“Kitchens have become the main room in the home,” Karl Keul says. “I hear constantly from Washingtonians that when they entertain, everybody ends up in the kitchen.”

Keul—whose Falls Church firm, Cameo Kitchens, remodels and installs 90 to 100 Northern Virginia kitchens a year—says, “Guests feel less formal in the kitchen than in the living room. They open up a bit more. It’s as if that’s where you take only your real friends.”

Keul was born in Bad Kissingen, Germany, in 1943 to an artistic family, some of whom still own a gallery in Wiesbaden. His father, an oil painter, and his mother, a homemaker, sought ways to leave Germany after World War II. Finally, in 1950, a US Army major sponsored their move to North Carolina, where they lived in the officer’s home for 18 months. Keul’s father painted portraits and Bible scenes on church walls.

After learning English for a year, Keul began school. He left after high school to join the US Army. He later attended Appalachian State College in Boone, now part of the University of North Carolina.

He came to Washington in 1965 for a job with a kitchen cabinet wholesaler. After four years, he joined a small kitchen-remodeling company in Arlington owned by William Dembo. “Bill was a man of absolute integrity,” Keul says. “He became something of a father to me.”

During his 17 years there, Keul developed a following—“People calling in asked for me to do their kitchen, since I had done their friend’s kitchen—that kind of thing.” When Dembo passed away in 1984, “I felt like I could do this business, too.” Keul and his wife, Bonnie, sold their small real-estate holdings to open Cameo Kitchens in 1985.

The firm now does $5 to $6 million in business a year, with 28 full-time employees. Says Keul: “We have no interest in increasing our volume beyond 90 to 100 kitchens a year, or expanding our staff beyond what we can control.” Thus potential customers now wait five to seven months before their kitchen installation can begin.

Cameo remains a family business. Keul’s brother, George, has worked there since 1986. Two of their three daughters are employees too—Kelly is office manager, and Katie is secretary. Their son-in-law, Lee Duer, designs and orders the cabinets and material.

After Keul inspected a kitchen installation in Arlington, we talked about what he’s learned.

Why is kitchen renovation so popular?

Because of low interest rates and the general perception that a remodeled kitchen is almost mandatory. When dishwashers first came out, they were a luxury; now they’re standard. That’s become the same with a remodeled kitchen. People like to modernize, get rid of older appliances and builder grade cabinets, and get a real showplace. They want countertops that are easier to clean, more storage, and better appliances.

What are the biggest mistakes in renovating?

One is to consider the renovation as just another purchase. Remodeling a kitchen is completely different from buying a car, for example. A Honda or Chevrolet can be bought from any number of dealers and be the identical car. You can’t get the same job from any number of remodelers. Kitchens depend entirely on the competence of the crew for the best design and installation.

The most common complaint I hear is not about the quality of cabinets or appliances; it’s about timeliness and quality of installation. There are many horror stories in this business, all centering on disorganization and bad installations.

The owner of a prominent local kitchen firm says that if a kitchen dealer tells you your installation will be done in less than six weeks, that person is lying. Well, hardly any of our kitchens take six weeks. Regardless of price, our standard installation is three and a half to four weeks from start to finish. We finish on time nearly all the time.

Can you really install a kitchen in three and a half weeks?

Our standard contract is for four weeks. We make that time frame easily, with time to spare. Remember, our installers work for us. We’re not dependent on other people.

Our customers demand punctuality and professionalism. They’re better educated than in most other areas, with a much higher ratio of attorneys. Overall, our customers are very intelligent and ask detailed, insightful questions. We have to know our material inside and out.

Many renovations happen because owners don’t want to give up their existing homes for new ones, which they can only get by moving farther out. They’re in a place close to their work, and their home has appreciated a lot in value. They want to stay in their neighborhood but have a modern, well-designed kitchen.

How long does the design take, before the installation?

Some kitchens get designed in three or four hours. Some take days. It depends on the customer’s ideas and the space available. It’s hard to put lots of things into a small space and make it work out without compromises.

What do people want in their kitchens?

First, plenty of counter space. Older kitchens generally had little. They had wall ovens and cooktops. If you put in a range instead, you immediately pick up 24 to 27 inches of counter space.

Second, many people want a work island. It has a comfortable feeling and opens up access from different sides. You’re able to spread out more. Having more than one person working in the kitchen is no problem.

How much does an average kitchen renovation cost?

In this area, around $45,000 to $60,000 for a really good design, top-grade cabinets, and a professional installation. On top of that comes the cost of new appliances. Intricate tile work can also add up.

What’s the most expensive kitchen you’ve done?

A quarter of a million dollars. We renovated the fellow’s kitchen and installed an office, bar, and sitting room—with lots of bookshelves, cabinets, and specialty millwork.

What’s new in kitchens over the last 15 years?

Materials have changed. Fifteen years ago, we did mostly Corian countertops. Now we’re doing mainly granite. We do ceramic tile in nearly every kitchen, either as a backsplash or floor. We used to do vinyl floors, which can easily be damaged. Today, ceramic tile is almost indestructible—it’ll last many years. And most people prefer its natural look, whereas vinyl looks synthetic.

Corian is easy to keep clean and needs no sealing. Granite should be resealed every 18 months or so. And if not properly sealed in the first place, it may absorb some colors from spills. The sealer is available at most big box stores like Home Depot, and can easily be applied by any homeowner.

We’re seeing more wine coolers built into kitchens. They usually hold 24 bottles.

People want quieter dishwashers now. Before, running the dishwasher would drive you out of the kitchen. Now, especially with a Miele or Bosch, you can hardly tell it’s on.

More customers want their remodeled kitchen to be larger. The walls of the previous dining room get removed to make one big area. By taking out supporting walls, we can make a big room out of a small kitchen.

That makes entertaining easier. They realize they’ll be entertaining in the kitchen anyway—that’s where everyone ends up at any party—so they might as well have the space to do it well.

Our customers nowadays extend their kitchen cabinets right up to the ceiling. They want to use as much space for storage as possible. There are more roll-out shelves, spice racks, and custom features inside cabinets. People want to use every square inch of space.

What’s your advice for someone considering a renovation?

Above all else, know who you’re dealing with. Does this company really care about me? Will they give me a lot of references? Get no less than six or eight references of jobs recently completed. Check them out. You may be surprised at what you find. The more research you do, the greater the chance you will get a job you can be happy with.

Second, get a firm that has its own employees doing the installation. The trend is to use subcontractors. The kitchen company sells you the design, cabinetry, and countertops, maybe even the appliances. Then it turns you over to a different company to do the installation. That’s great for the renovation company, since it ducks out of responsibility for the installation, but it makes it harder for the customer to end up with a happy kitchen experience.

Third, spend lots of time on your first appointment. Describe in detail what you really want in your kitchen. The contractor should listen hard and take copious notes. Do you want to remodel the kitchen in order to sell the home soon? Or live in it for years? Tell him your family’s habits. How many are in your household? Do they generally eat at the table or on the run? Do you entertain a lot?

The discussion should take two or three hours. The contractor should take down every dimension of the room, then return to the office to have the kitchen designed around this family’s likes and dislikes, based on the way they live.

In Fairfax Station, we must have done 10 or 12 kitchens in one subdivision, but every kitchen we’ve done in that neighborhood with similar houses looks different. Each was designed to suit that particular family.

If someone entertains a lot, they’ll need more eating space, a larger refrigerator, and a different type of stove. I’ve had customers with back trouble—they shouldn’t reach down to open an oven. They need a wall oven and cooktop. That’ll drive the design of their particular kitchen.

With some customers, we’ll initially make two or three designs. We like to show them different ways to do their kitchen. They can then choose which they prefer. Any of the designs would be fine, but they can best decide which best suits their needs.

We show customers an isometric sketch—a perspective drawing—and walk them through it. We explain what’ll be inside every cabinet, how every inch of their kitchen will be used. This cuts down on, even eliminates, surprises.

Does that cost them more money?

No. We don’t charge more for making more than one design, or revising existing plans.

Have you ever made big mistakes?

The wrong cabinets we’ve made wouldn’t fill one half of one of our work trucks. I’m talking maybe eight or ten cabinets total.

Does someone remodeling a kitchen recoup most of the cost when selling the house?

Yes, you generally get dollar for dollar what you put in. It’s not like purchasing an automobile or furniture. You can use your kitchen, and thoroughly enjoy it, realizing that you’ll generally recoup all of your money.

What’s your own kitchen like?

We bought a home in Burke in 1988, with a nice builder supplied kitchen. Since then, we’ve replaced the countertops, but I’ve never taken the time to replace our cabinets. I’d like to remodel my kitchen, but I work around 70 hours a week and don’t have the energy or time.

What have you learned overall about kitchen renovation?

That to do it well requires lots of time and attention to details. You have to be alert and aware of what’s going on all the time. Staying focused is everything.

We have four designers in our company, two of whom have over 30 years in the business. Before we present any design or quote to the customer, I go over the drawings and all of the figures scrupulously. Nothing is presented that I don’t personally look at.

After 52 years in the business, I’ve found that the key to success in kitchen remodeling is not to make mistakes. I keep on my desk a quote by Jay Leno: “It takes persistence to succeed. Attitude also matters. I have never thought I was better than anyone else, but I have always believed I couldn’t be outworked.” It’s not the money I do it for. It’s the fact that our name is attached to each project. We’ve never done a kitchen at Cameo that I’m ashamed of.

Your lessons of life?

Do your best for everybody and you can’t go wrong. If you do your best for your customers, there’s no need for advertising. They’ll do your advertising for you.

Consider your career as something that will never be perfect. It requires constant thought and improvement.

Maybe it’s because of that approach that we’ve never been let down by a customer. We’ve gotten paid on every single job. And we’ve never hired an attorney. We’ve never been sued or even threatened with a suit.

Somehow we’ve found a way to please our customers. That’s why I sleep okay at night.