Fashioning recycled-glass kitchen and bath countertops in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, IceStone has found that keeping its plant in the country’s design capital has advantages. Some consumers have started buying countertops online, but design professionals and many shoppers will purchase them only locally because they want to inspect the quality in person.
“Architects are very interested in seeing the manufacturing,” said IceStone co-founder Peter Strugatz.
In contrast to the many space-intensive suppliers that are moving out of the city, countertop yards are finding benefits in staying in industrial neighborhoods such as College Point, Queens, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. A rough survey of such businesses shows a few dozen in the five boroughs.
Design professionals like it that way.
“You have to go to the yard and see the individual slab,” said Sandra Kilsby, an Upper East Side interior designer who once trekked to Toronto to give the once-over to an order for a commercial client. “One lot can be completely different from another.”
Tough competition from chains
Nonetheless, it’s difficult for independent countertop retailers to grow. Along with competition from big-box companies like Home Depot, they face well-financed national chains such as Artistic Tile and Stone Source, both of which have flagship showrooms located in Manhattan. The major players have been further strengthened by industry consolidation.
Chains can afford more spacious locations and thus house larger pieces of stone, which show more of the veins and color variations inherent to natural material.
“We offer tremendous selection,” said Joshua Levinson, president of Artistic Tile’s wholesale division. He added that it can cut from the same stone for one project, which helps ensure a consistent match.
Artistic Tile, based in Secaucus, N.J., operates six showrooms in the New York area and employs 130 people. It projects revenues of $43 million this year.
Despite the plunge in home construction and renovation, IceStone has managed to thrive by using smart marketing. It hosts open houses, complete with jerked Caribbean food from East New York and locally distilled whiskeys, to attract design professionals while highlighting its Brooklyn roots.
“We put the slabs up like a painting, like a rug,” said Mr. Strugatz. “People see the colors pop.” Launched six years ago, IceStone has grown to 54 employees from six.
Turnkey service helps profits
West Side Stone & Marble Co., on West 125th Street, offers hands-on service to gain an edge. While some chains use off-site fabricators, West Side Stone does all the work itself. Each job begins with customers selecting natural stone countertops on-site, includes a custom fitting and finishes with a polish, said owner Ari Golan.
“We do it the old-fashioned way—everything, from A to Z,” he said.
Mr. Golan believes that approach helped his company, which has nine employees, remain profitable during the downturn’s bleakest days. He expects to boost revenues this year but is concerned about the future. Columbia University’s expansion has forced him to move his warehouse to Hunts Point in the Bronx, but he’s keeping the Harlem space for as long as possible to use as a showroom.
“We’re trying to survive,” Mr. Golan said. “We wanted [to find another] showroom in Manhattan, but it’s too expensive.”