The Cajun expression “Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!” (Let the good times roll) evokes the fun and freshness that French Market Lighting has brought to the Houston area.
Mention New Orleans to most anyone and among the first things that come to mind are the audacious cuisine, the free-spirited culture, authentic jazz, and the rich architecture. An appreciation for the latter was certainly an influence on Jeff Ber when he was growing up working at his family’s lighting showroom, Lighting Inc. , which was co-founded by his grandfather, Jimmie, and Alvin Gibson, Sr., 53 years ago. Jeff’s father, Michael, is at the helm today.
From the age of 15 through college, Jeff worked part-time in the store, mastering various tasks from working the parts counter and sales desk to stocking the warehouse, learning the lamp department, selling on the showroom floor, and order processing, among other duties. When he entered college and majored in Marketing, Ber didn’t plan on making lighting his career. By his junior year, he was working at Lighting Inc. full-time while going to school. Upon graduation, he couldn’t imagine not staying in the lighting industry that he loved. However, like many entrepreneurs, Ber wanted to blaze his own trail in business.
He left Lighting Inc. in 2005 to pursue a category he had discovered that was in demand. “I really got into gas lanterns,” Ber explains. “It’s a niche that not everyone has.” And, as he soon discovered, it’s a niche that many people want. Ber started up his own business, which he first called French Quarter Lanterns, as an online source for handcrafted, unique copper lanterns manufactured regionally. Surprisingly, New Orleans styling wasn’t just popular among local residents and businesses, but also by homeowners and specifiers all over the country and beyond. “Just last week, I shipped an order to Australia,” Ber notes. French Quarter Lanterns (now known as French Market Lighting) offers approximately 75 styles, most of which are domestically made. His Internet presence, plus word of mouth, has given the company business with universities, hospitality projects, and even orders from A-list Hollywood actors (whose names are kept private).
When his best friend moved to Houston to take a job in the oil business, Ber and his wife, Michelle, visited often. Their decision to relocate to the Houston area was an easy one. “Moving my company to Houston allowed me to expand my business beyond the New Orleans market,” he explains.
Last August, Ber and his wife opened up their first brick-and-mortar store as French Quarter Lanterns (now renamed French Market Lighting), in The Woodlands section of the Greater Houston area. Nestled in a busy strip mall, the showroom is not that far off from formidable competition with deep roots in the community. “We went from being one of the big dogs in New Orleans to being the small fish in Houston,” he jokes. Not that Ber is worried. “I try to bring in items that are a little different from what everyone else has. I find that a lot of merchandise on the market looks the same, so I search for handmade looks and try to be creative with my assortment.”
New Orleans styling has gone over big in Houston. “There’s a [development] here in The Woodlands area that is patterned after the Garden District in New Orleans,” he remarks. “We’ve formed relationships with the custom builders.” French Market Lighting is also an ASID member and has encouraged ASID members to come in and look around.
The 1,200-sq.-ft. showroom is smaller than the typical lighting showroom, but that is the point Ber is trying to make: his store isn’t typical by any means. “Everyone who comes in here seems to really like us. They tell us all the time that we’re different from what’s out there,” he comments.
Ber has also kept in mind some of the golden rules that both his father and his grandfather have taught him over the years. “My dad taught me to be honest and truthful in advertising, merchandising, and doing business. He also told me to keep relationships with vendors open, even if they can’t service you at the time. There might be a day when they can [and you can benefit each other],” he states, adding, “My grandfather always used to say, “Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.”