Back in 2007, after his employer went out of business, Luis Reyes and his wife, Yesenia, believed there was opportunity for them in the same industry: They started a wholesaling company distributing housewares for Latino independent supermarkets and small grocers to sell.
The couple named their distributorship AAA Housewares Inc., which they located in the garage of their Rockville Centre home and, with $10,000 from their personal savings, launched the company with a line of bakeware tins, said Yesenia Reyes, 46.
With his retail contacts, industry knowledge and sales experience, Luis Reyes, 54, pitched store managers and owners who knew him from the years he had sold housewares as an employee of the shuttered wholesaler. Immediately, he landed three stores — which are among the company's current 103 customers.
Today, with 32% of its accounts on Long Island, including Freeport, Hempstead and Baldwin, and the rest throughout the state, AAA is headquartered in a 4,500-square-foot Farmingdale warehouse with nine employees — and “running out of space,” Yesenia Reyes said.
AT A GLANCE
AAA Housewares Inc., Rockville Centre
What it is: Distributor of non-food cooking tools and non-chemical cleaning tools
Leadership: Yesenia and Luis Reyes, founders and owners
Annual Sales: $1.5 million-plus
“The thing about our business, it’s a lot of word-of-mouth, and independents know each other and talk to one another and say, ‘Hey, there’s a new business, let’s support him,’ and apart from Luis going out and talking to people, stores came forward, and that’s how the business was built,” she said.
At the outset, Yesenia, who holds an undergraduate degree in business management from SUNY Westbury, would review the firm’s finances in the evening — after putting in a full day as a business analyst at JetBlue.
She viewed the JetBlue position as a must-have — to help keep their family afloat during AAA’s startup, as well as maintain its health care coverage. (She and Luis today have three daughters, ages 16, 20 and 22, and a son, 14.) But in August 2020, with COVID causing a downturn in the airline industry, Yesenia joined AAA full time.
Since 2019, their business’ volume has grown 100% to more than $1.5 million last year. The pandemic helped spur growth by driving consumers to spend more time at home cooking and cleaning, she said. This year, the company is forecasting a $200,000 sales increase partly due to adding about 25 retail outlets in New York and about nine in North Carolina, where the firm established AAA Housewares Distributors Corp., a ”sister” company, 12 years ago, and employs one worker and plans to add more.
Why is the business called AAA Housewares Inc.?
For our three daughters, Angelica, Angie and Angelina. Our son wasn’t born yet but in 2020 we came out with our private label Rafael Foil tin baking pans — our son and my late father’s name.
What was the biggest challenge the firm has faced?
While I was still working for JetBlue, my husband was diagnosed with cancer around Christmas 2011. He would work as much as he could even after chemotherapy treatments, and in 2018, the cancer came back, and we were going through [the torture and angst] all over again.
What else went wrong?
The business had grown with 500 different products, but it was disorganized, and we couldn’t pay our vendors and lost our credit. When I came onboard full time in August 2020, I called all the vendors, explained [our situation] and . . . they gave me a second chance.
How's the business now? And your husband?
Today, we have an extensive line of credit from all our vendors — and I make sure we’re getting paid and are paying on time. And after taking a very strong immunotherapy drug intravenously for two years, my husband is in remission. My husband’s perseverance and positiveness gave us the strength to carry on.
How do you get customers these days?
We still get customers through word-of-mouth, and my husband continues to network, visit potential clients and offer our merchandising services. We recently got approved as a vendor for Key Food, which has a portfolio of more than 300 stores, and it’s how we got 20 stores this year.
When I came onboard, I became a certified MWBE [Minority- and Women-owned Business Enterprise], which led to selling corn brooms to two facilities of the New York State Department of Corrections, which sought brooms with no metal.
What other types of entrepreneurial support have you gotten?
I benefited from several business development programs, including Hofstra’s EAC [Entrepreneurship Assistance Center]; Ascend Long Island, another Hofstra program; NYPACE [Professional Advisors for Community Entrepreneurs]; and Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses.
What’s your advice for others thinking of becoming entrepreneurs?
Take entrepreneurial programs and learn your business. Apart from the learning, you’re also building connections.
How do you find and retain employees?
Through word-of-mouth. And we have a 401(k); paid vacations after a year; paid sick days; five paid holidays a year after 90 days of employment; and birthday incentives, as in a $100 gift card or money just to let employees know they’re appreciated.
What are the best parts of business ownership?
The flexibility — to be there for your husband and family — and every day you learn something new.
What do you hope your business will look like in five years?
To have 300-plus stores, a bigger warehouse to support that growth and $6 million in revenue.