By David M. Fitzpatrick
Of The Weekly Staff
Kitchen-cabinet retailer Atlantic Designs is celebrating 25 years in business, but if it weren’t for a decision of quality control 13 years ago, the company might not have survived.
The company’s story actually began in 1960, when owner John Cousins’ parents opened Consolidated Supply Co. on Railroad Street in Bangor, selling plywood sheets and door hardware to cabinetmakers. Later, they became one of the first in the area to sell pre-fabricated cabinets. Cousins worked there during high school, and enjoyed designing layouts for kitchen cabinets.
“I was intrigued by it — always Rubik’s Cube-ing it together,” he said.
Cousins became certified through the American Institute of Kitchen Dealers in 1977, but worked other jobs for several years after his parents’ retirement in 1982. When his parents’ Railroad Street building became vacant in 1988, Cousins opened Atlantic Designs there, and two years later moved to its present location on Outer Hammond Street.
But when Cousins brought granite into the mix 13 years ago, out of necessity, he had no idea how vital it would become.
When Cousins first provided granite for a customer, nobody in the area handled it, so he had to bring in a granite fabricator from Vermont. Later, he worked with stonemasons and then granite contractors. But after a few harrowing experiences where he was at the mercy of his granite providers — but personally on the hook with his customers — Cousins decided it was time to expand.
“I said, I’ve got to have control over it — so we can do it when we say we’re going to do it, get it done, and get it done right,” he said.
He opened an on-site granite shop, and his son J.C. joined the business to run it. Cousins quickly discovered J.C.’s talents were best used as a kitchen designer, but the shop continued, cutting out the middleman and ensuring quality control. J.C.’s brother Mike joined the family business for a time, and business boomed.
Eventually, that granite decision proved to be key. In 2008, the housing bubble burst; suddenly, the number of kitchens full of new cabinets dropped sharply. People began doing less-expensive upgrades — such as pulling laminate countertop and replacing it with granite. According to Cousins, Atlantic Designs is the only kitchen-cabinet retailer in the region that cuts its own granite, and today granite represents about 40 percent of the company’s business.
It might have made the difference in the company’s survival. When Cousins’ parents were first in business, there was no “kitchen cabinets” category in the phone book. By 1983, just after they closed, there were 18 just in Greater Bangor, and 20 by 1990 when Atlantic Designs was in business. But after the recession hit in 2008, the numbers began dropping. By 2009, there were just eight listed. The 2012-2013 phone book lists just four.
Granite has helped that survival, but so has keeping the operation lean.
“I always make decisions on whether it’s needed or whether it’s vanity,” he said. “When times were tougher, I wasn’t out on the wrong end of the branch, sawing.”
Cousins’ success through the recession has enabled him to convert former rental space into a new granite fabrication shop that will triple the square footage over the old shop. The new facility is needed to fit the new granite saw Cousins is bringing in.
Even during the tight times, the company has supported local charities. Atlantic Designs has helped with 10 homes for Habitat for Humanity; generally, the company supplies the cabinets at cost and installs free of charge.
This year, Atlantic Designs was once again featured in the annual Eastern Maine Medical Center Auxiliary Kitchen Tours. Funds raised benefit the new pediatric oncology floor at EMMC Cancer Care’s Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer, nursing scholarships, and the Children’s Miracle Network in eastern and northern Maine.
Helping others wouldn’t happen without the company’s ongoing success, though, and Cousins said there are two major factors in that. The first is carrying only quality products, such as the American-made Wellborn Forest and StarMark he’s carried since the beginning.
But the second major factor is every bit as important.
“Service is huge — it doesn’t matter what business you’re in,” Cousins said. “Service a big part of it, and we know that.”