By Jamie Siebrase | May 23, 2016
Reusable cooling stones
Employees: 35, plus seasonal employees
English was working in private equity in 2005; Chavez ran a kitchen countertop distribution center, where he sold soapstone. Both men were troubled over soapstone's environmental impact: Up to 80 percent of all soapstone is discarded due to naturally occurring flaws, and unwanted blocks are left behind on the roads of quarries. Chavez and English wanted to mitigate some of that waste, and when they noticed soapstone was naturally cold an idea sparked.
English and Chavez began turning soapstone scraps into whiskey rocks that they gave to Chavez's clients as gifts. "In 2010, we went commercial with it," says English. "We were literally selling rocks in a box."
SPARQ launched its recycled soapstone whiskey rocks on Groupon in December -- "back when Groupon was just one product, one email a week," English says. In January, English and Chavez took their rocks "through the show circuit," as English puts it, starting in Atlanta at the largest gift show, where they picked up a whopping 70 clients in one fell swoop.
Before long, a buyer at Bloomingdale's convinced English and Chavez to diversify and expand. "It opened our eyes to needing to stabilize the company as a brand," English explains.
SPARQ went from barware to cookware, with a soapstone griddle that's now sold exclusively online. "It was a sink cutout refashioned into a griddle, and formatted to fit the grill or BBQ," says English. When that took off, English says, "We went back, and made simple things people use everyday."
Building on the success its soapstone product line, SPARQ expanded into stainless steel and wood, bringing the same level of sophisticated design and functionality to entertaining ware. "We're basically high variety, low volume," English explains. SPARQ sources raw materials from around the globe, and is renowned for its rustic, mixed-material products. "We don't do anything plastic currently," English says. "It's not that we won't, but natural is what people are looking for now, trend-wise."
The strategy has paid off in a big way. In 2012, SPARQ Home grew 550 percent. "We've started leveling off to about 30 percent a year," English says.
SPARQ now has over 1,000 SKUs held within approximately 100 parent items, and sells barware, cookware, and tabletop products ranging from stone shot glasses to mortars and pestles, pizza stones, and top-selling slate cheese boards shaped like the states. "We have a whole suite of whiskey rock products now: spheres, rocks made out of letters, octopus-type things," English says. SPARQ also makes cork stoppers and released a new line of wine pearls to complement its original offering.
Including specialty stores, SPARQ does business with about 2,000 unique suppliers, which equates to tens of thousands of stores nationwide, including Target, Kroger, Crate and Barrel, Williams-Sonoma, Restoration Hardware, and The Container Store.
To accommodate its raw materials, SPARQ uses machinery that's typically used in the oil and gas industry, "stuff made to do precision cuts on thick steel," English says. "It's not supposed to be used how we're using it, but we're making it work, and that's the advantage. You can't find this stuff from other suppliers."
Challenges: "Everything about the manufacturing process is hard," admits English. His company operates out of a 9,000-square-foot facility. "There's an amazing amount of product coming out of a relatively tiny space," English says. And, that's not the half of it. "We're trying to take a piece of stone and turn it into a bowl," English says, explaining, "Stone is brittle, and it breaks."
Opportunities: At its essence, SPARQ is a design firm, and that means the opportunities for expansion are limitless. "We don't do knives right now, but I was in front of buyer at Kroger who asked about that," says English, noting SPARQ has worked on smaller cheese knives. In addition to augmenting its product line, English would also like to see SPARQ build up an international presence. "We've started selling to the U.K., Australia and Russia," he says.
Needs: "We're very inventory-heavy, and we're always searching for the right capital structure," English says.