Oncken & Sons nails down niche in high-end kitchens
Before becoming one of San Antonio’s premier cabinet makers, Norwin Oncken, as his wife Irene puts it, “climbed electrical poles for City Public Service.” Thirty-five years and several hundred luxury cabinets later, the couple thinks this business is a good fit for them.
In 1964, the pair started helping a former co-worker’s taxidermist father make the wooden plaques used to mount deer heads. Wanting to transform their skill for wood into a career, Norwin and Irene Oncken started Oncken & Sons Cabinet Shop. They jumped in head first with no formal training.
“We look back at the old stuff we made, and my mother loved it, but that was only because she was my mother,” says Irene, who manages the office and company orders. “We’ve learned by trial and error.”
The company, which started humbly with three employees, has blossomed into a four-building facility with 20 employees, a showroom and a state-of-the-art woodworking machine on San Antonio’s East Side. Their client list reads like a Who’s Who list of South Texas’ wealthiest, ranging from second homes on Horseshoe Bay and vacation ranches in West Texas to party homes on the Gulf Coast. Annual sales have now reached $1.25 million. The company is favored among a number of builders in several area Texas cities, such as Steve Klein in Victoria and Henry Duecker in Fredericksburg.
But Oncken & Sons didn’t become this popular overnight. The family’s attention to detail and obsessiveness about doing things right has spurred the business to success, Irene contends. The Oncken name stamped to their cabinets means it’s a quality product, she adds.
“Two of our three sons works for us,” she says. “Because their name is on the product that we send out the door, they make sure that anything their name is on is quality.”
The Onckens believe in evolving their style to keep up with the latest trends in cabinets. Right now, knotty alder wood is popular in cabinets because of its casual, warm feel. The wood has less of a green tint than other woods and has knots in it, which some clients say give the cabinets character.
A trend the Onckens have especially latched onto, though, is making bathroom cabinets, center kitchen islands and vent hoods look more like furniture.
One house in Shavano Park features floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookshelves that line all walls of the living room. A stylish bathroom features curved counters and rounded cabinet doors. Another home in the Dominion is decorated by a lavish mini bar.
“Everybody now has a wine grotto,” Irene jokes. “Maybe people are so stressed out, they need more wine in their house.”
The Onckens have relied on less aggressive business practices to promote their cabinets, but have seen larger-than-life popularity. The family relies solely on referrals, and the only advertising they use is through word of mouth. Norwin says that’s how they’ve managed to stay in business for so long.
“The customers and the builders we work with like our cabinets,” Irene adds.
“We haven’t needed to (advertise). We’re busy without doing that.”
They’re eager to show off their unique cabinets to those who come in the shop. Unlike some cabinet makers who screw nails in the front, making the cabinets less attractive, says Irene, Oncken screws theirs from underneath, making the cabinets look flawless. The state-of-the-art equipment, too, can be programmed to shape the most individual requests. Norwin proudly holds up an exact replica of a baseball, complete with stitching and exact proportions, made entirely from wood with the machine.
Because they’re so swamped with customers, the Onckens barely have time to remodel their own showroom cabinets.
Says Irene: “We’re making cabinets for our customers’ second homes; now we’re working for our first customers’ grandchildren.”
The secret to their success is no secret at all to Norwin.
“It’s good common sense,” he says. “That’s about it.”