Cousins Salvatore Alesci, Peter Alesci, and Sal Finocchiaro have done almost everything together since they were kids (in Queens, New York). As adults, they have taken advantage of that close-knit relationship to build a business together, as an offshoot of the family’s 30-year old construction company.
In 2010, the ambitious trio started NYC Fireplaces & Outdoor Kitchens in Maspeth, New York, a few blocks from the neighborhood where they grew up after just 24 months in business, the store is already grabbing its share of the New York hearth market, which was in serious need of a bright spark.
The cousins say that they have always thought that they would go into business together at some point, so when the opportunity arose to start a fireplace shop, they didn’t hesitate to make it happen. “My uncle’s construction company was building a house in upstate New York, and it needed some fireplaces. There really weren’t many stores in the area that could supply us with what we needed,” Finocchiaro explains.
Lighting the Fire
A few months later, the cousins converted some extra office space at the construction company into an upscale fireplace showroom, complete with heart products from some of the most respected vendors in the industry: Enviro, Travis Industries, Napoleon, Heatilator, Majestic, Vermont Castings, Town & Country, Dimplex, and Modern Flames. From the beginning, they knew that the focus of the business would be on not just products, but hearth design and service as well.
“We see it as an advantage that our shop hasn’t been around for decades because we aren’t set in our ways. We have geared our business to reach today’s generation of hearth customers,” Finocchiaro says. Being close to Manhattan, the store draws apartment/condominium dwellers looking for contemporary designs or electric fireplaces, as well as wealthy New Yorkers (with spacious summer homes in the Hamptons) who want something more traditional.
Finocchiaro is surprised that the fire-place world is a new one to so many people. “We have come to understand that fireplaces are still very much an afterthought and find that much of our job is just educating people about all the options that are available,” he says.
“They think a fireplace is just a fireplace and don’t know that there are dozens of different manufacturers-and within those manufacturers’ lines there are different sizes, styles, and surrounds.”
There store’s design services have set it apart, from the beginning, because many competitors in the area don’t offer them-or don’t make them available at the same level that NYC Fireplaces & Outdoor Kitchens does. Finocchiaro uses computer-aided design to create 3D drawings for customers who are interested in designing custom hearths or outdoor kitchens.
He first sits down with clients to get a feel for what they want; then, he takes a few days to draw up some options. “If I’m doing an outdoor kitchen, I typically come up with several layouts, with different equipment, because each brand fits in a space differently and varies in price range,” he says.
The store carries outdoor-kitchen equipment from Viking, Fire Magic, American Outdoor Grill, and Bull Outdoor Products. Finocchiaro adds that because the business has a construction arm, it can build almost any outdoor kitchen that customers want.
Indoor fireplaces are usually part of existing construction plans, and homeowners stop by the store to select fireplaces for jobs in progress. “Since we come from a construction background, we work well with home builders. It makes our customers feel comfortable that we can help them communicate with their contractors,” he says.
The store also offers a variety of fireplace-related consultation services, including historic fireplace evaluation and restoration planning, chimney and flue-system design services, solutions for smoky or inefficient fireplaces, chimney construction and relining, site surveys, and technical advice.
Building a Customer Base
For NYC Fireplaces & Outdoor Kitchens, customer referrals (from homeowners and contractors) have been the primary way that it has built its initial customer base. “We are not in a high-traffic location, so we can’t rely on walk-in business,” Finocchiaro explains.
The store has also invested in a website (www.nycfireplaces.com) and is highly committed to newspaper advertising.” I know many business owners shy away from advertising in the newspaper because everything seems to be online, but it has worked for us. Newspapers are very ingrained in New York culture, New Yorkers want to sit down in the morning with a cup of coffee and read a newspaper,” Finocchiaro says.
The ads typically drive people to the store’s website to view the product options in its online gallery. They will stop by the store after seeing something that interests- them on the website. Finocchiaro says that once people walk through the doors, they are amazed at what they see, but they typically won’t buy a fireplace on the first visit. They need to take some time to absorb all of the information, to go home and discuss it, to review the options, and then come back and make the purchase.
“We are persistent when it comes to follow up; otherwise, people will choose to wait on purchases. We do follow-up phone calls to see if we can answer any questions and to urge people to come back for a second look or to make a purchase,” he explains.
Going forward, NYC Fireplaces & Outdoor Kitchens sees its outdoor business as a huge area of opportunity, as it becomes more established in the community.” Once we get people in here and show them all the possibilities for outdoor entertaining and relaxing, they get excited,” Finocchiaro says. He adds that it doesn’t hurt that companies such as Viking are investing a lot of money in advertising, which boosts interest from consumers.
He says, “It is my hope that heart products will become more visible in the media and on do-it-yourself networks like HGTV. The industry is still relatively small, with very little brand recognition, and it would make it so much easier for hearth dealers if products got more exposure.”
The possibilities for NYC Fireplaces & Outdoor Kitchens are wide open, as the company begins its journey as a fledgling new York hearth retailer. Finocchiaro says, “We’ve only been around two years, yet we have learned so much already. We still have lots of room to grow- and a whole world to show our customers.”