Made in Whatcom County: Wood Stone still burning hot

Keith Carpenter launched Wood Stone in 1990 with co-founder Harry Hegarty with a desire to make wood-fired stone ovens that...

By Isaac Bonnell

When you walk into Wood Stone headquarters out near the Bellingham International Airport, the first thing you notice is the smell. It doesn’t smell like an office — it smells like a kitchen.

In fact, the first thing you see is the company’s commercial-scale test kitchen, complete with several Wood Stone ovens, of course. Two full-time chefs cook up new inventions daily and show clients how to cook everything from pizza to salmon.

“We cook almost every day,” said President and CEO Keith Carpenter. “That’s how you make your product better. It’s all about the food.”

Carpenter launched Wood Stone in 1990 with co-founder Harry Hegarty with a desire to make wood-fired stone ovens that could meet the demands of a commercial kitchen. With Carpenter’s connections in the food service industry and Hegarty’s experience building incinerators, they developed an oven that is more efficient than brick ovens.

“For years, all of these were built out of bricks. Now we use a single piece of 4-inch-thick ceramic,” Carpenter said. “With single pieces, you get less heat loss because there are no seams. You essentially have an igloo of stone that you’re cooking with.”

To date, Wood Stone has made almost 9,000 ovens and sold them in 75 countries. Shipping these ovens is no easy task, as they can weigh anywhere from 3,000 pounds to 12,000 pounds.

When the company first started, all of the ovens were designed to burn wood. But in 1995, the company designed a gas-fired model at the request of a customer. It is easier to control the temperature in a gas-fired oven, Carpenter said, and they now account for 90 percent of Wood Stone’s business.

The food industry isn’t immune to a slumping economy, though. Sales in 2009 were down 35 percent because there were fewer restaurants opening or remodeling, Carpenter said.

“Ovens are so dependent on new construction and remodels that we’ve started developing products that aren’t dependent on new construction, such as countertops and kitchen appliances and tools,” he said.

Rather than lay off employees, the company survived the sales slump by issuing a 12 percent pay cut for all staff and launching an immense cost-reduction campaign.

“One of our big initiatives was reducing inventory,” Carpenter said. “A lot of our money was sitting on our shelves — we can’t pay our employees with metal.”

In 2007, Wood Stone doubled the size of its 60,000-square-foot facility by adding a complete metal shop. Previously, the company had to contract out this work and order large quantities. Now Wood Stone can produce only as much metal as is needed on a day-to-day basis, thus saving a lot of money.

In the end, Wood Stone was able to recoup enough cash through cost-saving measures to pay employees back for the 12 percent pay cut earlier in the year.

“The end result is better than money. There is a feeling of camaraderie,” Carpenter said. “And the company has learned to live on less money.”

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