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Rural Missouri Magazine

Sound Sleepers
Customers sleep on the deals they find at
Carl and Rhonda Thomas' Nu-Rest Bedding

by Bob McEowen
Rhonda and Carl Thomas have been making their Nu-Rest line of mattresses in tiny Laclede for 30 years.

A small sign over the door identifies the business as Nu-Rest Bedding. Large hand-painted letters on a picture frame window declare simply “Mattress.” If not for the faint glow of fluorescent lights from inside and the “Yes we’re OPEN” sign on the door, it would be easy to mistake the business for yet another abandoned storefront in tiny Laclede.

“People will drive by and they’ll look at my old buildings. They think there can’t be much in there,” says Carl Thomas, who has made mattresses in north Missouri for 30 years. “They stop, they come in and that’s when they get surprised.”

Carl and his wife, Rhonda, make up to 10 mattress sets each day in their small facility two blocks south of the Gen. John J. Pershing Boyhood Home State Historic Site. No other stores carry his brand and he rarely advertises, but Carl has developed a loyal clientele, both locally and throughout the United States. His customers are won over by Carl’s insider look into the bedding industry and his demonstration of high quality at competitive prices.

Carl and Rhonda talk mattresses with customers Carolyn and Wes Peterson of Hamilton. The couple was considering the purchase of a modern foam mattress before shopping at Nu-Rest Bedding. They ordered a mattress from Carl instead.

Nu-Rest’s showroom isn’t fancy — just an old storefront, stuffed full from front to back with two rows of mattress sets, most still wrapped in plastic bags. A few simple headboards hang overhead or adorn the beds. There is no other furniture, save an old metal desk and chair in the corner.

“The consumer doesn’t want to pay for a fancy showroom,” Carl says. “That’s why you see us in an old building here.”

Carl says he strives to provide the highest quality bedding he can and sell it at an affordable price. “We build a mattress that’s quality but yet we hold the price down. That’s kind of unheard of,” he says.

To prove his point, nearly every customer who enters Nu-Rest Bedding receives an education in mattresses. Once casual greetings are out of the way, the lesson begins. The Farmers’ Electric Cooperative member explains that nearly every bedding manufacturer in the United States buys its components from the same supplier. Mattresses differ only in design, quality of construction and the grade of material used, he says.

Carl assembles as many as 10 sets of mattresses each day on a 1950s sewing machine and table built for double mattresses. Today's larger mattresses simply hang over the edge as he works.

The lesson continues as Carl guides shoppers into his workshop where he shows them mattresses being assembled virtually the same way they were built when Carl and Rhonda first bought a partnership in the company in 1975.

“We want our customers to come in and actually see what we’re doing,” Rhonda says. “Once they see what’s inside of a mattress, it’s a selling point.”

Carl says that most mattress foundations today are built with just five wooden slats. He uses 10 on his box springs. His springs are stout 13 gauge steel. Well-known brands often use lighter, 15 guage. Carl still individually installs ventilator holes and reinforced grab handles onto the sides of mattresses. He even writes mattress specifications by hand onto the federally mandated labels. And yes, customers may remove the label without penalty of law.

Back in the showroom, Carl sits on the edge of a bed and bounces a bit. “Watch the bottom piece,” he says, referring to the traditional box spring foundation that is part of every mattress set Nu-Rest sells. “It probably flexes more than the mattress. That’s your shock absorber.”

The federally mandated label attached to every mattress is filled in by hand at Nu-Rest bedding.

Carl, who took over the business when his partners, Glenn and Francis Peer, retired in 1985, explains that major manufacturers have steered customers away from traditional box spring foundations in recent years.

“Many, many years ago they all used to tell you the box spring is the backbone of your set. Now they’re trying to go to base units,” he says. “That allows them to use lighter gauge springs in the mattresses, which cuts their cost down. Also, base units don’t require the labor and assembly and the man-hours that a box spring does.”

The rare opportunity to learn straightforward facts about bedding is not lost on customers. “Every mattress salesman has a story,” says Carolyn Peterson, an antiques dealer from the Hamilton area who visited Carl’s shop after an exhaustive search for a new mattress in Kansas City.

“You can find somebody to tell you everything you want to hear. But Carl is the only one who’s been able to back up what he has to say.”

Carl staples a cover onto a box spring foundation. Unlike many manufacturers Carl continues to promote box springs. Selling "base units" instead of box springs allows the big brands to save cost, he says.

Peterson’s husband, Wes, agrees. “I actually learned something about what I was buying instead of buying something in the dark.”

Prior to shopping in Laclede, the Petersons were convinced they would buy a modern foam mattress. The fact that Carl’s mattresses cost a third as much is a plus, they say, but not the overriding consideration. “I’m cost conscious but I like to buy quality stuff. I can see by the way they’re building these it’s quality,” Wes says. “We’re able to feel comfortable that we’re spending money wisely on a very good product.”

Still, Carl’s mattresses are surprisingly affordable. His least expensive twin-size set sells for $199. A top-of-the-line king set retails for $849, delivered within a 50-mile radius. Most standard sizes are kept in stock. Special orders are generally filled within a couple of weeks.

Besides standard-size bedding, Carl custom-builds mattresses to fit 3/4-size antique beds, recreational vehicles and the sleeping compartments of 18-wheelers. He’s even made round beds. “If you lay on it and sleep on it, we can build it,” Rhonda says.

Carl leans onto a mattress top as he works his sewing machine around the bedding. He says his 50-year-old sewing machine produces a lock stitch, which won't pull out like the chain stitch commonly used today.

Small, independent mattress makers like Nu-Rest Bedding are uncommon but fill an important niche, says Eric Rhea, central division president of Leggett & Platt. The company, headquartered in Carthage, supplies mattress components to many of the best-known names in bedding as well as small shops like Carl’s.

“There will always be the need for the smaller guy who takes care of the needs of rural customers,” Rhea says. “Customers know they’re getting a quality mattress from someone they probably know. They feel comfortable that there’s not going to be any issues with that product.”

It’s a feeling that goes both ways. Carl says he knows that doing business in north Missouri, he’s never far from his customers. “I don’t want to meet somebody in the grocery store who’s got my bed and is dissatisfied,” he says.

A sign on the wall of Nu-Rest Bedding probably sums up Carl’s philosophy best. “We do good work and it speaks for itself. Poor work is not worth speaking for.”

“That’s kind of the way I’ve done things ever since I’ve been in the business,” Carl says. “If you’re going to build it, build it right.”

For more information, visit Nu-Rest Bedding Company at 903 Pershing Drive in Laclede or call (660) 963-2555.

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