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October 23, 2019

Hartford’s Express Kitchens eyes $5M+ showroom expansion in Greater Boston

HBJ Photos | Joe Cooper Express Kitchens Founder Max Kothari.

Express Kitchens, a kitchen cabinet and countertop retailer based in the North End of Hartford, is planning to invest more than $5 million to open eight new showrooms in Greater Boston.

The company, headquartered in a 130,000-square-foot warehouse on Weston Street, has signed leases for five of eight Massachusetts locations it expects to open by summer 2020, according to founder and CEO Max Kothari. It will hire 50 new workers at the new showrooms, Kothari said.

Express Kitchens currently employs almost 150 people in Connecticut, and operates 12 showrooms in the state and three in Massachusetts. The Boston area expansion means Express Kitchens will double its retail presence upon completion.

Kothari said he expects Express Kitchens to continue doubling its total workforce every three to four years and he’s also working with Hartford economic development officials to identify another vacant building for future development.

Ideally, Express Kitchen would like to buy another building in Hartford with a half-million square feet, but Kothari said a building of that size isn’t available. Instead he said he will find other alternatives in Hartford.

“This is the opposite effect of GE going to Boston -- we are actually bringing dollars in Boston back here,” Kothari said during a recent tour of the Express Kitchens’ headquarters. “Most retail companies in America are shrinking, but we are going in the opposite direction because we believe we have something here.”

Express Kitchens first plans to open a retail location in Lynn, Mass., by the end of October before it unveils others in Watertown, Dedham, Peabody, Reading, Medford, Brocton and Weymouth. Some locations are subject to change.

Like all Express Kitchens showrooms, Kothari said the planned Boston area storefronts are strategically placed to compete with big-box retailers such as Lowe’s or Home Depot.

Meanwhile, he sees a major underserved market in areas surrounding Boston, and believes his company’s fully-integrated model of being a one-stop cabinet retailer is unique to other competitors.

“I think we came to the realization that we are the fastest place to get a kitchen,” said Kothari, who plans to also expand Express Kitchens in Rhode Island later next year. “We are the only place where you can order a countertop at 11 a.m. and by 4 p.m. get the countertop. That is the reason we are succeeding.”

Kothari plans to air his expansion project at a Thursday morning press conference held at Express Kitchens’ headquarters. Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter (D-Hartford) and Mayor Luke Bronin are expected to attend.

A gathering area in the heart of Express Kitchens' headquarters on Weston Street in Hartford.

‘Growing, growing, growing’

Kothari says his company’s “Growing, Growing, Growing” slogan is not just about market expansion.

In the last two years, Express Kitchens, which has locations in Newington, Southington, New London and Stamford, among others, says it’s dedicated millions of payroll hours for training and staffing at its locations. And it’s especially taken an interest in hiring and upskilling Hartford residents.

Kothari says new hires are offered extensive job training in sales and administrative roles, and other labor-intensive jobs in assembly, lamentation, polishing and cutting rooms. 

At its North End headquarters, a large central gathering area is flanked by desks, a swingset, recreational lounge, and quiet space for workers to bring their children during office hours if needed.

Kothari wrote the business plan for Express Kitchens about two decades ago after receiving a scholarship to study in an executive management program at Harvard Business School focused on inner-city revival.

“The idea was to take the strengthens of Hartford’s inner city and leverage them, rather than sitting around and saying all the things are wrong,” said Kothari, who founded Express Kitchens in 2002. “Instead of focusing on all the things that are wrong, we focused on things that can work.”

Kothari then began to leverage the Capital City’s perceived anchors -- including one of the state’s highest property tax rates and a large unskilled workforce -- in his favor.

In particular, Kothari has taken advantage of buying and repurposing buildings in the North End at a cheaper price. Express Kitchens operates a showroom at 3080 Main St., and another warehouse at 3030 Main St. Together, the two facilities span over 120,000 square feet.

Meantime, Kothari and his wife, Parul, acquired Star Hardware on Main Street in 1989. Parul Kothari runs the century-old business and has grown it to just over 20 employees.

“We have a lot of unskilled labor [in Hartford], but the pool of labor is much larger than the suburbs,” he said. “People are happy to have a job, but you have to have a lot of intensive training. We have some amazing people who work for us, which is why we are succeeding.”

Express Kitchens is also waiting on a $3 million loan from the Department of Economic and Community Development to purchase new equipment and for leasehold improvement to support its expansion. 

“The story of Express Kitchens is David vs. Goliath,” he said. “We are a bunch of people in the North End of Hartford who are going to get up Monday morning and say ‘we are going to compete against the best in the world.’ ”

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