Fireplace - All in the Family

All in the Family

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No one said the specialty hearth and barbeque business was easy. But if you think you’ve got it rough, imagine doing business in New York City. Crowds, traffic, lack of parking, multi-story buildings with limited elevator access, a myriad of co-op and condo association rules with which to comply - these challenges and more are all in a day’s work for brothers Peter and Salvatore Alesci and their cousin Sal Finocchiaro, partners in NYC Fireplaces.

The three men decided to launch their specialty hearth and outdoor kitchen business after they were frustrated at being unable to find a retailer in the New York metropolitan area who would create the dramatic custom fireplace they envisioned for their upstate New York vacation home. The close-knit family members, who had grown up working in Peter and Salvatore’s father’s construction company, FPS Contracting, and have one architecture degree and two construction management degrees among them, ultimately did the job themselves.

Afterward, they began to wonder if opening their own fireplace store might fill a void for others in their area.

In only its second year, NYC Fireplaces is already developing a reputation as a destination retailer in the area, attracting customers from all over New York City and the surrounding wealthy suburban communities. Located in Maspeth, New York, an industrial area just a stone’s throw away from the Queens-Midtown Tunnel linking the borough of Queens with Manhattan, the 2,000 sq. ft. showroom is located on the second floor of the building which houses FPS Contracting.

In true city fashion, every inch of what was once a storage area is maximized. Floor and wall space, as well as hallways, lobby and reception areas are lined with dozens of beautiful and innovative hearth displays showcasing a myriad of styles, textures and fuels from traditional to ultra-contemporary. The center of the showroom is devoted to the Outdoor Room, with an L-Shaped outdoor kitchen featuring several brands of built-in grills and appliances, a pizza oven, patio heaters and various cabinetry choices.

Hearth & Home recently visited NYC Fireplaces and sat down with Peter, Salvatore and Sal to learn more about their business and the reasons behind its success.

Hearth & Home: Your showroom is not easily accessible. In fact, some might say you could not have picked a worse location to open a business. There is no mass transit nearby; parking is on-street and only after 10 am; your showroom is on the second floor with no street visibility. But that didn’t stop you and doesn’t seem to discourage customers from making the pilgrimage here. What were you thinking and why do you think it’s working?

Salvatore Alesci: “We’re selling a specialty item so people feel it’s worth the trip. They often will take a cab from manhattan and have the driver wait for them because this is not the kind of area where you can flag down a cab. We’re very responsive to our customers. We return calls fast and turn around price quotes fast.

“Our goal is to get people into the showroom to see what we have, because that really sells them. They are often amazed at the different styles of fireplaces available. Ultimately, we try to keep our service top notch."

You mentioned that you were unable to find a dealer in your area to design and install the kind of fireplace yo unwanted in your vacation home. Does that mean you don’t have much competition in the metropolitan New York area?

Salvatore Alesci: “There are a few dealers - one or two in Queens, someone on Staten Island, someone in Nassau and a few in Brooklyn - but they are mostly air conditioning or plumbing guys who also do some fireplaces. There are no hearth retailed in Manhattan.”

Why do you think that’s the case?

Peter Alesci: “Many people are afraid to work in this area, particularly in Manhattan. But we work there on a regular basis with our construction company so we understand what it takes. We have developed a niche in Manhattan.”

What are some of the challenges you face doing business in the Big Apple?

Peter Alesci: “Well, for one, we get a lot of parking tickets! Each location we work in is unique, so we do a site survey first before we’ll even tell a customer what’s possible or give them a price. Sometimes people are disappointed to learn that their building doesn’t allow fireplaces or that it’s not possible to run gas lines, so an electric unit becomes their only option.

“They appreciate the fact that we’re not trying to sell them something they can’t have. Each situation dictates the type of unit we can use, the labor involves and the price. In the city, the cost for set-up and installation can easily be three times the cost of the fireplace itself.

“For instance on one job recently we have to vent the fireplace into the back courtyard of an apartment building with no access from the street. We have to build 60 feet of scaffolding just to put in the venting.

“The venting also is a huge project for a job we’re doing at nEw York University- over a week’s worth of work for three men. The fireplace cost $5,000 but the venting was $15,000 on that job. Penthouses are easy because you can go through the roof, but the harder jobs far outnumber the easy ones.”

What kinds of fireplace products are your customers looking for? Is it mostly a contemporary market?

Peter Alesci: “in terms of fuel, sales are predominantly gas, followed by electric and then wood. Gel and ethanol fireplaces are not big in this market. We thought they would sell like crazy, but we’ve only sold two since we’ve been in business and have had fewer than 10 total inquiries about them. No one wants them in our area.

“In terms of style, traditional looks are the most popular, which was very surprising to us. Transitional fireplaces seem to be growing, however. These combine a modern twist with a traditional look, such as glass or rocks as an alternative to a log set, or a mirrored panel behind the flames. Linear fireplaces are catching on in Manhattan, but as far as ultra-modern looks go, no, they are not popular at all with our customers.”

That is definitely surprising. What about advertising or marketing? Do you have any surprising techniques for reaching your customers?

Salvatore Alesci: “We have advertised in local newspapers in Queens, but have not advertised in Manhattan paper yet. We are big online advertisers on Google and that’s been very successful for us. We find that before a customer even comes in they have already done research online, so Google really herpes us with that.

“Recently we did a mailing to nearly 700 designers and architects promoting our business and it’s been worthwhile. If you can get an architect to recommend you, it’s better than any ad in the paper. We’ve had a few architects come in right away, including one who is doing a townhouse remodel with four fireplaces and a possible outdoor kitchen for the rooftop garden.”

Speaking of outdoor kitchens, let’s talk a little about that side of your business.

Salvatore Alesci: “We offered outdoor kitchens last year, but we are putting more effort behind the category this year. In fact, we are going to create an additional 1,000 sq. ft of outdoor kitchen display area on the rooftop, which will be accessible from our showroom. We don’t just want to sell the barbecue; we want to design the entire backyard with the outdoor kitchen pizza oven, heater, outdoor fireplace, patio and pool.”

Is there much call for outdoor kitchens in New York City?

Peter Alesci: “So far the jobs we’ve done have been at expensive homes in the suburbs where we’ve built a pool house, patio and outdoor kitchen for the homeowners. But we have been approached by an electric grill company to work together on outdoor kitchens for apartment balconies, penthouse gardens and green roofs. So it’s definitely on our radar for this year.”

How do you handle the design aspect of these jobs?

Salvatore Alesci: “Peter does all the site surveys and meets with the customers about what they want. Then he creates the design sketches by hand, and Sal (Finocchiaro) turns the sketches into CAD drawings. We give the customer two or three designs; sometimes they end up choosing part of design A and part of design B.

“What you have to remember is the designs are dictated by space limitations. We’re talking 10-by-20 foot terraces, not sprawling ranches like in California. We deal with inches, not feet, but we are experts at making as much as possible out of any little space.”

What percentage of your business do you expect the Outdoor Room segment to be?

Peter Alesci: “Our goal is for outdoor kitchens to be 20 to 25 percent of our business. We’ll hit it hard this year. To help create awareness we are planning to host barbecue demo days one or two Saturdays a month and invite architects, designers and their clients to see what we can do.

“We also plan to run a promotion where we’ll design your backyard for $500; if you go with the job, we’ll credit it toward the price. We’ll have to adjust and adapt and see what works and what doesn’t. Real estate is not cheap around here, so if the outdoor kitchen business doesn’t fly, it won’t be taking up floor space in our showroom. But we expect it to do well.”

What else do you see for the future?

Peter Alesci: “We are already outgrowing our space, so we are looking to open a satellite location, possibly even taking over an existing retail store. Regardless, it likely won’t be in Manhattan.”

One more question: Would you share with us the amount of your total sales this past year?

Peter Alesci: “Well, no, we don’t want to share that. But let’s put it this way: it’s a lot more than we ever anticipated.