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FIRE CHANGES A FAMILY'S WORLD

Almost five months ago, the Kitchen World store on Robinson Road was gutted by an enormous fire. The business, however, was far from gutted.

Within five days, the 30-year-old business was open at a new location. The owner has invested more than $2 million to produce a store that will be larger than the old one, and sales are almost as high as they were before the fire.

And no one lost a job -- with one exception: the disgruntled employee police say started the blaze.

While Kurt St. Louis sits in a jail cell awaiting trial on federal arson charges, Kitchen World is booming.

"We can do business here indefinitely," said Randy Sanderson, the general manager and son of the owner, Robert Sanderson of Lockport. "We were determined not to let the fire come between us and our customers."

The Sandersons made an almost immediate deal with Lockport developer Glen Miller to relocate to the vacant former Brand Names store at 5879 S. Transit Road, less than a mile from the old store. They signed a two-year lease.

Although the business may not be there forever, don't call it a temporary location.

"Because it's so hard to predict the future, I'm referring to the showroom as our new showroom," Randy Sanderson said. "I can't honestly say how long we'll be here, so all it does is put a negative spin on it to refer to it as temporary. Kitchen World's $2 million showroom is open for business."

His father said, "You're either getting better or you're going downhill, and you can't go downhill. So when you have a challenge, you've got to come back stronger than ever. We had the fire on Saturday, I heard about this location on Sunday, and on Monday I signed a lease. And we were in business on Thursday, five days later, with temporary displays and (merchandise) . . . provided by our manufacturers."

The Nov. 27 fire destroyed $1.2 million worth of inventory. Some orders were kept at two other locations and weren't harmed. Kitchen World uses two main suppliers of kitchen cabinets, Candlelight Cabinetry of Lockport and Homecrest of Goshen, Ind.

The new showroom is 70 percent done. When completed, the wall in the middle of the building that formerly separated the Brand Names display area from its storeroom will be removed, allowing for 16,000 square feet of showroom and office space. That's 2,000 square feet more than the old store had.

Randy Sanderson said 55 kitchens will be displayed, up from 49 at the Robinson Road location, and the appliance showroom space will double. "That facility was wide and not very deep. This facility is closer to a perfect square," he said.

While half of the old building was used as a warehouse, Kitchen World now is leasing part of a 15,000-square-foot warehouse on South Niagara Street in the City of Lockport, owned by Robert Miller, thus giving the new store more retail space.

Right after the fire, Randy Sanderson told The Buffalo News the company was considering building a new store, perhaps in Amherst. He said he and his father have been too busy to develop that thought further.

"I'm just not sure," he said. "This is a facility that is so nice. We already had the largest kitchen store in the Northeast. Now we have a store that's 20 percent larger, roughly."

"You can't have the caliber of kitchen showroom we had and then have some temporary thing set up," Robert Sanderson said. "We're building this as a permanent showroom. If we do build a new building and move to a different location, we'll take what we can with us."

Randy Sanderson said sales have been surprisingly strong throughout the renovation process and are beginning to exceed last year's sales records.

"We thank God and Western New York for their support," he said. "I am moved by the support that we have had."

Although a huge fire wasn't the way they would have chosen to make the change, the idea of a new store had occurred to the Sandersons. Robert Sanderson said, "We've always done so well, and people have always come to Kitchen World, so it wasn't a pressing issue, but it was something in the back of our minds. Because of the fire, the first logical thing was to move out here to Transit Road and get to an easier-to-find (location)."

He said the notion of multiple locations is not on his radar. "We do about 70 percent of our business in Erie County," he said. "We're 35 minutes from the Hamburg (Thruway) exit. For a major purchase like a kitchen, people don't seem to worry about driving 25 or 30 minutes.

"I would think for a market the size of Western New York, one big showroom like this would be enough."

Thirty-five people work at Kitchen World. "If sales continue to be strong, we may have to add some employees near the end of the year," Randy Sanderson said.

The Brand Names sign is still in front of the store, but that should be replaced in three weeks or so, Robert Sanderson said.

Meanwhile, the Robinson Road property will be sold after the ruins of the old store are demolished.

"I've actually had three inquiries from businesses that are interested in the location," Robert Sanderson said. "I think someone will be using that space."

He said the growth of the housing market isn't a controlling factor in the kitchen design business.

"The kitchen business is a growing business. There's been a 20-year trend of people wanting bigger and better and more beautiful kitchens. It seems especially important to people in Western New York.

"We do about 40 percent new construction and about 60 percent remodeling. When the new housing market does slow up, people go, 'Well, we can't afford those mortgage rates on a new house, so guess what? We'll remodel the kitchen.' "

Kitchen World has made a deal to furnish a kitchen for the new Martin's store, a former Tops operation on Maple Road in Amherst that opened Friday.

Martin's will return the favor by holding a cooking school four times a year at Kitchen World, in a completely functional kitchen to be installed in the store.

Meanwhile, St. Louis' case is working its way through federal court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard P. Maigret, the prosecutor, said oral arguments on defense attorney Thomas J. Eoannou's pretrial motions are set for May 23.

However, Maigret said, "Things may not go that far. There are plea negotiations going on."

Federal charges were brought because the maximum sentence for the crime was higher than could have been imposed under state law.

St. Louis could get a mandatory minimum of seven years in prison if he is convicted.

Because Kitchen World was involved in interstate commerce, federal prosecutors were allowed to take over.

Maigret said there are surveillance videotapes to be used as evidence against St. Louis. Also, some money in a Kitchen World envelope was found in St. Louis' mobile home not far from the store, along with a set of utility knives. Maigret said those items were allegedly stolen.

St. Louis, 26, had worked 2 1/2 years at Kitchen World as a delivery truck driver, but after three accidents, he was reassigned to warehouse work.

He had been told he could stay long enough for him to find a new job and had been absent from work several days before the fire, Randy Sanderson said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com