A Feather in Their Caps
By Richard Wright
Photos: ©2017 Michael Biondo Photographer. www.michaelbiondo.com.
The first thing that must strike everyone about Sam and Claudia Halsey’s hearth shop in Wilton, Connecticut, is its name – Yankee Doodle. We all know the song, and most likely sang it a bit as kids. It goes like this:
Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it Macaroni
By now you’re wondering why the Halseys chose that name – aren’t you? Well, the Yankee Doodle Stove & Fireplace Center came into existence in 1976, the year of the country’s bicentennial, and “Yankee Doodle” is also Connecticut’s state song. Originally, British military officers sang it to mock the disheveled, disorganized, colonial “Yankees” with whom they served in the French and Indian War.
It was written around 1755, and later it became popular among Americans as a song of defiance. By 1881 “Yankee Doodle” had turned from being an insult to a song of national pride. Doodle is thought to have meant “fool,” “simpleton,” or “playing music badly.” Macaroni was a wig worn by a man who spoke in an affected, foppish and effeminate manner – a Dandy.
In British conversation, the term Yankee Doodle Dandy implied “unsophisticated misappropriation of high-class fashion, as though simply sticking a feather in one’s cap would make one appear noble.”
Or, as Sam Halsey says, when a regiment of Norwalkers reported to the British regulars wearing plumes in their hats given to them by local women, the New York Brits mocked them a bit, and added “stuck a feather in his cap” to the lyrics.
In any event, the name of the store is not likely to be forgotten.
|A wide aisle and an Oriental rug provide a welcoming touch.|
Prior to starting a hearth shop, Halsey worked with his father selling industrial piping equipment used in power plants, large hospitals, apartment complexes and office buildings. “It was big, major, industrial piping,” he says.
It also involved a lot of travel. “We covered the eastern two-thirds of the country,” says Halsey, “and with my kids getting older, I didn’t want to spend as much time away from home. I was looking for other things to do and, in 1976, mopeds were a hot item so I started out with a moped business and that expanded into bicycles. Then we picked up kerosene heaters and went from there into wood stoves.
“My first wood stove was probably an Earth Stove, because we were not a big outfit so we couldn’t get Nashua or something like that. Then we ended up as a Vermont Castings dealer. They didn’t agree with me and I didn’t agree with them, so we dropped them.
“I was their number-one dealer in Connecticut, and I didn’t like having to repair them all the time. They did need to be repaired often if you were a serious burner. I tried to talk with them about developing a protective device like Jøtul did with heat shields, but they knew better than I did. Even though I was an engineer, they didn’t care about anything except making money.
“I think the downfall for them was the fact that they bought Consolidated Dutchwest. Consolidated used the same marketing techniques they had. But Duncan Syme (co-owner of Vermont Castings) made a very, very attractive looking product, there’s no doubt about it.”
Yankee Doodle is located in Wilton, a typical bedroom community for those working in New York City. The average household income for Wilton is $310,000, a sum that certainly facilitates the purchase of top-shelf hearth products.
“Bridgewater Capital Partners is located next door in Westport,” says Halsey, “and we’ve got a huge amount of hedge fund money and banking money here. We get business all the way from Yonkers up. I just had two people come in, one from over the Tappan Zee Bridge and the other from over the Newburg Bridge. Both arrived after finding us on social media.”
It was part curiosity and part environmental concern that got Halsey into the hearth business. That was the era of the OPEC Oil Embargoes and, at the time, Halsey was living in an old barn and using approximately 5,000 gallons of oil a year (he says it was around 15 cents a gallon).
|The store may be small, but there’s still room for an electric fireplace.|
The building that houses Yankee Doodle today was also the building where he started his first store. It originally was a small gas station with two pumps in front, and Halsey moved in when the last gas people moved out. After a number of years, he moved the business to what he thought was a better location, and stayed there for 25 years. Now he’s back where he started, in Yankee Doodle’s original location. It’s a relatively small store. The showroom is 1,200 sq. ft. and the warehouse about the same.
Halsey began with Earth Stove, then moved to Vermont Castings and then to Lopi. He presently sells all of the Travis Industries brands, and is a very loyal dealer. He also sells Eiklor Gas Logs, Jøtul, Solas and European Home.
According to Halsey, contemporary styling now amounts to approximately 20% of his business, and it’s growing dramatically. Eiklor logs are “a big, big part of our business, about 30%,” he says.
“The majority of homeowners around here have fireplaces,” he says, “and they no longer want to bring wood in. A lot of them have a fireplace in the master bedroom and white carpet on the floor, and they are not bringing wood up there.” By some estimates, Wilton has more than 500 restored 18th- and 19th-century homes.
|With hundreds of 18th- and 19th-century homes in the area, there’s still a call for fireplace accessories.|
Through all the years, Sam and Claudia have worked as partners. Lately Claudia has backed off a bit, and spends less time in the store. “When she is here, she is wonderful,” says Halsey. Yesterday she handled a customer and told him, ‘I think this is what you need,’ and he said, ‘Come on out and give me a quote.’ She is very good at selling because she loves to sell. She really enjoys the success of selling. I just enjoy the people, and it’s a wonderful feeling when they are thrilled with the nice installation you’ve just done in their home.”
Through the years, the phrase “salt of the earth” has been used to describe most folks in the hearth industry. Sam and Claudia epitomize that description.
Halsey also has Rachelle Bernabei, a bookkeeper who “knows everything about me because she handles all of my accounts,” and Bill Beck, who has been with him for 15 years or so. Sub-contractors handle the installations, and all the masonry, carpentry and electric work (“liability-wise it makes a big difference,” he says).
So the staff is Sam and Claudia, Bill and Rachelle, and two subs. Yankee Doodle is a lean operation with relatively small gross revenues and a hefty bottom line. It’s a pretty smart way of running a business.
Every year they attend the HPBExpo, and wouldn’t even think of missing it. “It’s like Old Home week,” he says, “and you see people you haven’t seen for a while.” Halsey has been a Vesta Awards judge many times – not an easy task. It involves beginning at 7 am and ending around 5 pm on the first day of the show. It also requires a great deal of walking.
“Being a Vesta judge allows me to see many products that I would have missed just walking the show,” he says.
Sam and Claudia Halsey are icons in their market area, and gems in the hearth industry. They go through life with a smile, a positive attitude and a nice word for everyone they meet. We should all be more like the Halseys.
Yankee Doodle keep it up
Yankee Doodle Dandy
Mind the music and the step,
And with the girls be handy.
Store Name: Yankee Doodle Stove & Fireplace Center
Locations: 848 Danbury Road
Owners: Sam and Claudia Halsey
Key Executives: Sam and Claudia Halsey
Year Established: 1976
Web Site: www.yankeedoodleinc.com
Phone: (203) 544-8111
Number of Stores: 1
Number of Employees:
Gross Annual Sales: $750,000
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Other – David Kimberly Doors, Stoll Doors & Accessories, Minuteman Hearth Accessories.
Advertising % of Gross Revenues: 3%