Carved is busy and growing in Elkhart’s Beardsley Avenue Corridor
- April Mon, 2017
Carved – The Face of Elkhart’s New Tech
Respect for the past and a Midwestern work ethic
Carved Founder John Webber grew up in Elkhart, “just south of the bypass by SR 15.” He started his first company when he was 15 years old, selling hacky sacks. That was in 1999. Since then, Webber has founded three more successful local businesses: Ad Stream Inc. (website design and internet marketing), StrataShops (outdoor furniture online sales), and Carved (handcrafted wooden cases for smart phones). It’s going well – in the last five years StrataShops and Carved have both made the INC 500 list of fastest growing companies in America.
Last year, Webber took on another project when he bought and renovated the old Boris Smoler Dress Factory at 916 N. Michigan St. Now he operates Carved out of half of it. “Carved started out on Windsor Ave. over by Menards in Elkhart in a little 2500-foot space and grew pretty quick out of that. The building was just a standard warehouse space, it didn’t really fit the vibe of the company. So I knew I wanted something like this.” Real estate broker Lori Snyder showed him the factory building, built in 1906. “I loved it and bought it as quickly as I could.”
The building is two-story with two wings. Carved has one wing, with offices and a workshop on the first floor, and storage (and soon-to-be workspace for a new project) on the second floor. Webber rents out the other wing to Birds Gotta Fly, a vintage boutique, and Steelyard Coffee Co, a coffee shop and café run by Webber’s sister-in-law, on the first floor.
Bringing history and warmth to the tech age
When Carved moved into the renovated Boris Smoler Dress Factory, Webber saw a strong parallel between the handmade phone cases his company makes, and the housing he chose for their workspace. The Boris Smoler Dress Factory, with its timeworn floorboards and century-old history, “connects very strongly for us to the product,” Webber said. “Inside this building we have very modern equipment, we have modern lasers and computers, but then we’re working in, and on, and around something that’s all built by hand.”
Carved “brings balance and warmth to the tech age… we are taking a phone, a cold generic piece of modern technology, and we’re surrounding it with wood,” he said. “We’re taking a one-of-a-kind natural material that you have to work by hand, where you’ve got that history of woodworking, and the warmth of wood, and we’re connecting that to the technology. It’s more than recycling. It’s giving technology a personal and customizable edge, giving it a story and a meaning.”
If you think about it, it’s downright poetic: Webber chose to encase Carved, a young, modern tech-driven company, in an historic, 100-year-old factory building – just like their product encases new, impersonal smart phones in hand carved, recycled wood cases.
Restoring the old Boris Smoler Dress Factory
As Webber renovated the building at 916 N. Michigan St., he began to learn more about its history. “When we restored the floors, we found half a million needles, sewing needles just everywhere, and thread and fabric on the tops of all the rafters.” Webber even met locals who knew the building in its previous incarnations. “We’ve had older people come through who used to work in the dress factory. One woman, she’s in her nineties, came in; she showed us where she used to work upstairs, sewing dresses.” After the Boris Smoler Dress Factory closed, Miles Lab used it as their company gym. “The wife of one of my employees remembered coming here with her mom, who worked for Miles. She came here as a little girl to play in the play area when her mom was at the gym.”
Webber said the renovation was a labor of love, and admitted that, “it was not a cheap project.” When asked why he would choose to restore an old building rather than find a more practical, ready-to-use space, he said, “I love the old techniques, I Iove the beams in here, and all the exposed brick,” and true to Elkhart’s entrepreneurial spirit, he added, “Oh, and I just like working. I love to work.”
Webber restored the building the best he could, preserving its original colors and architecture. “It took us eight months. Just sanding the floors took one guy four weeks, eight hours a day.” The historic nature of the building required the skills of several local expert craftsmen. “We rebuilt that brick arch in the entryway – we probably rebuilt two-thirds of that, it was just falling apart. We got a guy who was a really good mason, he rebuilt the arch form and then did all the brickwork. His name’s Kevin, he’s from downtown. When it comes to old buildings he knows everything about them, knows how these buildings were built. He’s the only one who could do it.”
Elkhart’s Historic Beardsley Avenue Corridor
Carved’s newly renovated offices are part of a national movement – young companies seeking out historic buildings with great natural light and proximity to downtown. But it’s also part of a local movement to reclaim Elkhart’s unused or barely used, historic factory spaces. (For the 10 years before Webber bought it, the Boris Smoler Dress Factory was largely used for storage.) Local business people have been going the extra mile to renovate old spaces, especially in Elkhart’s centrally-located Beardsley Avenue Corridor. 820 Antiques is another great example of locals choosing to repurpose old buildings, choosing heritage over convenience. It’s an aesthetic choice, and a show of respect to the past, a commitment to engaging and preserving history.
When asked how he feels about their location in the Beardsley Avenue Corridor, Webber said, “I am here for the long haul.” He’s proud that Carved, and its neighbor businesses Birds Gotta Fly Boutique and Steelyard Coffee Co., have brought 30 employees to the 900 block of N. Michigan St. in the past year. It’s a great fit for them. His 21 employees often eat lunch at Lucky’s Donut or Cappy’s. John gets the cheeseburger, and his coworker Eric loves their fish basket. On Fridays after work, they often go for drinks at Iechyd Da.
Webber believes the Beardsley Avenue Corridor is ripe for business, and investments. “It’s just outside downtown, with a lot of really cool buildings. You can live, work…just outside downtown.” He has employees currently looking to buy homes in the neighborhood. He also has some advice for locals looking to buy property: “There are extremely good investment opportunities in a 5-block radius from here. Buy these houses, they’ll be worth more soon.”
“A big part of this brand is giving back”
What’s next for Carved? They have plans to scale yet again this year, and will soon be adding a new (soon-to-be-revealed) branch to their company. “A big part of this brand is giving back,” said Webber, “we’re planning to expand into products that will directly benefit communities in need. We’ve got several things in development, we’re excited about them, and we’ll let you know more soon.” Webber’s family has been doing some growing as well. He and his wife just had their first child, a three-month-old named Jude. And that hacky sack company he started when he was 15? It’s still going. Webber ran it for 15 years and just recently passed it on to his 15-year-old brother.
Check out the businesses in the former Boris Smoler Dress Factory: