Life at the shore has its own style, different from that of the interior.
Crafting and selling furniture for that style has made Surfside Casual Furniture of Somers Point a large, thriving business in one of the most competitive retail sectors.
Shore-style furniture is light, airy and colorful, with fine woods and lots of rattan. People needn’t be too near the water to appreciate the fun, relaxed feeling of it.
“Even if someone doesn’t live on an island, they still like furniture that is coastal, beachy and airy,” said Robert Himmelstein, 46, of Linwood, who, with parents Larry and Dot Himmelstein of Ocean City, owns Surfside Casual Furniture.
Shore style means taller stacking tables with woven tops instead of glass. Lots of white but also unique finishes such as antique driftwood, distressed lime, weathered white and powder blue.
“On our finishes, you can actually see some of the wood tone underneath, a layered finish with great appeal,” Robert Himmelstein said.
Making furniture for the shore also means catering to the special needs of hotels and restaurants, so nightstands don’t come in just one width, but three to fit any room configuration.
Surfside Casual is a powerhouse in this market niche with a factory in the Philippines producing its own furniture designs; an upholstery shop at its Somers Point showroom producing sleeper sofas, custom benches and marine pieces; and a large warehouse in Egg Harbor Township.
Seeing it now, you’d never imagine that the Himmelsteins had no prior experience in furniture and learned everything on the job.
Larry Himmelstein’s education was in chemical engineering and he worked for the city of Philadelphia. He started Surfside Casual in 1981 on Asbury Avenue in Ocean City as a business for his retirement.
His wife had been running the Sun Aqua Motel in Ocean City since they bought it in 1976, “but that business wasn’t large enough for mother and father. ... My parents are both very active,” Robert Himmelstein said.
The original store offered mainly patio furniture, which required a business model the company still follows now that interior furniture is 75 percent of its business: A big inventory and immediate delivery.
“People want it right away. You can’t special order shore furniture because you lose the summer season,” Himmelstein said. “The biggest challenge in our market is you have to bring in all the furniture six to nine months in advance for the season.”
Robert Himmelstein’s furniture business education began at age 16. With his Pa. driver’s license, he was the store’s only delivery person its first year.
Surfside Casual was a small business then. “Annual sales that year were only $40,000, which can be less than a good day today,” he said.
His dad didn’t retire from his city job until 1984, and Robert Himmelstein transferred from Penn State University to finish his accounting degree at Richard Stockton College right about the time the company bought a new location at 12th Street and Bay Avenue in Ocean City.
Surfside Casual quickly outgrew that place and bought the Mediterranean Diner property on MacArthur Boulevard in Somers Point in 1987. There it built a larger display area, and a warehouse and distribution center that allowed it to expand its customer base up and down the coast instead of focusing on Ocean City. A year later it started its overseas factory.
Dot Himmelstein joined the business when they sold the Sun Aqua Motel in 2000. “So basically my father dragged my mother into the furniture business,” Robert said with a laugh.
He said he expanded his furniture education by leaving the company for two years to work for Lexington Home Brands, a furniture maker for such brands as Tommy Bahama and Nautica. That led him to retool Surfside Casual’s factory and expand its product lines, in particular, adding one called Fiji with better finishes and designs.
Selling at international trade shows and overseeing shipping taught Himmelstein other lessons, including international dealmaking — and windsurfing.
“I was waiting for furniture containers in the Dominican Republic and they told me I had to pay some people off to get the containers released and I wasn’t willing to do so,” he said. “I spent the week waiting and all I could do was windsurf in the morning, make calls, and windsurf again. They were eventually released.”
The furniture industry, which took a big hit from the real estate downturn, is starting to come back.
U.S. furniture orders were $1.7 billion in May, up 10 percent from the year before, said consultancy Smith Leonard, of High Point, N.C., in its Furniture Insights newsletter for July.
For the first five months of the year, orders are up 10 percent and shipments are up 6 percent over the prior year.
The next challenging change for Surfside Casual will be the removal of the nearby traffic circle, part of the massive Ocean City causeway project.
Himmelstein said that when he signed off on the state’s plan in 2005, he enthusiastically showed his dad the bike path to Ocean City it includes.
“He said, ‘Great, I’ll be 83 by the time they’re done and won’t be riding a bike,’” Robert said.
But at 81, Larry Himmelstein is still riding a bike and helping unload trucks, Robert said.
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