Photographs by DAN D'ERRICO

Optical Elements Catches a Wave

The history of Long Branch, N.J. reads something like one of those rags to riches stories—only more like riches to rags to riches.

Today, Long Branch boasts a beautiful boardwalk and a revitalized oceanfront designed to recapture a bit of this coastal community’s lustrous past. Long Branch lost its original sparkle nearly a century ago and by the 1980s had become a poster city for urban blight. Through the intervention of a public-private development partnership and about $70 million, this charming seaside town is once again the place to be, home to smart shops, high-end eateries, luxury housing and resort accommodations.

Tucked in next to the Ocean Place hotel in the Pier Village area, lies a unique optical venue, one that takes its cues from the richness of its surroundings and the beauty of the coastline that is, quite literally, steps away from its front door. It’s one thing, perhaps, to be in a beach community, another thing entirely to occupy oceanfront property. “We saw the space and jumped on it right away,” says Kevin Johnston, an optician who, along with his partner Ryan Himmel, owns and operates Optical Elements. “We are right on the beach.” A fact that makes for some interesting retailing.

“This is still a seasonal community,” says Johnston. “In the summer, it’s crazy. Sometimes we don’t close our doors until after midnight because people are out, walking around, going to dinner, shopping—there is a tremendous amount of impulse buying that goes on in the evenings.”

To capture some of those dollars, Johnston and Himmel figured out that they needed to keep a high ratio of sun to ophthalmic and bring in a clever mix of upscale designer brands. With an inventory of approximately 800 frames, “about 70 percent is in sunwear during the season,” says Johnston. “It might drop down to 60 percent in the winter.” Brands include Robert Marc, Sama, Oliver Peoples, Chrome Hearts and some core Luxottica and Sàfilo collections. In addition, all the frames are displayed on open shelves where buyers and browsers alike can touch, feel and try on without interference. The average sale on a complete pair of eyewear, single vision, is $450. Progressives average $800 and non-Rx sunwear averages $350. Optical Elements does not take insurance.

The store’s interior, which Johnston and Himmel designed and implemented, carries over the idea of warm earth elements and the balance of nature. The rich and luxurious materials—genuine hardwoods, leather, hammered copper and rough stone—are a tribute to both the natural and man-made beauty of this unique community. “We wanted to do something that no one else had done,” says Johnston. “We built all the display cases, the front desk, we hammered the copper and even stained the concrete ourselves.”

Created in eight months—from business plan to grand opening in June 2005—Optical Elements is nothing short of a dream realized for Johnston and Himmel. “Between the two of us, we’ve worked with some of the best in the industry,” says Johnston, who spent time behind the counter at Robert Marc in Manhattan and other high-end retailers in New Jersey. “We learned a lot, but wanted to go out on our own.”

Optical Elements gets by with a small staff—a lab manager, sales associate and an optometrist who comes in one morning a week. (The optometrist, Johnston’s dad, has his own practice nearby and gave up his Wednesday golf game to work with his son.)

Johnston and Himmel have hired with care. “We’ve surrounded ourselves with good people. Everyone is equal here. We all work hard and the job gets done.” In fact, Johnston believes that the biggest challenge moving forward will be to maintain that working balance of dedicated employees and quality service. “We are only as strong as our weakest link,” he notes.

And while Johnston admits to a bit of a learning curve, it appears as though the last couple of years have been a success—on many levels. “The one thing my partner and I have noticed since we opened this store,” says Johnston, “is that there hasn’t been a single morning where we have not wanted to come to work. I’m here seven days a week. Without fail. We love it. We are doing exactly what we want to do and we love being here.”