Pandemic drives kitchen remodeling projects

You're in your kitchen now more than ever cooking meals for a family that's stuck at home during the COVID pandemic. If you're tired of how your kitchen looks and functions, you're not alone. Kitchen remodeling projects are on the rise during the pandemic. Here's what's popular in Midwest Minnesota kitchen designs.

Alicia Molenaar, owner and designer at Kitchen Fair in Willmar, shows how even skinny spaces in cupboards can be maximized to provide storage for kitchen gadgets. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR – COVID-19 has meant more people are staying home and cooking in their kitchens now than in the past. Not surprisingly, that has resulted in a flurry of kitchen remodeling projects.

People are “forced to be home” and are “sick of their kitchens,” said Alicia Molenaar, a designer and co-owner of Kitchen Fair in Willmar.

During the pandemic, Kitchen Fair has been swamped with requests from customers looking for a new look and ways to improve functionality and efficiency in their kitchens. “We are really busy,” Molenaar said.

While updating paint or adding a colorful backsplash can be handled by a weekend do-it-yourselfer, a kitchen makeover can benefit from a professional designer.

The process begins with taking measurements of an existing kitchen space and an interview with the homeowner to find out how they use their kitchen, how many people typically cook there at one time and what they want in terms of style and functionality.


Giving a kitchen a new look can be as simple as installing new hardware – where the trend is for larger handles that can fit a man-sized hand – or as complex as totally gutting an existing kitchen and installing new cabinets, countertops, appliances, lighting and flooring.

Molenaar, who’s had 20 years experience as a designer, and fellow Kitchen Fair designer, Bruce Dexter, who has more than 40 years of experience designing kitchens, shared their observations on what’s currently trending in Midwest Minnesota kitchen designs.

Drawers vs doors:

Using deep drawers to store dishes and pots and pans are a design favorite, according to Molenaar. For people who are shorter, or those with back and shoulder problems, storing heavy plates and pots below the counter is easier than reaching up into a cupboard.

Soft-close drawers

Unlike old kitchen drawers that could be pulled out three-fourths of the way, full-extension drawers allow even the dark recesses of a drawer to be utilized. Two-tiered cutlery drawers allow silverware to be stored on the first layer and then slid back to reveal lesser-used items on the second layer. Drawers fitted with tilted shelves create easy-to-use storage for spice jars as another way to utilize space efficiently in ways that make a kitchen seem larger than it is.

With a gentle touch soft-close drawers close magically by themselves. Having a fight in a kitchen isn’t quite the same in a remodeled kitchen because drawers can’t be slammed shut, said Molenaar with a laugh.

Secret spaces

Kitchen nooks and crannies can pose design challenges but pull-out drawers can be fit into skinny spaces to store utensils like cutting boards and cookie sheets. Dead space in front of the sink can be turned into a small storage place for sponges and scrubbers.

Special cabinet designs are popular for large stand mixers that may be too big to store on the counter and too heavy to carry from a storage cabinet to the counter. A mechanical lift allows the mixer to be stored out of site in a cabinet and then brought to counter-height.


Kitchen Fair has been busy reconfiguring cabinets in kitchens to allow space for a first-time dishwasher. A new trend is for dishwasher drawers in islands that accommodate open floor plans without a lot of walls for traditional dishwashers. Raising dishwashers up to waist level is another popular design trend. Surprisingly, a fair number of people don’t want a dishwasher, said Molenaar. However, often a cabinet will be installed close to the sink that could easily be removed to install a dishwasher in the future.


Smart appliances, like touchless faucets, ovens that can be turned on and off when you’re not in your house, refrigerators that record inventory and garbage cans that let you know what you need to put on the grocery list based on the container you recycled or threw away are quickly making their way into current design plans, according to Dexter. “The smart appliances are quite appealing,” he said. “It’s here. It’s all happening.”

Islands in the stream

Most people want a kitchen island but sometimes an existing kitchen space isn’t big enough to allow adequate space and cooks are “bumping into each other,” said Molenaar. Installing a tiny island just for the sake of having an island may not be the most efficient use of space and it might have to be sacrificed or replaced with a peninsula.

Open shelves

Despite HGTV’s apparent love of open shelving for plates and other kitchen decor, most people in this region opt for cupboards. “They want to hide it all away,” said Molenaar, for a kitchen that’s “clean and clutter-free.”

Soffits, or bulkheads, are coming out and replaced with cabinets that go to the ceiling to maximize storage. Staggered cabinet levels are out and one-level cabinets with “clean lines” are in.

Cabinet styles

When Dexter started designing kitchens 40 years ago, cabinets were “oak, oak, oak and oak.”

Now the trend is for natural hickory, cherry and maple cabinets. About a quarter of the time cabinets are painted, with white the most popular color.

The most popular style of cupboard doors is a “Shaker” or Arts & Crafts” style with beveled edges for easier cleaning.

When removing the dark cabinets from the '70s or the golden oak cupboards from the '80s, homeowners may be tempted to just update the exterior look. Molenaar said installing new units has the advantage of the full-extension and soft-close features at about the same price as updating existing cabinets.



Shiny floors and ceramic tiles are fading from kitchens and being replaced with “luxury vinyl” floating floor products. The current trend is for weathered “distressed-looking” styles that have a lot of “movement” and doesn’t show dirt as easily as solid dark wood colors, said Molenaar. The easy-to-install plank flooring is water resistant and easy to clean.


Under-cabinet lighting to brighten up the countertop is a popular trend, along with overhead recessed lighting and a large “statement” light with one or two globes over an island.


Low interest rates on home improvement loans, which is currently around 5 percent or less, is making it more affordable to finance home improvement projects. Dexter said he remembers doing projects when interest rates were around 19 percent.

The faces behind Kitchen Fair

Kitchen Fair was started about 40 years ago by Bruce and Ginger Dexter. Two years ago they sold their business to Don’s Building Center of Kerkhoven, which was started in 1985 by Don and Juanita Halverson.

Now owned by Molenaar and her sister Gretchen Hauge, and the sisters’ husbands – Dana Molenaar and Kelly Hauge – the enterprise includes the building center in Kerkhoven, a showroom in Benson and Kitchen Fair in Willmar.

Molenaar, who’s been a designer for 20 years, said she “grew up with sawdust in her blood.”

Although she was a “competitor” for many years, Bruce Dexter said he offered to sell the business to Molenaar because they both worked with the same kitchen cabinet builder – Dura Supreme from Howard Lake – and they used the same computer-assisted drafting system so there’d be no transitional training required.

And they wanted to leave their business and customers in the hands of someone who was “honest,” said Ginger Dexter.

The Dexters now work for Molenaar, where Ginger does the books and Bruce continues his work as a designer.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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