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Redesigning a Family Furniture Business

Built by generations of the Winter family, Olathe’s Furniture Mall of Kansas offers a personal touch.

Story by Kathryn Greene

With almost a century of history behind it, the Furniture Mall of Kansas sets itself apart from big-box furniture stores with the type of friendly service that can only come from a family-owned business.

In 1933, Ben and Eva Winter purchased a Derby Gas Station along with a soda fountain on Highway 50, west of Emporia, Kansas. Called The Howdy Come In, it sold homemade frozen custard and lunch items, making it a popular stop for travelers.

As fate would have it, one day a hitchhiker stopped in with two suitcases–one for clothes and one for his cabinetmaker tools. The Winters hired him to make a chifforobe, a combination wardrobe and chest of drawers, for their new baby, Bobby. It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership, and shortly after the Winter Furniture business was born.

A generation later, Bob Winter and his wife Joyce became involved. After several iterations, the Winter furniture business evolved into the Furniture Mall of Kansas, which opened in 2013 in Topeka, followed by a second Olathe location in spring 2015, carrying furniture for every room in the home, mattresses and flooring.

It’s been more than 80 years since the original Howdy Come In opened, but its charm and friendliness are still the cornerstones of the Winter family business. Whether you’re a veteran shopper or a newcomer, you’ll receive a greeting in the same spirit. Both locations also have a Howdy Come In café that serves homemade frozen custard, made using the family’s original recipe brought over from Germany by Kathryn Anna and Henry Christian Winter, pioneers in western Kansas in the 1870s.

Bob and Joyce’s sons Jeff and Jamie originally had no intention of going into the family business. Both pursued degrees in mechanical engineering from Kansas State University and stayed in the industry for more than a decade.

When Bob sold the original business, Jeff expected his parents to retire until one day he got a call that revealed their very different plans: opening a new store.

“My first reaction was ‘Why would you want to do that?’” Jeff recalls. “And his response was ‘Well, because I think we can do it better.’”

Jeff Winter. Portrait by Steve Puppe

Admittedly, Jeff was not sold on the idea right away, but he realized he would probably never have another opportunity to go into business with his dad. A family brainstorming session over Thanksgiving dinner in 1999 sparked the vision for the store, and Discovery Furniture opened in Topeka in 2000. (Jamie joined the business in 2009.)

It was the first step in what would eventually become the Furniture Mall of Kansas. Over the years, the family opened another store, RoomMakers, and acquired the rights to Marling’s name after the high-end furniture store in Topeka closed.

“We had kind of ‘good, better, best’ furniture,” Jeff says, referring to the merchandise carried at Discovery, RoomMakers and Marling’s. “So how could we combine that all together into one spot? That’s where the whole concept [of the furniture mall] came from.”

When visiting the store today, you’ll notice it is divided into five sections: Discovery, RoomMakers, and Marling’s as well as a Flooring Headquarters and Mattress Headquarters.

“Most everybody wants a big selection, but they want it easy to narrow down or find what it is they’re looking for,” Jeff says.

The Furniture Mall offers big-store variety with personalized attention in addition to free monthly seminars that discuss design trends and help attendees with design ideas and inspiration.

Despite the vast and varied products, Furniture Mall of Kansas is anything but overwhelming. Shoppers are met by a greeter who describes the sections of the store and learns more about what they are looking for in order to assist them. Guests are offered beverages, chocolate chip cookies and, of course, homemade frozen custard.

Jeff also provides a taste of the old ways, saying in true Howdy Come In form, “I think you need to come see us if you’ve never been here. We’d love to show you around.”