This story appears in the February 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
With its iconic ceramic hand statuettes on shelves by the entrance and twinkling strings of red lights, Fishs Eddy, a 4,000-square-foot home goods emporium named for a quaint town in the Catskills, remains as hip and quirky as the day it opened in 1985 near Gramercy Park in New York City.
Founded and still owned by Julie Gaines and David Lenovitz, the store is packed with artfully stacked piles of plates, vintage salt-and-pepper shakers and creamers, flatware and glassware. Many of the cheeky patterns are designed by celebrity partners, including fashion designers Cynthia Rowley and Todd Oldham, noted cartoonist Roz Chast, and comedian and actress Amy Sedaris.
It’s this just-right blend of folksy general store and urban edginess (hand-drawn checkerboard plates sit near a table featuring “Brooklynese” mugs emblazoned with cawffee) that enabled Fishs Eddy to reach $9 million in sales in 2014. The brand resonates with NYC locals, tourists and out-of-towners—online sales in the first quarter of 2014 were up 20 percent over the same period the previous year.
Gaines and Lenovitz, who are married, got their start when they were driving around upstate New York and came across an old barn filled with restaurant-quality dinnerware that had survived a fire. They took their haul home to the city, cleaned it up and began selling the dishes in their store on 17th Street. Later they added made-in-America signature dishware from venerable spots like the 21 Club and the Helmsley Hotel. They eventually opened several stores throughout New York City and one in the Hamptons.
Then, a decade back, “we hit a rough patch,” Gaines says. Faced with rising costs, American china and glassware manufacturers were rapidly closing their doors. The couple, forced to rethink how they sourced their inventory, closed all but one store, the current location on 19th Street and Broadway.
“A friend said, ‘If you don’t go offshore, you won’t be here,’” Gaines recalls. “It was heartbreaking to hear, but he gave us two tickets to Mexico, and we started sourcing our first pattern there.”
Fishs Eddy dishware is now sourced from manufacturers in India, Peru, China and one in the U.S., and each is held to the same high standards of American restaurant-quality china.
These days Fishs Eddy is in expansion mode. Two years ago the company, which has 47 employees, opened a warehouse operation in Irvington, N.J. Gaines and Lenovitz have hired Aesthetic Movement, a New York City-based sales representation firm, to help them move into the wholesale market.
“There’s something magical about Fishs Eddy’s mix of fresh, topical design motifs that aren’t too serious, combined with the quality and familiarity of their nostalgic silhouettes,” says Jesse James, founder and creative director of Aesthetic Movement. “Others have imitated that aesthetic, but the truth is that they created it.”
Take, for example, the partnerships with designers that began 18 years ago with a project with Rowley. “Back then, companies weren’t pairing with designers the way Target, for example, does today,” Gaines says. After a collaboration with Oldham, Gaines asked the designer to approach his friend Sedaris to see if she’d like to design a collection, too.
“They’re very mom-and-pop,” Sedaris says of the Fishs Eddy team, who worked with her to produce a line of “I Like You”-embossed kitchenware and entertaining supplies, including cheerful juice glasses, tumblers and dollar-sign-printed dish towels. “Right away, that made me feel like I was going to be in good hands. I hadn’t ever considered doing this with another store.”
Retail partnerships, too, have fueled the company’s growth. Last year, Fishs Eddy teamed up with J.Crew to design a handful of exclusive nautical-inspired items, including a soap dish and diner-style coffee mug. The company will expand into utilitarian furnishings when it introduces Fishs Eddy for West Elm furniture this year at 62 West Elm stores.
Meanwhile, Fishs Eddy is meeting with investors to initiate a plan for a national expansion of 40 to 50 stores—“everywhere there’s an Anthropologie and a Crate & Barrel,” Gaines says. “Anthropologie is our idol. When you go into an Anthropologie, you might think it’s owned by an individual. We like that model.”
Things are so good—and there are so many investor meetings to attend—that Lenovitz just bought his first suit. But Gaines is proudest of the playful atmosphere she and her partner have created. “I can always hear people laughing while they’re shopping here,” she says. “That’s what makes me happy.”
Playing with the big boxes
No company is too small to partner up with a larger store—provided you know what you’re getting into. Here, Fishs Eddy’s Julie Gaines offers five ways to approach a big-box collaboration.
1. Don’t fear the big players. “The bigger a retailer gets, the more vanilla it gets. Right now, retailers are actively looking for smaller brands to give more character to their narrative.”
2. Make sure the partnership makes sense. Before you approach a large retailer, be certain there’s an affinity. “For example, we have an edgier take, so we wouldn’t want to work with a retailer that’s more mainstream,” Gaines says. “Be sure the brand is one you’d be proud
to be partnered with.”
3. Remember: Your brand has value. “When we talk to the big guys, we come in with the perspective that we’re small, but we don’t let ourselves get stepped on. We still have a say, and even the biggest companies want that. Always project confidence: If you’re doing something you believe in, and you believe in the quality of your product, it should come easy.”
4. Enhance the retail experience. Gaines notes that consumers accustomed to shopping online are looking for an experience when they do go to a store. Consider selling your products in a shop that offers a complementary line—maybe offering gourmet hot cocoas at a home goods retailer. “Think outside the traditional retail box. The rules are being broken now more than ever.”
5. Be flexible—and be ready to come up with quick solutions. “Never turn down a large brand that you’re excited about, even if it means wiping out your inventory and having to come up with a quick solution. Those opportunities don’t come every day. I’d walk on hot coals for a larger brand.”