How a former chef switched to carpentry and bolstered his business during the pandemic
After watching his then two-year toddler plop herself onto a printer in his and his wife Aimee’s bedroom each morning in 2017, David Mawhinney, founder of Franklin+Emily, had an idea for a more comfortable solution.
“I decided to build her a little chair, just so that she’d have somewhere to sit,” says the former professional chef. When friends asked where he bought the chair Mawhinney, 44, knew he was on to something.
At that point, Mawhinney, a chef for 12 years, was ready to pivot. “I didn’t see myself owning a restaurant and kind of wanted a change,” he explains.
That’s when he switched careers to furniture design. Today, Franklin+Emily creates children’s furniture with sustainability in mind.
Here’s a breakdown of how Mawhinney’s startup is not only surviving, but thriving, during the pandemic:
Doing the research
Mawhinney found several gaps in the market. “People wanted to get rid of the disposable furniture in their homes,” he says.
They also wanted, “great materials, a sustainable design, and a lifetime of value, something that wasn’t available.”
Many parents buy those plastic chairs that eventually break. Like in his own abode, Mawhinney discovered that people wanted furniture that looked good, fit their home’s aesthetic, and was gender neutral. “There are a lot of people out there with that same mentality and, that’s the market we’re trying to crack,” he says.
Spreading the word
Aside from piquing the interest of dinner guests noticing a Franklin+Emily prototype at the Mawhinney home, “we started giving away the desk set to friends with kids in the age groups that we were looking for,” says Mawhinney. “Their kids were in the Pre-K to 9-year-old age group, so we got constant feedback to make our products better.”
The first piece to sell was the chair, which comes in woods like Walnut and Baltic Birch. Next up: A two-seater sofa that works well in a spare corner of a children’s room–and suits his children just fine. “We wanted our pieces to be able to go together and play,” says Mawhinney. “Just like kids do.”
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Much of the product line, which the company calls “clean and functional design and quality craftsmanship,” was inspired by Mawhinney’s own children. When his son needed a bit more height to properly see while brushing his teeth, he created a step stool. He also designed a leather lounger.
Franklin+Emily’s collection includes a Toddler Tower, Desk + Chair Set, and more, which range from about $60 to $660.
Making sure their supply chain remained intact was a top priority at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We needed the raw materials to get to the manufacturing plants that we use,” Mawhinney says. “Everything from the lumber to leather to custom boxes for shipping was a challenge to keep in stock on a regular basis.”
Plus, labor at these facilities was sometimes down because of COVID-related illnesses, or restrictions around space requirements and social distancing, he says. Luckily, both the company’s office equipment fabricator and custom cushion manufacturer “were able to ramp up and manufacture PPE and surgical masks,” Mawhinney says. “They were deemed essential services and allowed to remain open.”
Pre-pandemic, sales were pretty flat, maybe “five to 10 a week,” Mawhinney says. Once COVID-19 hit, parents started investing in the type of furniture their kids used at home. At the peak of the pandemic, the company had 85-plus orders in a week. By then, it was working more closely with its exclusive online partner, The Tot, to effectively market their pieces to parents seeking more permanent options. They also had to get a larger studio and hire different people to fulfill production needs.
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These days, the company employs 10 people, some of whom hail from the New York City hospitality industry.
Mawhinney says: “It’s a different hat to wear, but it’s still the same standards, finesse, and attention to detail.”