Liberty Sets the Table for Growth

By Jeffrey Bonior
Flatware from Liberty Tabletop’s Lux line. | Photos courtesy Liberty Tabletop

America’s last domestically made flatware company gets on its feet.

Sherrill, New York, has the smallest population of any city in the Empire State. It is called “The Silver City.” There was no gold rush here.

The minor migration to this city of just over 3,000 was to the Sherrill Manufacturing plant, where steel and silver were used to make American-made flatware.

It began in the early 1900s, when Oneida Corporation opened as the exclusive United States maker of flatware containing a variety of patterns of forks, spoons, knives, and other such cutlery. Oneida became widely known as the only American maker of flatware as all the competing domestic flatware manufacturers shipped production overseas.

But the cost of manufacturing in America finally caught up with Oneida and they followed the competition to countries where labor and materials were less expensive.

Today, the Sherrill Manufacturing plant is home to Liberty Tabletop, the creation of two former Oneida Ltd. managers.  

Greg Owens, 52, and Matt Roberts, 51, became friends on the basketball court in Mexico City where they were working for the Oneida facility in Toluca, Mexico, after the company expanded around the globe. Now they’ve returned home and, after a bankruptcy by Oneida, they are owners of the original Sherrill Manufacturing plant where they hold the distinction of America’s Flatware Company ™.

They’re not just doing it for the pure patriotic reasons but they have time to realize that the quality of products made here is generally better. Greg Owens on shoppers buying American.

Beleaguered Oneida continued to produce a small amount of products for Oneida in Sherrill, but by 2005 it could no longer support the original factory. The day after Oneida’s Sherrill plant closed, it reopened as Sherrill Manufacturing.

That’s when Owens and Roberts stepped in with a new business model. Thanks to the internet, the partners decided to start a direct-sales company. To emphasize that Sherrill was still the only company making 100-percent American-made flatware, the brand was named Liberty Tabletop. Greg Owens serves as the CEO while Matt Roberts is the president. But make no mistake, this is a 50-50 operation.

“What we found out is that we could produce flatware for a lot cheaper because we didn’t have the labor contract any longer,” said Owens. “In Mexico, Oneida was having problems outsourcing certain things so we said, ‘okay, let’s build a business around the Oneida problem and we ended up making an offer to buy the whole place for pretty much nothing.

“We were doing some packaging work for them, doing their silver plating, and that lasted about three years and they went to Chapter 11 and they finally fell apart. We, at that point, had a chance to say goodbye to Oneida and start our own brands.”

Liberty “summed it all up”

It took three years for the project to be a success. The Liberty Tabletop website didn’t start in earnest until 2012. Sherrill Manufacturing was able to maintain a contract with the U.S. government that provided $800,000 in revenue making military flatware. Sherrill Manufacturing also received some assistance from the state of New York in the form of a capital grant, which helped support initial working capital from local banks. With money to invest in Sherrill Manufacturing, the business finally got off the ground.

“We went through our own restructurings,” said Owens. “Our number the first year was $8 million, and I think the second year was $10 million, then we started backing down and went to $6 million. We started making flatware and then the Lehman thing happened. We got no orders for six months and when they started coming back, they were half the size they had been.

“The economy collapsed and that was a big blow to a lot of people, including ourselves, so we had to stop for a while and we sort of puttered along until 2013 and we came back actually from our restructuring in bankruptcy.

“It was a 100 percent payback plan, if you can believe it. We paid all of our banks back, got through that whole process. We had a group of investors – just family. A local Syracuse group gave us a million dollars of equity and we were working close with them and the idea was to go into the internet business. And it’s profitable. We built our own brand and website and are always looking for new and unique ways to expand it.”

They started with branding.

“Sherrill Manufacturing was the name picked for the manufacturing facility,” said Owens, “but it just didn’t resonate too well as a brand so I wanted to come up with a brand that spoke to America. We are starting to sell other American tabletop items such as glassware and plates. So we came up with the brand name Liberty Tabletop which sort of summed it all up.”

No more illusions about politics

Liberty Tabletop offers four flatware product lines. The SMI’s are the opening price point. Sure Home is the next notch up, and Heritage and Lux are basically the premier price lines. The least expensive set is 20 pieces, which is four place settings. The Cadillac of them all, the Lux line, is the 65-piece set, offering service for 12 plus serving pieces. It sells for $499.95.

“When we first came off the blocks with our own product, it was about five years ago when we first introduced it,” continued Owens. “People took a look at it and assessed the quality and price. They said they would be willing to pay more if it was nicer. So we listened to that, and we’ve actually driven quality back into the process. And the comments we got were how well it’s polished, put together, and positive reviews about our new packaging. People are just flabbergasted by it because just about everything you buy today has become cheaper and dummied down.

“When Matt and I started this thing, we said, ‘oh boy, politicians are finally going to wake up one day and they are going to reverse this trend instead of sending our jobs overseas and instead helping to create jobs in America. I don’t have illusions anymore that Washington, on either side of the aisle, is really serious about bringing jobs back to the United States.”

Well, it’s a long time coming.

The burg of Sherrill is located between Syracuse and Utica, and the general metropolitan area has a population of 30,000 people to make up its workforce. At one time Sherrill Manufacturing employed 2,800 of them. The people are still there but the jobs are not.  So much flatware manufacturing is globalized that the Sherrill Manufacturing plant now employs 36 workers.

But there is ample room for growth. With its Liberty Tabletop business finally making a profit, there is room for major expansion.

“We could easily increase our sales tenfold, and that’s our plan,” said Owens. “All of our steel is sourced domestically. We require that the trust reports say that the steel is melted and manufactured in the United States. It could come from Allegheny Ludlum, it could come from AK Steel, and it could come from NASS, or another place down in Birmingham.”

“The Made in America thing, I think it’s very real.”

Liberty Tabletop creates high-quality flatware at a competitive price. All of its items are produced using the finest quality 18-10 nickel/chrome stainless steel. The steel that our flatware is produced with is all Made in the U.S.A. meets all ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards.

In October, the New York Times published a feature story on the resurgence of Sherrill Manufacturing and its internet direct-sales business model. “That story in the New York Times was a pretty big success for us and drove a lot of traffic to our site,” said Owens. “We’re just trying to keep the industry alive.”

Liberty Tabletop has no plans to move into the retail business. They know they just can’t compete without a level playing field. They have, however, placed sample products in smaller, boutique stores so customers can get the look and feel of top-quality American made flatware. The store owner will send the purchase order to Liberty Tabletop and the product will be shipped directly to your home from the Sherrill plant.

“The Made in America thing, I think it’s very real,” said Owen. “It was sort of fizzling out. Everybody sort of gave up on it until the great recession a couple of years ago. I think it’s having a big resurgence. About 5 percent of Americans are really adamant about this. Other parts of our research say that people actually do look where the product is made. People say they would be willing to pay an extra 10 percent if it’s made in America. They’re not just doing it for the pure patriotic reasons but they have time to realize that the quality of products made here is generally better. And things last long.

“I absolutely feel confident about the future. I don’t even think we’ve scratched the surface of what we can do on the internet.”