Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Long before David Hasselhoff de-eroticized the cha-cha on Dancing With the Stars, TV audiences loved watching celebrities get shown up by professionals. In the early 1960s, luminaries like Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, and Zsa Zsa Gabor risked humiliation breaking against Minnesota Fats and other sharks on the program Beat the Champ. "It was the first pool game on television," says Stephanie Schmidt, a sixth-generation leader of A.E. Schmidt Billiards Company. "Our company sponsored it. You could see our name in the background."

A.E. Schmidt manufactures around 600 custom pool tables a year in an industrial neighborhood of St. Louis. Before moving to the location in 2004, the company occupied for six decades a building down the street from Anheuser-Busch. St. Louis is a city known for its breweries, many founded by German immigrants in the 19th century. With breweries came bars. With bars came billiards.

In A.E. Schmidt's showroom, sleek brigades of tables show off a spectrum of colorful felts and gleaming woods. A large indoor window looks out on the factory floor. There, fifth-generation owner Kurt Schmidt drills holes into table legs before fitting them with dowel pins, while an employee inlays rails with mother-of-pearl sights. A CNC router runs continuously, slicing wood into rails and panels. The machinery is a hodgepodge of vintages, dating from the 1940s to 2018.

"What you have to understand about pool tables is they are furniture first and games second," says Stephanie, A.E. Schmidt's national director of sales. (Her siblings, Rachel and Michael, also are company leaders. Their parents, Kurt and Karen, remain active in the business.) Customized options chiefly involve look rather than function. Products come in a literal A-to-Z of wood types: African mahogany to zebrawood. There are styles to suit a CEO's suite or a baronial hall or a (cool) family's rec room. You thought pool table felt was supposed to be green? How about fuchsia, mocha, and powder blue?

Employees produce, on average, three tables a day. Prices range from $2,500 to about $10,000. Fully custom jobs take as long as 12 weeks and cost up to $12,000. "We had a customer wanting us to match a coffee table at her house that looked like Cinderella's carriage," says Rachel, the purchasing manager and a product designer. The result--a table called the Leo with legs in voluptuous scrolling curves--is now part of A.E. Schmidt's line.

The Schmidts are discreet about their celebrity clients. But if you watched the A&E reality series Growing Up Gotti, about the daughter of a mafia boss, you may have noticed a pool table inlaid with rhinestones and engraved with the family name.

A.E. Schmidt, which employs 18 people, also makes cue racks and dabbles in shuffleboard cabinets. But unlike most other manufacturers, it has not diversified into products like spas or barbecue grills. "Our interest is building a high-quality pool table," Stephanie says. "As billiard companies go, we are a one-trick pony."

The company sells through dealers: its sole retail outlet is the showroom attached to its factory. It does not sell online, which makes sense to Brad Quenneville, owner of Ac-Cue-Rate Billiards, a game room dealer in Pelham, New Hampshire. "You sometimes can't appreciate the quality of their products from looking at photos on a computer," he says. "When people come in here and see their tables sitting next to an import or another brand, they really see the difference in finish and workmanship."

A.E. Schmidt products make up roughly a quarter of pool table sales at Ac-Cue-Rate, which serves many interior designers and architects ordering custom for a specific décor. "We did an installation near Boston where everything in the construction was turn-of-the-century barn board, and they were able to match it with a brand new product," Quenneville says. "They can create anything. The sky's the limit."

From pool halls to rec rooms

Ernst Schmidt learned the ivory carving trade in his native Germany. In 1849, he emigrated to St. Louis and set up shop near the river so he could meet the boats delivering his raw material: elephant tusks. In a tiny workshop behind the store Ernst crafted pipes for smoking as well as 10-pin and billiard balls. He taught the trade to his son Oscar, starting at age 5.

Oscar moved to Kansas City to learn furniture making and then rejoined the company. As an extension of the billiard ball business, the Schmidts also repaired and refurbished tables. Oscar combined that expertise with his newfound knowledge of woodworking to start building new ones. 

Oscar inducted his sons, Ernie and Edwin, into the trade, teaching them frugality as well as the craft. When the young men made deliveries, Oscar insisted they use those famous St. Louis trolleys, which Judy Garland would later immortalize in song. The Schmidts would convey heavy tables in pieces over multiple trips. A horse-drawn carriage would have done the job in one go, "but the trolley saved $5," says Michael, the general manager, who is in charge of production.

Inspired by the debut of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, Ernie and Edwin created their own version when they took the helm around 1900. They priced their products at 20 to 25 percent below those of the Brunswick Corporation, which dominated the industry and had also fielded a catalog. When the Great Depression dried up table sales, the brothers bulked up their offerings with everything from dishware to radios and began selling door-to-door. Fortunately, repair work hung on "because people without jobs had a lot of time to go to pool halls," Rachel says.

Later the Schmidts refocused on billiards. The economic boom and suburban migration that followed World War II created a new residential market, and Arthur and Harold Schmidt--two of Edwin's sons who represented the fourth generation--responded with smaller, less commercial-looking tables. When Kurt and Karen Schmidt took over the business in 1990, it was still chiefly retail, selling out of four stores around St. Louis. Kurt segued the company into wholesale and private label, which now makes up 15 percent of the business. The Schmidts also picked up a few large accounts. Shot pool at a Dave & Buster's lately? There's a 90 percent chance you've played on an A.E. Schmidt.

Eat. Play. Love.

A.E. Schmidt's products don't look like those of their competitors. The company's specialty is heavy tables built to last. But styles are constantly in flux. "It changes with the housing industry and furniture styles," says Stephanie. "Carved legs were in style at one time, so you would have your Queen Anne, your ball and claw. Right now everyone wants straight-legged, clean, sleek."

Design inspiration may come from Instagram or Pinterest, or from attending furniture trade shows, like the industry-leading HighPoint Market. Popular culture is an occasional influence. "I was really interested in Mad Men and decided I wanted a mid-century modern pool table," Rachel says. The DeVille, featuring round legs with brass caps on the bottom, became a top-five seller.

A.E. Schmidt's most innovative design may be the Carsten Diner, a pool table with a very thin frame. It comes with a top that transforms it into a dining table. "You have dinner, then take off the top and play pool," Stephanie says. "You can use your space both ways."

The company still does a lot of service work. "The most common problem is the rubber that the ball bounces off gets hard like a rock, or it gets really squishy," Michael says. "Or the cloth wears off, so we recover them." Not all tables the company is called to fix are from A.E. Schmidt. Occasionally they're not from anyone. "We come across pool tables made out of two by fours that somebody has in the basement," Michael says. (The company won't service those.)

Of the sixth generation, only Michael, the oldest, has a pool table at home. Stephanie's and Rachel's apartments are too small. But the sisters practice at the end of each day on one or two tables in the office, sometimes with instruction from employees. Rachel says they've learned some trick shots to impress the customers. Still, Stephanie adds, "we could never hustle anyone."

Published on: May 15, 2019