A NEARLY CENTURY-OLD BUSINESS SPECIALIZING IN HOME IMPROVEMENT GETS A NEW CUSTOM DESIGN COMPONENT
BY JESSICA JONES-GORMAN • PHOTOS BY ROBERT NUZZIE
When Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012, destroying scores of homes and leaving a visible scar on Monmouth County, Karen Hochberg Barnes was called back home.
“We had a stock kitchen business here at Millhurst that was simply overrun with emergency rebuilds,” Hochberg Barnes noted. “Both contractors and homeowners needed help recreating their homes and renovating in the aftermath, so my dad asked me to come down and help out. Within a few days, I was back in New Jersey, measuring, planning, and offering kitchen design advice to homeowners who were trying to rebuild their lives.”
For Hochberg Barnes, who had operated Cabinetry by KDB, a custom design company in Scarsdale, NY, for 15 years, it was a bittersweet transition.
“It was diffcult helping people who had been devastated by this storm, absolutely” she said. “But I was glad to be back home, working side-by-side with three generations of Hochbergs in our family business.”
Millhurst Mills, Inc., which was established in 1925 by Hochberg Barnes’s great grandfather, has deep roots in the New Jersey community. Occupying 15 acres in Manalapan, the home improvement center was originally a grist mill for wheat, grain, and our. In its earliest days, it was the local social gathering place for farmers to have a drink and talk about pricing as they weighed and sold grain or purchased animal feed.
In the 1930s, Millhurst Mills expanded into a substantial lumberyard and continued its growth into the early 1960s, becoming one of the nation’s earliest home improvement centers. In 1973, it became among the first Ace Hardware dealers in the area. Nardie Hochberg, president and Karen’s father, took over operations in 1985 and expanded the wholesale and import side of the business, with a heavy concentration on salvage material and auctions. He also expanded the retail lumber operation to include Benjamin Moore paint, decking, moldings, vanities and kitchen cabinets.
“When you look back at our history, Millhurst Mills has been a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” Hochberg Barnes said. “My father ran it successfully since 1985 and made a lot of transitions, always keeping the needs of the community in mind.”
One of the most notable transitions was the addition of a design center. After offering field measuring appointments and design services out of a non-climate-controlled warehouse for several years after Superstorm Sandy, both Hochberg Barnes and her father decided to make the service a more permanent part of the business model.
“We wanted to provide an alternative shopping experience a comfortable and more upscale kitchen/bath showroom environment for customers requiring design services,” she explained, adding that part of the concept was including custom and semi-custom cabinetry made in the USA, along with higher-end tile and accessories. The father/daughter duo also wanted to return a part of Millhurst back to its roots as a social gathering place for neighbors and customers by hosting seminars, demonstrations, and networking events. Millhurst Design Center was launched in 2017.
“We wanted to reintroduce the business to our new neighbors,” Hochberg Barnes said. “What used to be all farmland is now multimillion-dollar homes. There’s ‘Over 55’ communities, too, and a lot of growth up and down Route 33. In addition to forming this custom Design Center, we wanted to familiarize the community with the services we provide. We are also affiliated with ACE and Benjamin Moore true service businesses that offer customers real-time shopping assistance. This is not pointing and clicking and having something delivered to your door; we are here to assist you with every step of your renovation.”
The idea was an instant success, but the family suffered a major loss when Hochberg Barnes’s father died suddenly last year.
“We were devastated,” she said. “And in addition to personally dealing with the loss, we had to consider how to regroup and rebrand the business.”
But the family continued on with their momentum of expansion.
“Millhurst Design Center is growing,” Hochberg Barnes said, noting that she is proud to now work alongside her son, Jake Barnes. “We’re very excited about the direction it’s taking.”
Offering custom kitchen and bath cabinetry, designer tiles, and more, the Center features a design team capable of tackling any kind of renovation project, including cabinet restoration, new appliances, countertops, or a complete overhaul. In-home measuring services, interactive design renderings, and detailed whole project coordination are all part of the process.
“The consultation preferably takes place in the home, and we walk through a wish list with the client what they like about their current situation and what they want to change,” Hochberg Barnes explained. “It’s difficult for people to envision a finished product, so that’s why we brainstorm: Slide a doorway, move a window, or take down a wall, and all of the sudden it’s a completely different space.”
What follows is the presentation of several options and concepts, keeping function and convenience in mind.
“There might be two cooks in the family and they need a large kitchen space to share,” she said, “or there’s a busy mom who wants her kitchen to look like a page of House Beautiful, but most importantly wants a microwave in the island and a lot of reachable drawers these are all options we present when designing a space.”
There are several categories of cabinetry: Some that can be ordered and made available in a week’s time, others made to order from any wood species and requiring months of lead time and a bigger budget.
Hochberg Barnes’s main objective with this new branch of the business? To seamlessly blend it with Millhurst Mills.
“It’s very important to me to maintain the historical part of the company name,” she said. “My family has been an important part of this community for many years, and my goal is to continue that role.”
In the future, Hochberg Barnes hopes to form a bond with other local businesses, cross-promoting a range of craftsmen in the area.
“I currently display wooden and concrete countertops from local artisans,” she said. “But I would love to see the Design Center serve as a hub and full-service destination for anyone looking to renovate their home.”
Such a one-stop shop, she added, would include a variety of sellers from lighting and appliance experts to plumbing supply and interior décor gurus.
“I would love to have one location for homeowners to come and envision their new space,” she concluded. “I think that’s a concept that would make my father proud.”