Hot Plates

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

Back in 1986, a young Syracuse grad named Julie Gaines moved to West 15th Street in Manhattan with no clear plan except to make earrings and “folky” paintings and try to sell them. She happened to amble into an antiques and glassware store called the Wooden Indian at the end of the block, and instantly fell in love with the guy behind the cash register.

To be more exact, what she really fell for, she now confesses, was his beautiful black Coach leather messenger bag. “He looked so cool. No one was wearing messenger bags back then,” says Gaines.

Twenty-five years later, Gaines, 47, and Dave Lenovitz, 51, are the parents of two teenagers—and Fishs Eddy, the Flatiron dish, glass and kitchen accessories emporium that has become a New York City institution. Like that urban accessory that first caught Gaines’s fancy, it’s based on design that is functional, high quality and distinctly urban, with an added layer of humor and whimsy.

This year, the iconic store, located in the historic 1833 Gorham Silver Manufacturing building at East 19th Street and Broadway, celebrates its 25th anniversary and its husband-and-wife owners, having weathered their own version of the Depression-ware era, are grateful to be here to celebrate the milestone.

Stuffed with vintage, new and scavenged restaurant ware, Fishs Eddy beckons passersby with a surfeit of personality.

Its well-worn wood floor; kooky signage; soundtrack of roots, rock and roll and American songbook tunes; and towering stacks of colorful, quirky dishes and glassware give it the feel of a Vermont country store with an unmistakably urban energy. It was an edgy answer to Williams Sonoma, which went public in 1983, three years before. The store mixes vintage finds with fresh new designs, stocking nostalgic patterns from defunct restaurants and glazed glove molds from a bygone Trenton-based business alongside FE’s own bespoke patterns designed by artists ranging from Todd Oldham to Roz Chast.

“It’s utilitarian meets fun,” says Gaines of the store’s aesthetic, which also aims to liberate the consumer from the tyranny of matchy-matchy. The shop specialized in honest American dinnerware just as nearby Gotham Bar & Grill and Union Square Café were displacing dusty haute cuisine—and its table settings of crystal and French china—with New American cuisine.

The name itself telegraphs such associations—or did for them, anyway. Shortly after their eyes met over that metrosexual man bag, Gaines and Lenovitz launched Fishs Eddy, christened for a tiny Catskills hamlet the couple drove through on a camping trip just after they met. “We thought it was so poetic, so American and quirky,” recalls Lenovitz. They launched the business before they even had time for their 1987 wedding.

Their original shop consisted of a 500-square-foot, $1,100-a-month storefront on East 17th Street and they scoured the countryside to stock the shelves. “We’d get up at four in the morning and drive to antique markets out in Pennsylvania, even as far as Ohio, and come right back and start selling what we found,” recalls Gaines, including a lot of “really cool commercial china.” They both loved American-made restaurant ware. At Syracuse University, Gaines had become a passionate fan of locally produced Syracuse china, which beginning in 1871 turned out durable, restaurant- quality products that were a slice of honest, unadorned Americana. On one antique-hunting trip in their rickety blue pickup, they came across a burnt-out barn stuffed with intact restaurant dishware— quite literally a pottery barn—and they scored the whole cache.

Success came quickly: New York Magazine devoted a full page to the store and voilà, Gaines and Lenovitz made rent that month. When the large restaurant supply stores lining the Bowery began to close as the land they sat on became more valuable than the businesses themselves, Gaines recalls, “They were filled with dishes going back to the ’20s and ’30s. We got everything.” Gaines and Lenovitz recognized both the historical significance and the beauty of china troves like these. They bought up truckloads of Syracuse and other American-made dish and glassware, including lines from past and present institutions such as the ‘21’ Club, the Harvard Club and the Palace Hotel. Finds included china from the legendary Fonda del Sol and the Newarker restaurant at Newark Airport. (Both were creations of trailblazing restaurant impresario Joe Baum, who, against all odds, turned the Newarker into a hugely successful fine dining destination restaurant in the mid-1950s).

When their yearlong lease ended, the couple found a space on Hudson Street near Perry, where the business really found its feet— and heart. The Far West Village in the late ’80s remains a kind of golden age in Gaines’s mind, a period that she says she was too young to fully appreciate, and the one that she would most like to relive.

“The store didn’t get going until three in the afternoon, and we would stay there until three in the morning,” she recalls. The bench in front was a magnet to artists, actors, musicians, writers and assorted other neighborhood characters, many of whom were dog owners, as well as to a large gay population struggling to cope with the AIDS crisis.

Lenovitz’s mother, Valerie, relocated from Miami to an apartment above the store. Cantankerous and sharp, she worked the cash register and soon knew everyone in the neighborhood. She was, recalls Gaines, most at home in her apartment above the store “with a martini in her hand, playing Trivial Pursuit with all her gay friends.”

Gregory Hines, Suzanne Vega and Diane Keaton were regular customers, and Lenovitz recalls “delivering bushels of broken plates” to Julian Schnabel’s cavernous studio on West 11th Street. “He’d be ecstatic and I’d be thinking, ‘This guy is nuts!’” Lenovitz recalls; the shards showed up on Schnabel’s famous, large-scale “plate paintings.” Gaines, who was in her mid-20s, says wistfully, “I wish we understood that we were in the presence of greatness. It was such a vibrant time, and we were right in the middle of it.”

In that creative environment, Gaines teamed up with designers like Cynthia Rowley to commission custom patterns, and dreamed up her own lines, too. Rowley’s “Fashion Plate” design and Gaines’s resurrection of the classic hand-drawn checkerboard and green band restaurant-ware were among the first patterns Fishs Eddy produced, along with a cheerful pattern of Italian cooking phrases done in bold black lettering and surrounded by tiny vegetables for Mario Batali.

(Lenovitz’s cousin, Susi Cahn, is married to Batali, and his sister, graphic designer Lisa Easton, has designed all of the clog wearer’s cookbooks, logos and restaurants. Susi’s parents, Miles and Lillian Cahn founded Coach Leather—the very company that made Lenovitz’s wife-catching messenger bag. The Cahns sold the bag-and-belt business in 1985 to focus on their now- famous Hudson Valley goat dairy, Coach Farm Goat Cheese.)

Like a salmon returning to its primordial waters to spawn, in 1990 Fishs Eddy swam back upstream to set up shop at its current location just north of Union Square, and soon began hatching new locations. As for so many retailers, the decade of booming growth was followed by a post-millenial bust that nearly shuttered them. But for Gaines and Lenovitz, the financial challenges were driven less by Manhattanites’ money diet than by the gorilla of globalization.

Faced with rising manufacturing costs and tough competition from abroad, American china and glassware manufacturers began to close their doors, which made it harder and harder for Gaines and Lenovitz to source product that met their stringent standards. Unlike so many retailers looking to buy cheap no matter the source, Gaines and Lenovitz resisted inexpensive imports.

In 2000, after the venerable West Virginia maker of molded Viking Glass closed, Fishs Eddy posted a large sign in its window, asking President Clinton where he stood on the loss of American jobs as manufacturers fled to cheaper offshore factories.

But as the world changed around them, they ultimately accepted that their choice was either adapt or fold. As they decided to import some products, CNN’s Lou Dobbs did a segment on how Gaines and Lenovitz had been “one of the last holdouts” to foreign-made goods. “The next week,” says Gaines, “we were on a plane to Mexico.”

While they eventually expanded their inventory to include products made in half a dozen countries from England to Peru, they insisted on top-caliber production—and it didn’t come cheap. “We were so insistent on matching the quality [of American stock] that it took every little penny we had.”

Forced to raise prices, the couple watched the store’s sales plummet nearly 50 percent. They closed their stores on the Upper East and West Sides, East Hampton, Brooklyn and SoHo, and sold a warehouse on Staten Island. “It was a very emotional time,” Gaines says. “We sort of lived on mac and cheese, and our kids were very aware of it.”

There were dark nights when the couple’s lack of marketable job skills was all too clear. “I studied art history and Dave learned to run a cash register out of a tackle box,” Gaines points out. So their conversations ran along the lines of, “I can be a nanny and you can drive a taxi, maybe.” On good days, though, they knew they would make it. “We were so passionate—and we still are. We really believe in the brand,” says Gaines.

Ironically, when the recession hit in 2008, business skyrocketed. FE’s products—99-cent flatware, dishes that average in the range of $4.99 to $14, even specialty items such as $125 hand-pressed glass cake stands—were affordable luxuries. People ate in and entertained at home more, and Fishs Eddy’s mix-and-match aesthetic rendered table settings chic without breaking the piggy bank. “We had the right product at the right time for the economy,” says Gaines.

Now, as the economy improves, customers are spending more to outfit their tables and kitchens, embracing a trend that FE helped pioneer. Tabletop ware has become more like clothing, explains Gaines, a style signifier that can be changed up with the seasons, for a new look, or on a whim. FE’s Facebook page is a good barometer of this trend, and boasts over 2,000 avid FE fans who log on to gloat over recent purchases, share photos of what they served on them, and to see what wacky antics the staff is up to. Amid royal wedding madness, the store’s page featured life-size cutouts of Prince Will and commoner Kate, clad in Seattle plaid and shopping in the store.

Sitting in an upstairs office lined with the thrift shop portrait paintings she collects, Gaines describes FE’s recent growth and expansion plans. Fueled by that snappy social media presence and double-digit growth in online sales, the business recently expanded its Union Square footprint from 3,200 to 4,500 square feet; a new outpost in San Francisco is in the planning stages.

The store is also nothing if not quintessentially New York. Fishs Eddy dinnerware lines capture the Manhattan skyline, pay homage to its “bridge and tunnel” culture, and reference Manhattan blue plate specials. One pattern speaks Brooklynese (“cawffee,” “shuguh” and “creamuh”), another raises funds for the Food Bank for New York City. Novelty plates bear the likeness of parking violation tickets and the New York Times crossword puzzle; mugs depicting both heterosexual and same-sex couples and bearing the nuptial vow “We do” proclaim blue-state family values.

The principal architect of FE’s unique identity is Gaines. She’s the one whose personality crackles on the store’s Facebook page and Web site (examples include those cheeky royals photos and the “Yo Dylan, we love your tat!” caption for a picture of a customer whose tattoo echoes an FE design). She’s the one who inaugurated a yearly competition at the Pratt School of Art and Design to come up with a new FE dish pattern. 2004 winner Jordan Awan’s “Brooklynese” pattern became a best seller; he went on to become art director of The New Yorker. Gaines’s own quirky sense of humor is visible everywhere: “Why rent when you can own?” for a pattern called “Floor Plan”; “A forkin’ good deal,” to promote 99-cent flatware; and a new section in the store for oddly shaped dishes called “Shape Shack.” Her love of nostalgic restaurant ware (favorite pattern: the classic green band) is the force behind the store’s Vintage section. There you can buy American antiquity: the original, not reproduction, green band; pink and blue bisque cafeteria ware; plates that once graced the tables of Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Lodge or the U.S. Army; charmingly outmoded shapes and styles such as double-handled bouillon cups, or stubby little creamers in mint green and pale pink. Gaines and Lenovitz have saved some of the best for their personal collection of several hundred thousand pieces of china. Though the Smithsonian Institution has expressed interest, for now, they plan to display parts of it in their newly expanded showroom. (For Gaines, a crushing blow came in 2009, when her beloved Syracuse China Corporation turned off its kilns for the last time. “I couldn’t get out of bed for a week,” she says.)

But even as celebrated kilns go cold, Fishs Eddy keeps the torch burning. These days, the couple and their partner, Noah Lenovitz (Dave’s second cousin, whose father Steve opened the Wooden Indian in the ’60s and ran it for close to 30 years), have their sights trained on their planned San Francisco store, for which they’ll design new wares that capture the local culture. Noah oversees operations, IT and store openings (“we’re not big on titles,” he says). He has his eye on the Ferry Building, and feels the city, with its urban sophistication and counterculture vibe, is a perfect match for the Fishs Eddy aesthetic.

After that, says Gaines, “Who knows? We would look at other markets.” The partners’ one caveat, she says—although there is little danger of it happening as long as she keeps her creative vision—is, “We never, ever want to lose our personality.”


Brian Halweil

Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.

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