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VOL. 131 | NO. 70 | Thursday, April 7, 2016

From Forest to Flooring, Cafe Ole’s New Deck Has ‘Seen the World’

By Don Wade

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This is a Memphis story. And by now it should be clear that Bill Courtney loves a Memphis story.

From left: contractor Michael Burkett, Cafe Olé owner Kendall Robertson, Classic American Hardwoods CEO Bill Courtney, woodworker Jeff Kleminsky, and Classic’s European Sales Manager John Heise. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Maybe you know Courtney as founder of North Memphis’ American Classic Hardwoods. More likely, you know him as the guy who decided to leap from his comfort zone and coach the Manassas High School football team.

That little project turned into the 2011 Academy Award-winning documentary “Undefeated.” Later, Courtney wrote a book, “Against the Grain: A Coach’s Wisdom on Character, Faith, Family and Love.”

And notice the nice play on words for a guy who owns a lumber company. This particular story also fits with that book title. It’s a tale of a tree growing up in a nearby forest and, well, here’s Courtney picking up the narrative:

“This was a tree in West Tennessee probably six or seven months ago. Comes to our plant, gets processed as lumber. So the story is, this Memphis-manufactured temperate hardwood goes to Estonia, goes through (thermo-treating), comes back to Memphis, is installed by Memphis people, for a Memphis restaurant owner, and there’s no one in the Southeast that has this. No one.”

No one except Cafe Ole owner Kendall Robertson, who recently sat outside on his redone patio in Cooper Young – surrounded by the finished product, along with Courtney, Memphis contractor Michael Burkett, carpenter Jeff Kleminsky, and John Heise, who handles European sales for Classic American Hardwoods.

Temperate American hardwoods typically are a source for furniture, cabinets and other indoor applications. But not decking. So this, too, is out of the usual comfort zone.

“You have to keep hardwoods inside,” Courtney said of the old norms. “They can’t weather water and the elements. This is all hardwoods. That’s ash you would make a fine piece of furniture out of.”

Heise had been selling ash to manufacturer Brenstol OU in Estonia for several years; it uses the trade name Thermory in the United States. He learned that the company had begun working on changing hardwoods’ composition to make them suitable for exterior use. It took a while to get the process right.

“Put the ash in a treating chamber, heats to over 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Wood, at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, combusts and burns,” Courtney explained. “Science. These chambers suck the oxygen out. With no oxygen, the wood doesn’t combust.

Cafe Ole owner Kendall Robertson says the new upscale decking installed on his patio, which went through a special treating process in Estonia, has added to the ambiance. Robertson says he wants the patio to feel more like a resort in Mexico. “Relax,” he said. “Have a margarita.”

(Chris Backey)

“What it does is change the cellular makeup of the wood, sucks all the moisture out of it and makes it usable for exterior purposes.”

All this came along at just the right time for Robertson. He and Heise are friends from way back. When Heise told him about this new decking, he decided now was the time to give Cafe Ole’s patio a facelift.

“The patio hadn’t been done in 20 years,” Robertson said. “The old deck was treated pine and falling apart. This completely gives it a whole different atmosphere.”

Dark, smooth decking, rails and steps now blend with Robertson’s beloved palm trees – he added four new ones for a total of 10 – and once on the patio, which also includes a new stone fountain, it’s easy to forget yourself, to forget how close you are to that West Tennessee forest where the decking originated.

“The whole idea of this patio is to feel like you’re on vacation, feel like you’re at a resort in Mexico,” said Robertson. “Relax. Have a margarita.”

But to make this whole transformation come off, it wasn’t just about getting the wood, getting it processed, and adding more palm trees. Burkett oversaw the installation and knew he wanted Kleminsky handling the finished product.

“He’s the wood guy,” Burkett said. “I’ve seen his work in many homes, custom housing, and I knew this wood was gonna take somebody with a mindset. Jeff is an artist.”

For his part, Kleminsky knew he had to be careful. An amateur, he concedes, might have had trouble working with the treated ash.

“As dry as this wood is, they would have a problem with splitting it,” Kleminsky said. “That’s why the hidden fasteners are real good for this. And the dryness is good for outside.”

There are no nails, the wood has a Class B fire rating, and at thermoryusa.com, the wood is heralded for being lighter weight, splinter-free and dispersing heat (no hot feet when walking across it in the summer).

Heise says the wood is guaranteed for 25 years and that a few years ago, “This took off internationally. All the high-end decks and patios in Europe are out of this stuff. People want this. There’s no knots, no defects.”

Robertson knows firsthand that people want it. Since his patio was finished in March and there has been unseasonably nice weather, the patio has been open and booming with admirers wanting to know where he got his decking and how much did it cost (about three times as much as conventional outdoor decking, “but well worth it,” Robertson said).

“I’ve had a bunch of people from other restaurants say how much they like it,” he said.

As for Courtney, he loves it. From all angles. As a lumber guy, as someone who travels a lot and has sat on finely appointed rooftop bars from Manhattan to London, and as a Memphis guy who just digs a Memphis story and that Memphis is ahead of Dallas and Atlanta on a trend.

Imagine: A tree that came out of the ground in West Tennessee, went to his plant in North Memphis, then shipped to Eastern Europe, and now is so much upscale decor on the patio at Cafe Ole.

Or as Courtney said with a smile, “Seen the world and come back home.”

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