Founders Bring Fishs Eddy Back from Near Death

To describe Fishs Eddy as a dinnerware store would be an injustice. If you like colorful kitchenware, quirky plates, and vintage china, stepping into their shop at Broadway and 19th Street is like stumbling into the world’s greatest yard sale. Fishs Eddy also doesn’t just sell dinnerware—they design, manufacture, and sell their own patterns, and also collaborate with designers like Todd Oldham and Nicole Miller.

The year 2011 marks Fishs Eddy’s 25th year in business. Started by Julie Gaines and her husband Dave Lenovitz when they were both in their early twenties, Fishs Eddy, named after a small hamlet in upstate New York, began a few blocks away from their current location.

Although their now-massive collection still supplies a lot of their stock these days (they have a 50,000 square foot warehouse in Jersey City), Fishs Eddy is also known for their own custom-made quirky patterns, as well as their designer collaborations. Their first, about 13 years ago, featured Cynthia Rowley.

“No designers that we work with ever look at us as though we’re going to make a lot of money for them. We’re an opportunity for them to show their edgier side,” says Gaines. “I think a lot of designers are a little shocked that we can actually make something. Typically, stores our size don’t make their own products.” Because their product turnover is so high, it helps the store keep up with its manufacturing demands. “Manufacturing for our one store is a tremendous challenge. But the fact that we pull it off is a testament to how much product we turn,” she says. The store created its first proprietary pattern about 20 years ago, a classic checkerboard. Today, their most popular pattern is one based on the skyline of New York City.

The Challenge of Being American Made

Fishs Eddy based their original ethos on carrying American-made dinnerware. When American dinnerware factories were doing well, so was Fishs Eddy—by about seven years ago, they had expanded to half a dozen Fishs Eddy stores and business was booming. But then, one by one, their American suppliers started going out of business, and the outlook was bleak. “We kind of considered closing up shop forever,” says Gaines.

Part one of their strategy to save Fishs Eddy was to close all of their stores except for one, their current location, which was the largest and most profitable. But to keep that one from going out of business as well, they had to take a new direction.

Their solution was to approach a commercial china manufacturer in Mexico about making one pattern. “It took all our money, all our resources. My family personally lived on mac and cheese for a year. It took every penny we had, but we worked very hard to match the quality of what we have now, and we did it,” says Gaines. With the success of working with the manufacturer in Mexico, they began sourcing in England, Turkey, and China, and then, finally, to an American manufacturer that was still in business. “It was a very, very painful time. I think I’ll be scarred forever from it. But I do believe we’ve come out victorious,” she says. “We built a brand, we were committed to it, and we weren’t going to let it go.” At the moment, Gaines  estimates their stock is approximately 30 percent American-made.

Refocused on Growth

Today, Fishs Eddy is looking to grow again—in a different way than they’ve done in the past. They employ approximately 40 people, and they’ve recently expanded their retail space from 2,700 square feet to 4,000 square feet. Their next step is to revamp their website—which Gaines likens to opening another store—and once that’s finished, they’re looking to expand again as a brand by opening more Fishs Eddy locations.

“As far as [sales] numbers, we are getting close to the eight million mark,” says Gaines. “Our sales in one location are now more now than when we had multiple stores. When we had a few stores we were not sourcing and we were paying exorbitant prices for our product. The cost was prohibitive for growth. Now that we figured out our sourcing, our margins are up, our prices are down, and most importantly, we have a real prototype to expand in many locations. We are talking to a few investors now but nothing is in stone yet. We are learning that the ball is in our court, for once.”

And she and her husband won’t necessarily be in charge of the expansion. “The one thing I think we’ve done right is recognize what we can’t do. And we’re much more about the brand and the product and less savvy on our ability to grow out a business that way,” says Gaines. “I believe in us as the founders of something great. But I don’t think we’re the ones that are going to take it on a very big scale.” Once they find the right investor, Gaines hopes that Fishs Eddy will expand similarly to the retailer Anthropologie, which has a unique look and setup in each separate location.

“We’re at a difficult place because it’s hard to be a small business in New York City. And we’re a small business with big aspirations,” says Gaines. “We overcame a huge hurdle and we’re still doing it. We’re doing it even better, and we’re really poised to grow.”