As a fifth-grader in 1965, Mark Thress worked in his grandfather’s custom-cabinet shop, Robling Mill & Supply, whenever he could.
Thress’ grandfather, Earl Robling, founded the shop, originally in San Clemente, in 1953. Robling constructed the Capistrano Beach building, where Robling Mill is housed today, around 1957.
Back in the ’50s, Thress explained, there weren’t many hardware stores. He speculated that the “supply” in the name Robling Mill & Supply came from when his grandfather would sell extra cabinet parts.
“Way back in the ’50s, houses were very small, kitchens were very small, no dishwashers, maybe one bathroom, maybe two if you’re lucky,” Thress said. “Everything was small.”
Robling would tell Thress that the average price of a kitchen, cabinets and all the closet pulls, was $800.
As Thress recalled, the Robling Mill building off Las Vegas in Capistrano Beach was surrounded by families living in little huts no bigger than his former office space. On the corner was a cement plant, another building housed a gas company, and Hobie Alter would ship out his surfboards in the building next door.
“It’s really changed down here,” Thress said.
It wasn’t until the late ’70s and ’80s that Thress started seeing “gigantic” home developments.
“That’s when cabinets went wild,” Thress said.
In the mid-1970s, Thress started working full-time at Robling Mill while also working as a volunteer firefighter at Station 29 off Victoria Boulevard.
“My grandfather needed somebody full-time, so I made a deal with him. I said, ‘OK, I’ll be your full-time employee if I can go on fire calls,’ ” Thress said. “And so, I came here full-time and went on fire calls during the day here, and I was here until 2020.”
By 1985, Thress and his wife bought the business from Robling and ran the family business for 35 years until he retired in the summer of 2020.
When Thress stepped down, Jake Palmer bought the business and took over.
Palmer grew up in San Juan Capistrano before moving to Dana Point in 2016.
In high school, Palmer worked at the nearby Ganahl Lumber yard before he eventually got his contractor’s license and began to expand his own construction company. Palmer continues to operate his construction company, Mission Flats, known for custom carpentry and millwork.
Though Palmer loves woodworking and making something new, as the owner of Robling Mill, he now loves to connect with people, working with homeowners to design and deliver quality cabinetry.
When Palmer took over Robling Mill, Thress stayed on for a few months to teach him the computer program that he uses.
“From there, it’s just been 100 miles an hour. That was one of the coolest things when I got here,” Palmer said. “That first day, like October 1, I come in, and Mark goes, ‘OK, here’s six jobs that you’re going to do now,’ six kitchens.”
“People liked Mark a lot,” Palmer continued, adding that he still often gets calls asking for Thress and checking in to see how he’s doing.
“They liked my grandfather, and all the contractors did,” Thress said.
He added that he used to get similar calls asking to see how his grandfather was doing after he had taken over.
“And they got to know me, because I worked for him for so many years,” Thress said.
Palmer added that “contractors appreciate being able to pick up the phone to call you, and they know you’re going to answer, and they know that you know what they want.”
“You’ve built that like product relationship where you’re buying the same thing over and over; you know it’s good,” Palmer continued.
Palmer said that it’s always cool to hear homeowners talk about their experience renovating their kitchen with Thress, adding that he hopes the homeowners he works with now will remember him in 15 years.
Trying to estimate the number of kitchens he’s designed cabinetry for, Thress said Robling Mill could construct more “way back when, when there were a lot of smaller houses.”
“Then it became these houses that are 8,000, 10,000 square feet—$60,000, $80,000, $125,000, $200,000 worth of cabinets,” Thress continued. “That takes you a month to build them and six weeks to install them. So, you don’t get as many, but each job is more, so it’s slowed down a little bit.”
From design to installation, Robling Mill & Supply boasts of its quality products and service, serving the South Orange County community for 70 years.
Thress added that the computer design software he’d used for decades, in addition to the new Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines, changed the way Robling Mill built cabinets.
Dana Point City Council recognized Robling Mill & Supply as Business of the Quarter at its Feb. 21 meeting, celebrating the shop’s longevity in the community.
During the meeting, Mayor Mike Frost commended Palmer on representing the small-town feel by living in and serving the community by running Robling Mill.
“That’s a lot of what we’re trying to go for here; you certainly represent that well,” Frost said.
Frost also joked that “back in 1958, the houses probably cost about what your bids are now.”
Thress attributes Robling Mill & Supply’s longevity to the reputation he’s cultivated for high-quality work.
“There were five or six cabinet shops around, and they’re all gone and we’re still here,” Thress said. “So, we’re the oldest cabinet shop that I know in Southern Orange County, because we did a good job and people like our stuff that we did and just referral, referral, referral.”
Thress and Palmer agree word of mouth has been Robling Mill’s most effective advertising method.
“I only advertised in the little San Clemente phonebook,” Thress said. “We’re always really busy. There were a few times during a recession, or something like that, where we slowed down, but not that much.”
Looking ahead to the shop’s future, Palmer hopes that his kids continue Robling Mill & Supply’s long-lasting family legacy.
Palmer added that though Dana Point is not “that old in the grand scheme of things,” with development largely kicking off in the 1920s, he finds it remarkable that the custom cabinetry shop has served the community for seven decades.
“To think about a guy who’s making cabinets in the ’50s when they’re still in the early development of the place, and now being here, it’s like it’s still his shop,” Palmer said.
“The shop feels like it’s part of that modern, local history, and it just feels important,” Palmer continued. “Like that feeling of admiring a classic home, you just feel the spirit of the people that built these towns.”
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