Kurt Schmidt, owner of the A.E. Schmidt Billiard Co. in St. Louis, loves a challenge. So when he received a call in 2006 from a customer in Oregon asking for a custom-size pool table that also served as a dining room table, he jumped at the chance.
Ive never met a challenge I didnt like, says Schmidt, 48, whose great-great grandfather founded the company in 1850.
Building a 7-foot billiard table that can seat up to 12 dinner guests was a challenge because it had never been done before. The table had to be at a comfortable height for both dining and playing pool, but it couldnt be so low to touch a diners knees.
Six months later, Id built my fifth frame and I still couldnt make it hold the slate properly, he says, referring to the tables main playing surface. The first snapped in half from the weight of the slate. The second, third, fourth and fifth seemed to hold, but after a week started to sag.
Eventually, Schmidt solved the problem and The Carsten Dinernamed for the customercame to life. Thats what makes us different from other pool companies, he says. We can take an idea and bring it life.
Of course, most of A.E. Schmidt Billiard Co.s tables arent as challenging to build. Our average customer only wants a couple of things changed, he says. Theyll look at our basic models and just want to dress it up a bit.
The Schmidt family has been dressing up billiard tables for generations. Kurts great-great grandfather, Ernst Schmidt, started the company in 1850 and was in the business of carving ivory billiard cue balls, constructing cabinetry, and repairing billiard tables and equipment. In 1882, Ernsts son, Oscar, began crafting the companys first pool tables.
Today, the A.E. Schmidt Billiard Co. is the oldest family-owned billiard table manufacturer in the nation. Among the companys 20 employees are Kurts wife, Karen, who works in the front office, and his aunt, Gwen, 91, whos been crocheting linen pool-table pockets for more than 40 years. She can make one pocket a day, Kurt says. Thats her limit.
Karen hand-dyes the crocheted pockets black, brown, or any color a customer selects.
A sixth generation of Schmidts also is learning the business. Kurts son, Michael, a 21-year-old college student, works part-time for the company, and daughters Stephanie, 17, and Rachel, 15, often help out in the factory.
Schmidt workers build about 600 tables a year, each requiring 22 hours or more to construct. The tableswith names such as Kashmir, Majestic, Xanadu and Ivanhoeoften include ornate hand-turned legs, colored trim, and mother of pearl table sites, and are constructed out of oak, cherry, maple, walnut, hickory or cedar. A basic model sells for around $2,000, while elegant high-end models such as the Carsten Diner cost more than $6,500.
The companys customers range from celebrities such as singer Justin Timberlake to middle-class American families. One of Kurts favorite memories is about a customer who prepaid for a billiard table, bringing in his two sons every week with cash they earned cutting grass on weekends. The dad worked right along with them, Kurt recalls. I never forgot the lesson that customer taught me: The reward is great, but getting there is where all the meaning is.
Don Bartholomay of Bankshot Billiards in Albany, N.Y., has been selling Schmidt tables for 20 years, alongside restored antique tables. Bartholomay says Schmidts products are closer to the structural integrity of antique tables, which generally are longer lasting than todays mass-produced tables. I think if Schmidt were to stop making tables, I might just stop selling new tables, he says, adding that Schmidt tables are the best-made tables anywhere.
Kurt says its all part of the family legacy. You feel the weight of the past four generations to not only see that the company remains relevant to the industry, but respected for its manner of dealings with customers as well as vendors.
Of course, the companys success ultimately can be traced to the quality of its billiard tables. They dont take shortcuts, says Pat McDonald, owner of McDonalds Billiard Supply Co. in Knoxville, Tenn. They are a more expensive table, but youll never have to buy another one as long as you live.