COLUMNISTS - MINILAB 2001
(and Standing on its Own)
By Jerry Lansky
July 2001The Fromex 86th street location, the highest volume store in the 13-store chain, has an active window but the inside of the store is built for processing efficiency and has relatively little in the way of promotional and display material. The Nanuet Mall (NY) is representative of the four mall location in the Fromex chain with attractive displays and varied merchandise offerings.
There was a time when one-hour photo processing did not exist.
For those who joined the one-hour business after, let's say 1985,
and may not know the background, let me offer a little bit of
To the best of my memory, just one man envisioned the concept of a free standing photo processing retail operation. One time the only way to get color film processed was to bring your roll to a drug or grocery store where it would await pickup by a wholesale lab's delivery car. "Yes, Ma'am, your roll will be ready in about a week."
The man was Dr. Bruce Frome, yes a real MD, an anesthesiologist as I recall, who, according to legend, saw a machine in Japan that processed film on site - and very quickly. It was a Noritsu. It was his idea to bring to the U.S. the concept of franchised specialty stores dedicated to the sole business of offering on-site photo finishing in one hour. An unheard of idea. Immodestly, he named the chain Fromex.
The doctor and his wife, who was an important player at Fromex, were from California and it was natural that most of the early franchises were situated in that state. The idea worked and the stores did well as entrepreneurs from outside the photo industry bought up the franchises at prices that ranged to as much as $50-75,000 to seek their fortunes. At peak, I'm told, the chain consisted of about 80 locations.
But there was a weak link in the business model. Instead of finding a franchisee first and getting that person to upfront the money to build a location, the typical plan for a franchiser, Fromex would build and develop each site first and then sell the going business to a franchisee. Dr. Frome created a huge infrastructure that included a big headquarters building, personnel, training facilities, outlabbing for franchisees, a printing plant, etc.
However, the cash demands of Dr. Frome's plan were such that by 1983 the operation had such a huge overhead that it collapsed of its own weight.
The early success of the Fromex operations in California was the basis for a feature story in the New York Times in 1981 that so piqued my own interest in one-hour that I decided to go into the business myself. By December, 1981, I had opened the first of my eight Photo To Go stores in New Jersey. They were subsequently sold to Moto Photo.
Dr. Frome was building an empire. I'll never forget the 1982 PMA convention in Las Vegas. When the good doctor and his wife entered the always-crowded Noritsu cocktail party one night the sea just parted for Their Royal Highnesses. A sight to behold.
The end was abrupt and the bankruptcy judge cut free the Fromex franchisees who were allowed to continue to use the name. Even though their franchise fee was lost and they would not receive the promised services, at least they could continue to own their business.
One of the remaining four is the Fromex group that began with the purchase of five franchise sites from Fromex in 1982 by Dan Silna and his nephew, Jeff, both New Jerseyites. Two were in New York City, one each in Honolulu, San Francisco and Baltimore. The latter two were subsequently sold or closed.
Over the years, the Silna's Fromex chain has grown to 13 stores. At 13, it is probably one of the few remaining one-hour operations of its size, most others having been gobbled up as Ritz and Wolf were blitzkrieging throughout the country a few years ago.
Having a store in Honolulu might be the envy of many mainland operators who would salivate at the thought of visiting that branch a few times a year. Considering, however, that eight of the Fromex stores are in Manhattan and four more in NY metro regional malls, one might need those R&R trips to Hawaii.
Manhattan is not the retail market for everybody. You won't find a Wal-Mart or a Home Depot, Lowe's or Target in the Big Apple. Or even a Ritz Camera. (Yes, Wolf Camera is here with three stores. More later.) This is not everyone's cup of tea. I know when I was looking to expand my New Jersey chain, Manhattan wasn't even on my 'B' list, let along the 'A.' High rent ($125-150/sq. ft.), personnel quality and availability, location, salaries and competition are only a few items on the list of negatives for anyone considering a retail situation here.
That doesn't mean that retail fortunes aren't made in Manhattan. Obviously, they are. Putting aside the retail giants like Macy's and Lord & Taylor, there are literally thousands of small specialty retailers that make it big. It's just that it takes a special breed of owner to successfully deal with the New York marketplace.