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Chamber of Commerce Award: Business of the Year, Max Pies Furniture

By Joanne Beck
Mar 9, 2023, 8:05am

Squirrels, a dead-end street across from an elementary school, and the four seasons.

Those have been some of the challenges being situated in a fairly remote — and animal-friendly — section of the city in Western New York for Phil and Steve Pies over the years, Steve says.

Yet despite that and the typical ups and downs of retail business, Max Pies Furniture has endured 118 years since its settling into that comfy spot at the end of Jackson Street in 1905. Founder Max Pies and family built not only a small business but also their home, and the place was handed down to now Steve, the fourth generation of the Pies family.

No wonder they have earned the Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year Award. And there’s no other place they would have continued the tradition that began for furniture and flooring sales.

“As far as this structure and this business from this location, it’s the same location. Obviously, they added on to the store since 1905. But the original location and their house were in the parking lot you pulled into,” Steve Pies said. “They went all over the board from Rochester to Buffalo, and I think even close to Syracuse at one point in the 80s. Rochester Linoleum bought out all of the flooring aspects. But the furniture, even though we do flooring here as well, the original furniture store Max Pies name started right here.”

And they both must have just naturally fallen right in line with the business, yes?

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

Phil was married with two children, Steve and Natalie, and living in Sacramento, Calif. at the time. After his Uncle Jake died, he ended up returning to Batavia and worked alongside his dad, Sam. Business must have been good for longevity: 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 the last 53 years.

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

He eventually returned and decided to help his dad, who turns 80 in May. They thought back to what has changed over the years, and certainly, costs have been a big one.

“Freight rates have changed, insurance, overhead,” Phil said. “And styles, we sold a lot of colonial, and now we sell a lot more modern styles.”

Steve added that retro comes and goes, but a shift that has added time, labor and unexpected expenses has been how furniture arrives now versus years ago.

“It used to be all assembled,” Steve said. “Now it’s called KD, for knockdown. It's, take them off the truck, unpack them out of the box, set them up with screws and a drill and dispose of the garbage. It's a lot more tedious.”

While costs have shot up on their end, the waste management business is booming. The Pies have a 40-yard roll-off Dumpster that costs $800, and sometimes it gets filled three times a month with styrofoam and boxes, Steve said. For the most part, they depend on sales reps for advice and guidance on what’s trending, what’s hot, and what to buy throughout the year, Steve said.

“My dad has a good relationship with a lot of our reps. The reps know what’s out there,” he said. “But we try to have a variety as well because, you know, you’ve got 20-year-old couples, and you’ve got 70-year-old people and you’ve got in between, and there's such a different dynamic.”

A walk through the downstairs showroom features a painter’s pallet of gray hues — from charcoal and slate to lighter silvers. Grays are definitely in right now, the father-son team agreed, and other hot items include power recliners, sleeper sofas and sectionals. They will cater to people’s tastes, but with a focus on this locale, Steve said.

For example, unlike more eclectic geographical areas such as New York City, this region has a mixed appetite that includes a lot of rural country.

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

For the approximately $2.5 million of sales volume they accomplish, the staff is small, Steve said: seven people, including Jimmy, Peggy, Eddie, Reggie and Hunter, plus subcontractors. Hours have been reduced over the years, especially when COVID hit, from a crazy 9 to 9 schedule to 9 to 7 and then 9 to 5 work day, Steve said.

“The biggest challenge for a store like ours in a town like this in a state like this is we deliver furniture winter, spring, summer and fall. We've gone through roofs, we've gone through windows, we take off doors, we go up and down. We unload trucks in blizzards. And we have a building that has, you know, leaky roofs. We have squirrels … so I would say, having an old building and four seasons,” he said. “And I would also say that if you look at our location, you could arguably say this is the worst location on planet Earth for a retail furniture store, dead-end residential neighborhood across from an elementary school. That's my long-winded answer to the challenges.

“ (Turning to his dad) But you’ve been here 53 years. So yeah, there was a time where my dad said, the accountants used to say, ‘you made too much money this year, you got to do something with it.’ And there's been other times where we can't pay our bills,” Steve said. “So it's a very cyclical business in the notion of, you just gotta keep grinding and keep going. It is what it is. So there still are heydays, and there still are lows, and there still are in between.”

Given it is a “cyclical business” that definitely still experiences those good times of Batavia’s yesteryear, what’s the secret? Max Pies motto, Steve said, giving a nod to his dad.

“Where customers send their friends,” he said.

The nomination committee selected Max Pies, partly due to Steve’s “tremendous” contributions for bringing the business “into the 2000s” via online ordering and a website, excellent customer service and marketing the business in many unique ways.

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

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