Industry Watch

Table tale

How Apple Valley–based Orchard Tables surrounds its products with meaning

By Ali Lacey

There was little to suggest that twenty-something Spencer Combs would start a furniture company. By trade, Combs is a photographer  one who's found great success shooting weddings. In 2010, Minnesota Bride magazine crowned him "Photographer of the Year," and the following year PDN magazine included him into its "Rising Stars of Wedding Photography."

But a few years ago, on a whim, he built a table out of wood pallets. Visitors to his home in Apple Valley noticed it and asked him to build one for them. Word about the tables spread, and demand for them grew. Combs realized he had a business on his hands  or could have, if he wanted one.

The idea of running just another furniture company didn't hold much appeal for him. If he started a venture, Combs wanted it to be meaningful  something that changed lives. He was inspired by social enterprises, companies with broader societal missions at their core. When Toms sells a pair of shoes, it also donates a pair to impoverished children; when it sells eyewear, part of the profit is used to save or restore eyesight for people in developing countries.

Combs started brainstorming with his wife, singer/songwriter Alex Masters. People share meals and stories around the table, they thought. What if the table itself had a story and fed people? That question led to the business model behind Orchard Tables. Today, whenever the company makes a sale, 15 starving children in Swaziland, Africa, receive a month's worth of food.

Conveniently, the concept fit in well with the couple's philanthropic activities. They already supported Children's Cup. The Louisiana-based nonprofit supplies needy children in Africa with food, water, education, and health care  and it's now a partner with Orchard Tables. "It is one of the most incredible nonprofits out there for what we wanted to do," says Combs.

Once the concept was in place, Combs and Masters sought advice. They assembled a board of advisors, which included some company owners they knew. The board's advice? Since the two were so invested in the mission, they should fund the company with their own money. That way, they could have control over its direction.

The idea was "scary and fun at the same time," says Combs. "It's one of those things: are you willing to put it on the line? When it's coming out of your own pocket, it's a lot scarier." Masters says the idea of self-funding the venture was at first an obstacle, but it was overcome when they finally launched Orchard Tables in December 2012.

Today the couple lives in Nashville, and the Apple Valley–based company outsources the table-building to thirdparty Minnesota craftsman who have been producing high-end furniture for decades. Combs and Masters design the tables, work with the craftsman to make sure everything is just how they want it, and inspect the finished products. "What they build is flawless," says Combs.

In his mind, the quality expressed through craftsmanship complements the social mission. "I feel that those two things are a perfect match," he says. "We spend a lot of time on the quality of the product, but our hearts are with the mission, as well, so neither one of those gets neglected."

Because each table is custom-made, turn-around time is about four to six weeks. The company currently offers three table styles, each named after a favorite city: The Minneapolis, The Nashville, and The San Diego. "We got married in San Diego, and we live in Nashville and Minneapolis," explains Masters. The Minneapolis and The Nashville are $450 coffee tables, and The San Diego is a $300 end table.

Upcoming tables will feature old barn wood and steel and include a book  with photography by Combs  spotlighting the children whose lives are changed through each purchase. The photos will be taken toward the end of this year, when Combs and Masters will be in Swaziland meeting some of the children whose lives have been affected by their venture.

As they prepare to launch new lines, the couple appreciates the control they have over future directions. They also appreciate the growing number of consumers who long for more meaning in the products they purchase. "It's so cool that our culture is really moving in that direction," says Masters, "and that we get to be a part of it."