Taavo Somer owns the Freemans empire downtown: He’s got a clothing store, a barbershop, four restaurants and a creative agency, all of which help make flannel, jeans and facial hair ubiquitous.
He’s not through yet: Freemans Sporting Club now offers a bespoke suit division, and they’re almost doubling the space of their Lower East Side store.
Somer is also opening a retail space on Dean Street in Brooklyn this month, and a bar in his compound in early 2014.
I met with him outside of Barbershop, his newly renovated tonsorium on Rivington Street. Wearing a blue button-down shirt, dark jeans, a blue bandanna across his forehead and a gold Rolex Submariner, he toured me through the operation.
Tarmy: How many people work for you?
Somer: I don’t know. I’m going to guess probably 350? Our Christmas parties are pretty packed.
Tarmy: Has your company grown past your ability to manage everything directly?
Somer: The concept behind Friends and Family, my creative agency, is to build a collective where I’m behind it, but other people are experts. We have a 7,500-square-foot shop on Dean Street in Brooklyn which we’re making into our office, woodshop, and a retail space.
Tarmy: Why bespoke suits?
Somer: We’d been doing suiting with Martin Greenfield tailors for eight years, so we had an established customer base willing to spend $2,500 or $3,500 for a made-to-measure suit.
Bespoke suits cost $4,000 to $5,000. So when we introduced them, it was sort of a no-brainer for our customers to evolve from made-to-measure to bespoke.
Right now our tailor has about 90 of them in production. We can do about 20 suits a month.
Tarmy: Who are your customers?
Somer: We get a lot of artists and actors, film stars, food critics, guys in tech and obviously people on Wall Street.
Tarmy: You’re also expanding ready-to-wear?
Somer: We have the Freemans suit, which retails for $1,250. We sold about 100 online in the first few weeks of May. That’s where we see our future in the tailoring sector.
Tarmy: What’s your company’s overall gross?
Somer: Somewhere between $14 million and $20 million.
Tarmy: Is a large part from your restaurants?
Somer: Freemans is definitely an engine. But the barbershop is also a good revenue source. And our margin is around 75% on tailored apparel.
Somer: We take reservations for six or more, and at Isa, our restaurant in Williamsburg, we’re a little bit more flexible.
But it’s a fine line. We have to encourage walk-ins.
Tarmy: My friends have begun to revolt -- if they’re told to wait more than 20 minutes, they just find somewhere else.
Somer: I’ve worked the door at Isa and at Freemans. Back in 2005, people would gladly wait an hour and a half, two hours. Now at Isa, if I say it will be 10 minutes it’s like I just shot their dog.
Tarmy: The other backlash is against noise. People are beginning to stand up to unbearable decibel levels.
Somer: There are a million details that go into a restaurant or any sort of retail space. We think about acoustics, but if it’s too quiet people complain because you feel like you’re in a library or a stodgy country club.
Tarmy: Sure. But there’s a difference between a pleasant murmur and having to scream to be heard by people next to you.
Somer: Even at Freemans there’s a fabric wall that no one even notices -- behind the wall we have an inch and a half of sound absorbing, really gross product that everyone hates.
Tarmy: Would you do something like that at Peels?
Somer: Maybe we can do an open-source design experience. Let all of the critics make a data room where they can design their perfect restaurant and see what comes out of it.
They’d probably all complain about it once it’s finished.
(James Tarmy is a reporter/writer for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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