Growing up on the East Coast, Jimmy Farah used to build furniture with his grandfather, and his appreciation for crafted wood eventually became a hobby.
So while Farah drove with his wife from New York to their new home in St. Louis, it was natural for him to notice abandoned and dilapidated wooden barns along the highways. A year later, Farah remembered those old structures and decided to make something useful of them. The idea evolved into his St. Louis startup called Rustic Grain, which turns salvaged barn wood into custom-made furniture.
“I just thought, ‘How cool would it be to not only build furniture from a barn, but to also tell the story of it?’” Farah said.
When customers buy a piece of Rustic Grain’s furniture, it comes with a brass tag which includes the year the barn was built and its location in longitude and latitude, along with a serial number that can be plugged into the website to learn more about the barn’s history.
“I think people like the idea of individuality, which is what we do with our custom pieces,” Farah said. “It’s not mass-produced furniture that was manufactured overseas.”
Rustic Grain began operating last summer and recently moved its production from a 900-square-foot garage to a 13,000-square-foot facility in Crestwood, a southwestern suburb of St. Louis. The company now employs six full-time carpenters and designers, and Farah said Rustic Grain hopes to have 10 employees by next year.
“All the work we do is a part of a bigger story,” said Tim Nummela, Rustic Grain’s head of production. “Marrying the creativity that goes into the work and the rich history behind the wood makes for an interesting outcome, and getting to see that outcome meet customer expectations is great.”
A custom piece of furniture takes about four to eight weeks to complete now, but with a larger staff, Farah believes production time can be cut to four weeks.
It turns out that the hardest part of the process is treating the wood and storing it; finding the barns is easy. Rustic Grain hires contractors to dismantle the barns and deliver the lumber. They typically get a mixed load when it comes to they quality and types of wood from the barns. Pine and oak tend to be popular, but it’s all about finding the right barns that supply the kind of wood that customers want.
“Pulling out the old nails in the barn wood would have to be my least favorite part of the job,” Nummela said. “The wood has so much character, but it also has a lot of unique challenges, such as finding the straight edges. Working with the flaws is a big challenge, but it’s all part of the process.”
Farah said they’ve already vetted about 70 barns that they want to purchase. The last barn that the founder examined himself and helped take down was in St. Clair, about an hour’s drive southwest of Crestwood.
Now Farah handles the marketing and sales side of the business, though he wishes he had more time to work with the designers and carpenters in the shop.
Rustic Grain essentially has three different kinds of products: a standard furniture line, made-to-order furniture and commercialized furniture.
“Most of the time people see our standard product and then they fall into our customized pit and ask for something custom-made,” Farah said.
Lately, Rustic Grain has been doing a lot more on the commercial side of business. The company built the bar, tables, and just about everything else for the restaurant Juniper in the Central West End of St. Louis and has done the same for a couple of breweries, including one in Tampa Bay.
“We’re quickly expanding outside of St. Louis, which is cool for only being an eight-month-old brand,” Farah said. “It’s a testament to St. Louis, really. It’s a great place for startups. We’ve been doing a lot of online marketing, but it’s also a lot of word of mouth and introductions being made on our behalf from customers. People love the product and the whole story.”
The goal is to keep headquarters and production in St. Louis, but Farah is also looking into the addition of finishing shops, where wood products are sanded and primed, in upstate New York and possibly along in the West Coast to better serve those markets.
Farah, who previously co-founded a tech company called Muddler, said it takes a lot of time and money to take down a barn, but he thinks that Rustic Grain might be able to break even this year, which is unusual at this stage of a startup.
He attributes his success to hiring people that are smarter than he is, and to being honest with the customers.
“I’m not a carpenter, but I understand the process,” Farah said. “The people who are smarter and better than you — that’s who you hire. When you fail, fail quick and small, so it’s not so catastrophic when it happens. We’re just trying to build organically now, which means not pushing the company too hard or claiming it can produce something it can’t. So far — knock on wood — business has been really good.”