semmelroth said. He thinks it's a better long-term investment than buying new, which could cost about $1,000 to $2,000 for a "mediocre piece."

The Old Appliance Club has made Semmelroth's job of fixing vintage stoves much easier.

"It's like a plumbing job," he said. "You always need the parts you don't have."

Santoro and Semmelroth, who have been in the business for decades, typically know how to help customers immediately because they hear similar problems every day -- like mice making a nest inside the stove's insulation, causing a nasty stench.

The good news, Santoro tells them, is that they don't have to throw out stoves and ovens. The customer can remove panels and replace the ruined insulation.

Santoro's business began locally but grew as the Internet created a global marketplace.

For years, he had a shop in the San Fernando Valley, which he closed in 1995. He now operates JES Enterprises out of his Ventura home.

He found that the amount of space required to store parts and stoves was cost-prohibitive. With the Internet's growth, the core company expanded from a restoration shop into an online clearinghouse.

"When you have just one shop, you're limited to the work you can do," Santoro said. He noted that his office is the "nerve center," and the warehouses across the country are "like a big supermarket."

Having affiliates throughout the nation makes shipping quicker. Every move is streamlined to cut downtime to a minimum.

"The key to a niche antique-based business like this is being connected," he said. "That's where we come in. With a telephone and a connection to the Internet, that's just about all we need to make most requests happen."

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