IHK award: Company of the Year, Max Pies Furniture



Squirrels, a cul-de-sac across from an elementary school and the four seasons.

Those were some of the challenges Phil and Steve Pies have had over the years in a fairly remote — and pet-friendly — part of town in western New York, says Steve.

Despite that and the typical ups and downs of retail, Max Pies Furniture has endured 118 years since settling in this cozy spot at the end of Jackson Street in 1905. Founder Max Pies and his family not only built a small business but also their own home and the place has now been passed down to Steve, the fourth generation of the Pies family.

No wonder they received the Chamber of Commerce Company of the Year award. And nowhere else would they have continued the tradition that began with the sale of furniture and flooring.

“As for that structure and that business from that location, it’s the same location. Obviously they’ve expanded the store since 1905. But the original location and their house was in the parking lot you pulled into,” Steve Pies said. “They went from Rochester to Buffalo and I think even near Syracuse sometime in the ’80s. Rochester Linoleum bought up all aspects of the flooring. But the furniture, although we also make floors here, the original name of the Max Pies furniture store started right here.”

And they both must have fit into the business quite naturally, yes?

“Well, not really,” said Phil. “I went to college, then I was in the Air Force. And then my uncle was here at that time and my father.”

Phil was married with two children, Steve and Natalie, and was living in Sacramento, California at the time. After the death of his uncle Jake, he eventually returned to Batavia and worked with his father Sam. The business must have been good for a long life: his grandfather worked until he died at 93, and the same for his father until he was 83. Phil has been the friendly face of Max Pies for 53 years.

It was a similarly crooked path for Steve, who didn’t immediately return from college to join the family business. He set out to earn a business degree from Plattsburgh State College, and something drew his attention to working on a cruise ship — he had visions of “Love Boat” — and boarding to work as a blackjack dealer to work, and then worked in casinos in Nevada building a career as a card dealer.

Eventually he returned and decided to help his father, who will be 80 in May. They thought back what has changed over the years and certainly the cost was high.

“The freight rates have changed, the insurance, the overhead,” Phil said. “And styles, we’ve sold a lot of colonial styles, and now we’re selling a lot more modern styles.”

Steve added that retro comes and goes, but one shift that involves time, work and unexpected costs is how furniture is arriving now versus before.

“Everything used to be assembled,” said Steve. “Now it’s KD, for knockdown. It means taking them off the truck, packing them out of the box, setting them up with screws and drills and disposing of the garbage. It’s a lot more boring.”

While costs have skyrocketed, the disposal business is booming. The Pies have a 40-foot roll-off container that costs $800, and they sometimes fill it with Styrofoam and boxes three times a month, Steve said. For the most part, they rely on sales reps for advice and guidance on what’s hot throughout the year, what’s hot, and what to buy, Steve said.

“My father has a good relationship with many of our sales people. The sales reps know what’s out there,” he said. “But we’re also trying to have diversity because, you know, you have 20-year-old couples and you have 70-year-old people and you’re in between, and there’s such a difference dynamically.”

A walk through the exhibition space on the ground floor reveals a palette of gray tones – from anthracite and slate to lighter silver. Shades of gray are definitely trending right now, the father-son team agreed, and other hot items include electric recliners, sleeper sofas, and sofas. They’ll appeal to people’s tastes, but with a focus on that locale, Steve said.

For example, unlike more diverse geographic areas like New York City, this region has a mixed appetite that includes a lot of rural land.

“We have hunters who want the classic. They want a camo lounge chair, a rocking chair, and a certain bedroom set that looks like a plank cabin,” Steve said, adding that there was a camo lounge chair in stock that day just waiting for an avid hunter.

For the roughly $2.5 million in sales they generate, the workforce is small, Steve said: seven people, including Jimmy, Peggy, Eddie, Reggie, and Hunter, plus subcontractors. Hours have been reduced over the years, particularly when COVID hit, from a crazy 9-9 schedule to 9-7 and then 9-5 work days, Steve said.

“The biggest challenge for a store like ours in a city like this in a state like this is that we supply furniture in winter, spring, summer and fall. We’ve walked through roofs, we’ve walked through windows, we’ve taken down doors, we’ve paced up and down. We unload trucks in blizzards. And we have a building with leaking roofs. We have squirrels … so I’d say we have an old building and four seasons,” he said. “And I would also say if you look at our location you could probably say that this is the worst location on planet earth for a retail furniture store, a residential neighborhood down a cul-de-sac across from an elementary school. This is my long-winded answer to the challenges.

(turns to his father) But you’ve been here for 53 years. Yeah, there was a time my dad said the accountants were always like, “You made too much money this year, you need to do something with it.” And there were other times when we couldn’t pay our bills,” Steve said. “So it’s a very cyclical business in the notion, you just have to grind on and keep going. It is what it is. So there are still weddings, and there are still lows, and there are still in-betweens.”

Given that it’s a “cyclical business” that’s definitely still enjoying the good times of Batavia’s past, what’s the secret? Max Pie’s motto, said Steve, nodding to his father.

“Where customers send their friends,” he said.

The nominating committee selected Max Pies in part because of Steve’s “tremendous” contributions in taking the business “into the 2000s” via online ordering and a website, excellent customer service, and the company’s marketing in many unique ways.

Photo of Steve and Phil Pies at the Max Pies furniture store at 400 S. Jackson St., Batavia. Photo by Howard Owens.

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