Business mechanics

Monona business saves grandma’s old mixer, lamp, or clock the old-fashioned way. It repairs them!

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Kiefer Appliance, formerly named Kiefer’s Small Appliance Repair Center, operates in a world much different than when it first began. On a daily basis, Wayne Kiefer and his son, Kip, fix items mostly from a pre-digital era, when metal was more common than plastic, repair centers were plentiful, and parts were kept on-hand.

Historically, the business is nearly 75-years-old. It opened in 1945 on State Street to repair fountain pens and shavers. In 1982, Wayne Kiefer, an employee at the time, purchased the business.

Eventually he’d move it to Monona where it just celebrated 30 years at 4511 Monona Drive. For years, repair shop employees sharpened blades on hair clippers (human and animal) and repaired a host of appliances, from shavers to antique small appliances, lamps, clocks, and even Power Wheels electric cars.

Semi-retired now, Wayne reflects on the once-bustling business, pointing to dozens of wooden cubbyholes behind the retail counter. “Years ago we repaired Norelco, Remington, and Braun brands, and every one of those little boxes would be filled with shavers waiting for pickup.”

On this day, just a few slots are filled.

Top: Kip Kiefer works on a KitchenAid mixer in the store’s workshop. Bottom: Around the corner, small repair parts are categorized and stored in tiny drawers on a wall.

At one point, in fact, repair requests were brisk enough to support four employees.

While the shop has never repaired vacuum cleaners or large appliances like stoves or refrigerators, people still call every day to ask.

Through the years Kiefer grew his business either by acquiring or simply outlasting other small businesses. When Park Street’s Light House Lamp Repair closed in 2014, its clientele migrated to Monona, as well. “We’re the only company doing lamp repair now,” Wayne states. “In fact, pick any state around us and there’s nobody left to handle small appliance repair. We get calls from all over the country.”

Our disposable society may be to blame for repairs falling off. The business doesn’t make a profit anymore, but it is breaking even and provides a unique and important service for people looking to keep older, mechanical items in tip-top shape.

“One guy from New York called the other day looking for a metal nut that holds the cutters onto a pre-1970 meat grinder. Nobody’s got that part anymore,” Wayne relates. “They’re all plastic, but I looked around and, lo and behold, I found one!” he laughs.

The business has survived technological advances and a Monona Drive reconstruction project that eliminated some of its parking spots and made the small strip mall accessible only from one direction. “But we now have trees!” Kip laughs, facetiously.

Another challenge looms, as well. “The city of Monona has blighted this whole block,” Wayne states, putting businesses on notice that one day soon it will likely replace the old structures with new development. It’s understandable, he notes, since Monona is landlocked, but until that curtain falls, repairs will continue. “Antique dealers love shops like this,” he adds.

Meanwhile, the business baton has been passed to Kip, 48, who has been involved in his dad’s shop more than half his life and now runs the entire operation. His dad drops in on Tuesdays and Thursdays to repair clocks — but not watches, he clarifies.

The repair shop is cluttered with appliances and lamps both old and new, including KitchenAid mixers, which often have a stripped gear or oil leak, according to Kip. KitchenAid and Sunbeam are two of only a few companies still manufacturing appliance parts, Wayne explains.

Mixer parts are especially in demand. Kiefer Appliance fields calls every day from people looking for replacement beaters, dough hooks, and bowls.

Kip, who at one point attended UW–Platteville thinking he wanted to be a teacher, now spends much of his time cleaning and sharpening blades of all sizes, from clippers used by hairstylists and pet groomers to electric shavers, old-fashioned soda fountain malt-mixers, and Black & Decker electric mower blades (only). “I’m just a mechanical guy,” he says.

Back in the Kiefer workshop, old appliance repair manuals, each several inches thick, boast brand names from the past.

“Yes, we have a computer,” Wayne smiles, “but if you want to find something old, you have to refer to the books.”



Planned obsolescence

Today’s throw-away society has diminished product quality, Kip states.

“You really get a feeling that everything now is made to fail quickly so manufacturers can sell new product because it’s the only way they can make money. Most of them don’t even sell parts anymore. It doesn’t help them to make something that will last 50 years because they’ll never see that customer again.”

Kip Kiefer repairs an old lamp. After Light House Lamp Repair closed in 2014, Kiefer became the only lamp repair shop in town.

Wayne laughs. “That’s our problem. We only see some of our customers every 10 years!”

Kip continues. “Anyone younger than me probably doesn’t think about getting something fixed anymore. You see people buying $500 TVs and just throwing them out when they go bad, so you know that a kitchen appliance that might cost a fraction of that will also get tossed when something goes wrong.”

Several years ago, Kip stepped into the business full time after his dad was involved in a serious motorcycle accident, and he stayed after realizing that fixing things had a special appeal.

There have been high points, for sure.

In 1998, for example, Fisher-Price issued a voluntary recall on about 10 million Power Wheels ride-on electric cars for children after receiving reports that batteries were overheating and causing fires.

Kiefer’s telephones erupted, and for about three months all they did was repair Power Wheels. “We’d have 40 or 50 of them in a space that we had to rent down the street,” Kip remembers, and because recalls never expire, he still has repair kits on hand for the occasional Power Wheels call.

“These days, when people around the country call Sunbeam/Oster (same company) looking for repairs or parts, the manufacturer refers them to us,” Kip explains. “That can make for busy Mondays.”

As if on cue, Wayne takes a call from someone looking for replacement beaters for a 1964 Sunbeam mixer. Overhearing the conversation, Kip explains that there’s only one supplier left in the entire country.

For a while, microwave oven repairs provided a business boost until Kip says the retail prices dropped so low that the labor to fix them would cost more than purchasing new. “We used to have piles of transformers and circuit boards that we could use for replacement parts to fix things,” he notes, “but we can’t even do that anymore.”

There were warning signs along the way that the industry was changing. “Remington was the first to close its service centers,” Kip says, “and Braun and Norelco weren’t far behind. We used to do a big business replacing shaver parts, now there’s nothing, but I get eight to 10 emails a day from people who are usually looking for mixer parts. There’s something about grandma’s old mixer!”

Asked how much longer Kiefer Appliance can hang on, Kip shrugs. “We don’t owe anyone any money. I don’t make that much, but I don’t have expenses either, so to me it’s worth doing what I can still do. Every couple of days someone comes in who is thankful that we’re still around to fix stuff, and that’s kind of cool to hear.”

It’s no secret the building will be sold, and what Kip decides to do when that day comes is a question of space. “I can sharpen Oster clipper blades forever, but I’d have to pay rent somewhere. Maybe I’d work out of my garage. Who knows?”

Wayne is more pragmatic. “It would be sad to close, sure, but hey, business is business. This has been good to me, but the day I have to start putting money back into it is the day I call it quits.”

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