Roger Gross is the longtime owner of the Franklin Rogers men’s formalwear shop at 142 Westminster St., in Providence, one of Rhode Island’s few remaining stores for business and designer men’s attire.
Gross, 75, and his wife, Rosemary, live in Warwick. They have two adult children and two grandchildren.
The following interview with Gross, which has been lightly edited, was conducted by email.
Did you grow up in Rhode Island?
I have been a lifelong Rhode Islander. I grew up on Sixth Street in Providence. I left home at age 15 to attend a private school in western Massachusetts. I went to Boston University, and graduated with a degree in psychology. I have spent over 51 years in retail, all based out of Rhode Island. I spent my first 18 years developing and operating a chain of women’s stores, and I have spent the rest of my time in the men’s business.
What influenced your decision to own a suit shop? What continues that drive today?
Even when I was in the women’s business, I paid attention to men’s fashions. In the women’s business, quality began to matter less, and women began to abandon quality stores and started trading with the inexpensive fast-fashion stores. Menswear, on the other hand, has maintained its overall quality, and, to be honest, is much more logical than women’s apparel. Men are more comfortable about accepting their physical strengths and weaknesses. A man will come into the store today, look you in the eye and say, “I got fat, nothing fits me.” I don’t recall any women telling me anything like that.
You have one of the last remaining custom suit shops in the area. How have you survived?
When I opened Franklin Rogers in 1994, I set out to make it akin to a Cheers bar. I wanted everybody to feel comfortable shopping at Franklin Rogers Ltd. We were not a store for pretentious name droppers, we were a store for people who wanted good value, good merchandise, good service, fine tailoring free, and prices that would not insult their intelligence.
Over the years, we have constantly updated our look, our merchandise and our selection to reflect the changes in contemporary culture. We strive to evolve our product to a higher level of change and fashion, as the younger generations no longer dress like their fathers and grandfathers.
In the last several years, we opened three more businesses located in another part of the building: our Groom Store, our Tuxedo and Prom Shop, and our Custom Suit store. This diversification has gone a long way in helping to grow our business and keep it in tune with the needs of our customers.
What is a memorable story about a client you’ll never forget?
Several years ago, on a Friday afternoon, at about 3 p.m., I received a call from a man from the East Side of Providence. He told me that he needed help. His son was a backup pianist for the Rhode Island Youth Philharmonic and was called at the last minute to replace the original piano player, who had taken ill. The young man needed a tuxedo outfit for the next afternoon, and the father had called everywhere. Nobody had the boy’s size, or was able to get it in time. I told him to get down to the store before 3:30 p.m., and I could help.
He came right down to the store, and I saw what the problem was. The young man needed a 34 short slim-fit tuxedo. In addition, he needed it tailored to him [by] Saturday afternoon.
I explained to the father that I did have a way to pull it off. I called a supplier of mine in California. The supplier did have the tuxedo in the correct size in stock, and he was in California, and it was only 12:45 p.m. on Friday there. I knew that the cutoff time for an overnight shipment was 1 p.m. I placed the order and told the father to come back at 10:30 Saturday morning, and I would have my tailor waiting for him and we would take care of everything.
The father was thrilled, the young man was thrilled, and I was thrilled. That is the kind of service we would do for everybody. That is a key reason we are still here.
What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
I love to see a happy customer. I get a big thrill when a man walks in and tells us that he has been everywhere, and nobody can fit him. Almost always, when we hear that, he walks out with a brand-new outfit. I love it when a young man comes in for his first suit. I watch his face and his body language as he looks in the mirror and realizes his possibilities. It is really rewarding when I look at a mother’s face when her son comes out of the dressing room trying on a Bar Mitzvah suit. The look of pride on her face can’t be overstated. To me it is amazing.
I take great pride when a customer comes in to tell us that he got a lot of compliments on his new clothing. The rewards are so important because it confirms that we are doing things right.
Tell me about your Jewish background. Do any Jewish values guide your business ethics?
As a youth in Providence, my family belonged to Temple Beth-El. I started going to Sunday school at the old location on Broad Street. My Bar Mitzvah was held at the new temple in March of 1959. I remember Rabbi [William] Braude. To a young boy, it was like being in the presence of Gandhi.
To this day, I value and embrace some of the great Jewish traditions. One of the highlights of my childhood was going to my grandmother’s house in Fall River for kreplach. There was nothing better. To this day, I relish the food! In addition, I always adored the Jewish sense of humor. I remember watching Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights and laughing at the humor of Henny Youngman, Myron Cohen and Jackie Mason. I didn’t get it then, but they taught a generation how to laugh through adversity. It stays with me today.
I also learned a lot from my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents on the right way to treat people. I learned to respect everyone, no matter who they are or what they are. I pride myself as a clothing merchant who understands the cultural diversity of the clients who come into the store, and make sure we have a product that they like. I want everybody to feel comfortable enough to feel right at home.
If you could have three people to dinner, who would you invite?
I would love to have dinner with Jon Stewart, Mel Brooks and Stephen Colbert. I love their humor, their compassion, their insight and their understanding of humor and what is funny. The wit and the ethos of those gentlemen are endless, and they have made amazing contributions to society and dealt with very serious issues with pathos and satire. It would be a laugh-fest from beginning to end, and even if I never got a word in edgewise, I would cherish it forever.
What is the best advice you have received?
When I was a young retailer, I had a conversation with another retailer, much older than I, and I mentioned something about a common competitor. The gentleman I was talking to was a man who I had immense respect for, and who always talked straight to me. He told me never to look at a competitor, as I would only find out what he had already done; he would never tell me what he was going to do next. Anytime you let a competitor influence your decisions, you begin to copy them. He told me to believe in myself, and follow my ideas, not somebody else’s.
To this day, I realize that, ultimately, ideas that come to me without being influenced by others who came before me are the freshest ideas I can get. I always strive for perfection, but until Franklin Rogers Ltd. has no more markdown racks, I will never achieve it.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business?
I remember explicitly that sometime in early March of 2020, realizing that the business year had gotten off to an incredible start, [thinking] that this was going to be the year that I had always hoped would happen. Our wedding business was jamming, our store business was booming and our custom-suit business was taking off.
About a week or two after that, we were closed up tight, and were about to take our little boat through a voyage on the high seas, during a hurricane, with an engine that died. Yet, with the help of my wonderful staff, we kept on rowing.
It has been a long journey, but we do see land off in the distance. I always believed that adversity creates opportunities. We have made a lot of adjustments in our business over the last 10 months, and believe that when things do come back, we will do better than ever.
We are running a very COVID-safe operation, have expanded our web presence to three websites, now have a video-consulting service, have curbside delivery, and keep a very vigilant eye on all aspects of cleanliness.
So many chains have come and gone in Rhode Island, yet so many people keep running to chain stores. I guess they want to look the same as the people in North Dakota.
The local community should support the local merchants from Rhode Island. We have a unique collection of fine retailers and restaurants. I urge all to support them, as we are here to serve them.
HANNAH ALTMAN (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the content producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. She also writes for Jewish Rhode Island.