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Fellers family: Restaurant outfitters
By Ashleigh Behlmann
Springfield Business Journal Contributor

Adaptability is important for a small business.

For 60 years, Fellers Fixtures has been reshaping itself in order to maintain a successful niche.

"My mother and father started this in 1945 as a used furniture company. In the 1950s, they progressed to restaurant equipment, and that's all we do now," said co-owner and CEO Carl Fellers, who joined the company full time in 1969.

Fellers took over in 1973 for Howard and Phyllis Fellers and moved the business from Boonville Avenue to West Grand in 1985. Fellers' brother and co-owner, Bill Fellers, is secretary and treasurer and operates the used equipment division.

The company serves commercial clients, primarily in the southern half of Missouri, with their food-service needs. Its client list includes Village Inn, Rib Crib and Belgian Waffle House.

"We sell mostly to restaurants, hospitals, schools and nursing homes," Fellers said. "We have everything they need from teaspoons to walk-in coolers and freezers."

Fellers added that his company serves both fledgling restaurateurs just learning their way and entire chains of restaurants. Working with such a diverse clientele for so many years afforded Fellers Fixtures the expertise to offer design services.

"We do kitchens mainly, but we can do the front of the house also. We can take clients from the ground up from their own ideas," Fellers said. "If they give us a rough copy of their menu, we can work with architects to incorporate kitchen plans into the overall plans of the restaurant or food service facility."

Fellers Fixtures employs three designers, under co-owner and president David Peck, who use a computer-aided drafting program to create their designs. There are 33 employees at the company, which posted $8.2 million in revenues in 2004.

Fellers believes that providing design services allows his company to better compete in the market.

"It's a large volume of our business," he said, attributing 50 percent of business to contract/design work, 45 percent to walk-in sales and 5 percent to used equipment sales. "We design and install about 30 kitchens per year between the schools, the chains and the independent restaurants."

Scramblers Inc. is one of several companies Fellers Fixtures recently has worked with on kitchen design projects.

"They worked with local architects and … coordinated everything from an equipment standpoint," said Bill Cox, Scramblers president.

That work has led to an agreement for Fellers to outfit all of the Scramblers franchise restaurants.

"They will be working with architects throughout the country and providing equipment as well," Cox added. "They're a great family-owned business, and keeping things within the community is probably our No. 1 priority."

Exit plan

While after 60 years Fellers Fixtures remains a family business, Carl Fellers acknowledges that in the future that may change. One of the lessons he learned from his father was how to exit gracefully for the well-being of the company.

"I was lucky. My father gave me this opportunity and when he retired, he retired. He never second-guessed me or tried to micromanage," Fellers said. "I'm only 55, but I am already working on my exit plan because I don't want to make the mistake of staying too long. We have some good people here, and some family members that I think will be here for a long time, but we try to bring in people who really want to be in this industry so that this business is here for another 60 years."
Fellers said it would be premature to speculate about a potential successor.

$1 million addition

Fellers Fixtures has not yet celebrated its 60th anniversary, which was in September, but plans to do so when a new $1 million showroom opens in early December. The company is adding 13,200 square feet to its West Grand showroom, bringing the total to 20,000 square feet. The entire facility will be 54,000 square feet.

Fellers hopes to increase both commercial and private patronage with this new addition. "The core of our business is still commercial, but we hope that people will come in here and see that you don't have to spend a fortune to cook well," he said. "A lot of people think you have to go out and spend $200 on a pan to be a good cook, but that's not what the chefs use."

Making such changes is part of what has kept Fellers Fixtures competitive for such a long time.

"I'm not sure how well this works with my exit plan. Here I am, 55 years old, and I'm spending $1 million on the building - which was paid for," Fellers said. "But if you don't do things like that it makes it a lot easier for the competition to come in. We compete by being full-service and by being small enough that we can react to whatever our clients need."