Nobody enjoys doing dishes more than Julie Gaines and Dave Lenovitz — and by "doing dishes," we mean designing them. When the couple behind Fishs Eddy discovered entire collections of American china in the basements of the old Bowery restaurant supply stores back in the day, they knew they struck gold. Nearly thirty years later, New Yorkers and tourists alike are still enamored by those same dishes, plus an entire collection of their own irreverent and quirky designs.
They opened up their Flatiron store more than 25 years ago, and it was definitely a huge risk — the neighborhood was nothing like it is now — but it was obviously one worth taking, especially when you consider how quickly the area has grown. But despite the surrounding advancements, not too much about Fishs Eddy has changed, except for maybe a few new collaborations and a thriving wholesale business.
We recently sat down with Gaines to talk about the history of the brand, from when the couple first met to how it felt to land a collaboration with one of their favorite designers. We also couldn't help but ask how they came up with the unconventional name.
Tell us about how the idea for Fishs Eddy came about.
It was an evolution, a labor of love that we started almost thirty years ago. Right out of college, Dave and I signed a lease for a little store near Gramercy Park — in those days you could walk into [an empty store] and walk out with a lease, so we started going to flea markets and finding little paintings and medicine cabinets and things like that, and we had this little antique store.
In those days, the Bowery was mainly the restaurant supply district, and in the basements of all these restaurant supply stores we discovered china that nobody wanted, stuff that went back for decades and decades. It was all this old American restaurant china that had been accumulating over the years from defunct factories and hotels, academic societies, country clubs, airlines, and railroads. Finding all of that was a pivotal moment for us because it felt like we discovered a slice of American history, so we brought it back to our store and cleaned it up. Customers loved it, and we became obsessed.
Then, little by little, we started going to manufacturers and making our own patterns, and collaborating with designers and chefs like Mario Batali, Cynthia Rowley, Nicole Miller, and Todd Oldham, and it was really exciting because we were such a small business.
Sure, but who doesn't recognize Fishs Eddy these days?
I know we have a big mouth and a lot of people know about us, but we truly still are a small business — it's just my husband Dave and [his cousin] Noah Lenovitz, and our most recent partner, Peter Crane. So it's just the four of us, but we've definitely come a long way, and we've always stayed true to what we believe in. I know it sounds a little cliché, but we still say that we love doing dishes.
How'd you and Dave meet?
I moved in on 15th Street with my cousin, and at the end of the block there was this little antique shop called The Wooden Indian. I walked in and Dave was at the register, and we started talking. We went on a couple of dates, and one thing led to another, and we kind of immediately fell in love.
So we've been doing dishes together for thirty years — we had the business before we even got married. It was pretty fortuitous, because I almost moved to another block, and I never would have met him. We just had a lot in common and we had a lot of fun together — we still have fun together. And now we have two kids.
Did you two naturally fall into your own roles at the store?
Over the years, we've evolved into our own roles of what we both love about the business. Dave's always been very much involved with procuring the advantageous buys, and I loved merchandising it. Dave would bring things back, and I'd think about these things would translate and what we would do with it and how we'd pay homage to where we found it, so the store is definitely merchandised not that differently from the way we were finding the china in the basements of the Bowery. There's this sense of discovery at the store. Our stuff is meant to be used and abused, it's commercial quality china — it's not precious at all.
Our stuff is meant to be used and abused, it's commercial quality china — it's not precious at all.
Did you always have a thing for dishes?
I went to school at Syracuse, which was right near Syracuse China, and we used to go there and dig in their dumpster to look for broken dishes for art projects. But I never put it together in those days. I always loved the material, but it wasn't until Dave and I went to the Bowery together, because it wasn't just about the dishware — it was also about where we were. The Bowery has such history, and it was so exciting to be down there in these sub-basements. The owners of the businesses would be selling restaurant equipment upstairs, and Dave would always tell me that we'd have to be quiet because if they'd heard us they'd charge us more. But they really never charged us a lot, because we were doing them a favor by cleaning out their basement.
Who is the Fishs Eddy customer?
We have such a wide demographic — we have a lot of very inexpensive things and also things that are a little more expensive. During the day we'll get the nannies in here, and at night moms and dads will come in. And we do get a lot of tourists, especially on the weekends.
Our customer is very savvy, and a little more liberal, maybe — clearly, we lean that way, and we don't seem to offend anybody. We get our two cents in, with our Bernie Sanders soy sauce dishes and Hilary mugs. And when Obama's country of origin was challenged several years ago, we worked so hard to come up with a sushi dish of Obama's birth certificate.
We do have some Trump cups coming in, but they were made in Mexico, so the bottom will say, "Proudly made by Mexicans." We like to use Fishs Eddy as a platform to get our thoughts in.
Tell us about your favorite designer collaboration.
By far, 100% percent it was working with Todd Oldham — he's just the most amazing designer and person. He believed in us and knew that we would give it the best quality. When we called him to see if he'd do something with us, he actually said yes, which took us a minute to digest. Then when he came here to meet with us, his first idea was to do the Charlie Harper pattern, and it's just so beautiful and eclectic and you can never get tired of it, it's just really gorgeous.
What are the most popular products in the store?
I can't seem to get beyond this, but our most popular product is a mug that says "Good Morning Asshole." I guess there are just a lot of assholes in the world. It's also our number-one piece online, so we ship it everywhere.
Of course, our skyline pattern, and our collaborations with Amy Sedaris and Alan Cumming, are all popular, too. One mug that's a surprisingly great seller has a picture of a woman and says "Wench," so that's doing great.
I wonder what kind of people buy those...
You know, we have this parking ticket tray, and if you stand by the register, we always hear people say, "Oh, I know just who to get this for."
That would be me!
My husband, too.
What are some of your favorite pieces?
I'd say my favorite pattern is still the Brooklyn pattern. We do a competition with Pratt once a year where we give a small scholarship, and it was the winner maybe six or seven years ago. Jordan Awan won — he's a great illustrator, and he was a student at Pratt when the concept of the competition was Brooklyn. Every year, there's a new theme. Two years ago, the theme was politics, and there were of course a lot of elephants and donkeys, but one student submitted a Teddy Roosevelt pattern. That's my other favorite pattern: a great drawing of Teddy wrestling a bear.
What made you choose Flatiron as a location for your store?
We were here before anybody, and our mothers called and begged us not to sign this lease — they said that Union Square was never gonna be anything. At the time, it was dangerous to walk to the subway, ABC Carpet isn't what it is now, and there was no or Coach or Kate Spade. Fifth Avenue wasn't what it is. There weren't any NYU dorms or Whole Foods. It just was not at all what it is now.
So we just chose it. It's almost like when you have kids young, and you're not thinking of what could go wrong. You're never really ready, and we weren't ready for this, but we jumped in. It was scary — it's a corner store with columns and a mezzanine, and we were coming from a tiny little shop on Hudson Street in the West Village.
So this is the second location for Fishs Eddy?
Well, our first was 17th Street, but we were only there for a very short time. The West Village was where we really grew the business — Dave and I did the register, then we'd leave to go to the Bowery.
I love all the small things that make this store tick. I never get tired of it.
I actually have a book contract now, and it's about our first store and it's called Customer Service in the Early Years. It's about our mothers — they were the managers, but they were basically sales repellents. They'd come to the store, though, so we could go to The Bowery to dig for dishes. It's actually more than just about them, it's the whole story.
When did you move here from the West Village?
We were there for three years when we saw this store. We were buying so much china that we just needed a bigger store, so we took this one and of course the neighborhood happened around us, so we got lucky — but I do like to say that we were a little instrumental in being part of it. We've had our feet cemented here for many, many years. We're coming up on 25 years at this store.
Is the store as fun to work at as it is to shop at?
Dave's nickname for me is "Small Time," because I pay so much attention to details that he thinks we should move on from. Like, I do still go down to the basement and wash the creamers, but I still love it and love all the small things that make this store tick. I never get tired of it. Even vacations are working vacations: Wherever we go, I'll go into stores around there to see if there are any shapes or things that inspire us. I'm never not thinking about the store.
How do you go about finding your staff? You have the friendliest sales associates!
We've done something right because our staff's all friends with each other. A couple years ago they had a book club, and they hang out together on weekends, and become roommates. Kelly, our manager, is amazing, and she's recruited people because she told them how much she likes it here. It's a little bit infectious. The people that work here are here for a reason: they're all creative, whether aspiring photographers or playwrights.
The one thing the staff loves is that it's really on-the-job training. If you come to work here and you're in design, you could see something that you've created end up on a plate. People can make a difference working here — it's not like there's tons of red tape and people to go through. Even when we grow, I always want to be like that.
And the name? Where'd it come from?
It's the name of a town upstate on Route 17, and the greatest compliment we ever got was when someone sent us a picture of the sign on the highway that said "Fishs Eddy" and they said, "Did you know they named a town after you?"
Do you see yourselves opening up more locations?
We've come full-circle because we've had more stores, but we closed them because we had to change the way we were doing business. Then we had the opportunity to purchase this store, which was big for us because now we can just stay here and we're solid and we can decide our own destiny. And now we're doing so well with our wholesale business (Nordstrom, West Elm etc.), so that's really the number one indicator that Fishs Eddy could do well in other places, so we'll look in DC and Boston. We're definitely going to expand.
We'll be waiting! Time for the lightning round: night or day?
Breakfast or dinner?
Iced tea or lemonade?
City or country?
Chocolate or vanilla?
Zeppelin or Floyd?
Fall or spring?
Ski or sun?
Pizza or pasta?
Kale or cauliflower?