When Homestead Princeton, an upscale furniture store, needed more space than its Palmer Square location could provide, owners Ron and Kristin Menapace set out to find a space that could be used for warehousing inventory and possibly other business ventures. They found one a few miles away in a former schoolhouse in Blawenburg, where they took out a lease for about 2,000 square feet.
But before long that wasn’t enough: why not buy the whole building?
Money, for one thing. The building cost around $500,000, which would require a considerable down-payment. For a small business, giving up a large amount of cash can be a risky move. However, M&T Bank and a program from the Economic Development Authority stepped in to help by offering low-cost financing. The bank covered 80 percent of the loan, with the EDA covering the 20 percent that would have otherwise been the down-payment. Homestead also gets to pay a lower interest rate on the loan.
“We can’t make a bad loan good, but this was a good loan and we made it better,” said EDA COO Tim Lizura. “At the end of the day, the business is more successful, the bank is more successful, and New Jersey is more successful.” (Lizura is leaving the EDA; see related story.)
Lizura says the EDA’s small business loan program is an often overlooked aspect of the authority, which is best known for trying to lure big companies to New Jersey with big tax breaks. NJEDA has led the state’s efforts to get Amazon to locate a headquarters in Newark, with a staggering $7 billion in potential tax credits.
Homestead couldn’t be more different from Amazon, as it is quite literally a Mom-and-Pop business. Ron and Kristin live in Princeton and have four children. Kristin, who grew up in Riverton with an actuary father and small business consultant mother, earned a bachelor’s and master’s of economics from Rutgers, and chose to go into business with Ron rather than go into a corporate career. Ron, who grew up in Hillsborough, was a sports management major at the University of Dayton. He always had an interest in carpentry, perhaps because of growing up in a household with a carpenter father and homemaker mother.
After graduating from college, Ron went to work building and refinishing furniture, but left this occupation for a corporate job with pharmaceutical company Sepracor. He left this career in 2011 to go into business with Kristin.
The couple bonded over a mutual love of motorcycles, and Kristin’s custom purple Harley is now stored in the new warehouse.
At first Ron spent a lot of time making and refinishing furniture, but these days he has to devote more time to making the business run and leaves the carpentry to the company’s 14 employees.
Homestead is most famous for its barnwood furniture, which today makes up about 10 percent of its sales. Barnwood is just what it sounds like: wood that was salvaged from old barns. Menapace says the furniture is made in Pennsylvania, where most of the barns are located.
The rest of the business is selling interesting and hard-to-find furniture, some of it sourced from the Middle East and India.
Even though the barnwood is only a small part of the business numerically, the interesting story it creates is a big part of what allows Homestead to thrive and expand when companies like Amazon sell anything you could imagine with the convenience of a click on a computer.
“We’re experiential retail,” Ron says. “We want to create an experience when people come into our stores that it’s a happy place.” Customers can come in and sit on the furniture and hear the wind chimes. In person, it’s easy for the customers to imagine the merchandise in their homes.
“Amazon can’t kill the restaurant business, because that’s an experience,” he says.
As it happens, restaurants make up a large part of Homestead’s business-to-business clientele. The shop supplied the furniture for the new PJ’s Pancake House in Ewing, and helped Agricola in Princeton with its interior design.
Kristin says Homestead is planning to hire several more employees.
By buying the expanded warehouse, Homestead now has an opportunity to double down on the experiential strategy. Ron walked around the space, tossing out ideas. The main warehouse? Maybe a furniture making class could be held there. A room downstairs? It could be a cafe. Some small office-like school rooms upstairs could be rented out as artists studios to help foster a creative atmosphere.
During a tour, someone suggested a riff on the “drink wine and paint” class: how about beer and woodworking? “Beer and power tools? That’s a terrible combination,” Ron said.
For more information on the NJEDA’s small business fund, visit www.njeda.com.
Homestead Princeton, 43 Hulfish Street, Princeton 08542. 609-688-0777. Ron Menapace, owner. www.homesteadprinceton.com.