A Parlor for the Whole Northeast
Boston-based ski makers focus on local needs and a fully customizable set of options.
The Northeast, with its unpredictable, variable conditions, tight glades, and often technical terrain, cultivates a different breed of skier. We’re likely to encounter everything from bottomless blower powder to a P-Tex-hungry mélange of ice, rocks and stumps that only a diehard can truly appreciate. It’s a particular set of circumstances that demands a particular type of ski - the type of ski Parlor focuses on.
In 2009, a group of those diehard East Coast skiers, led by former racer Mark Wallace, set up shop in a defunct funeral parlor – hence the company name - in East Boston with the intention of building skis that targeted the New England skier. “In 2007-2009, the Volkl Mantra was literally the only ski that you could carve on that was 100mm under foot--there were no options,” says Wallace, during a recent visit to their Massachusetts ski factory. “We felt like we could do that better, or at least comparably well. Very quickly that morphed into making a full line of all-mountain skis that you could carve on.”
Wallace and his partners produced their first pair of skis in 2009 as a sort of experimental passion project; learning on the go and outsourcing the finishing processes to major shops. While completing his MBA at Babson College in Wellesley, Wallace, along with co-founders Pete Endres and Jason Epstein, crafted a business plan and turned their passion project into a commercial ski production that, ten years later, is now the largest in New England. Parlor Skis officially opened for business in 2013, producing twenty-five pairs of skis in their inaugural year. Many things have changed since then, but while they’ve upgraded locations several times since their days in the funeral parlor, Wallace says their mission remains the same: to produce high-quality, fully customizable skis targeted at New Englanders. You want a topsheet that features a lift from your home mountain? Done. A photo of your second child? A little weird and sure to cause family drama, but sure, go nuts.
Thanks to growing demand, they’ve been able to invest tens of thousands of dollars in cutting-edge machinery, and their manufacturing has since become significantly more efficient and sophisticated. Parlor now produces up to twenty pairs of individualized skis per week and the entire process is done in house, allowing them to claim the status as one of just a small handful of ski manufacturers in the world that can produce a fully customizable ski.
Recently, they have also begun to manufacture longboards and snowboards as well, the latter of which currently makes up roughly ten percent of their production. “Our snowboard business is growing rapidly,” says Wallace. “We saw a similar hole in the market to what we saw with skis, for a directional, New-England-focused, all-mountain board.” Snowboards start at $850, and alpine touring or backcountry enthusiasts can have any board made as a splitboard for an extra $200, so they’re a unique option for those who prefer to earn their turns.
The combination of high-end materials (i.e. furniture-grade core blanks from an Amish mill) customization, and relatively small production volume does add up to higher prices than their mainstream counterparts. Prices start at $975 for their ready-made series and range up to $1475 and up for their customizable options. “We spend more on materials alone than most brands do on finished skis from their factories,” says Wallace.
He adds that as a custom, direct-to-consumer business, Parlor is simultaneously insulated from market pressures and product cycles that don’t add value for the consumer—i.e. gimmicky features designed more to sell skis than to actually improve their performance, or multiple layers of markups as the skis move through the several sales tiers between the manufacturer and the retailer. In other words, while you might pay a few hundred dollars more for Parlor skis versus their big-brand counterparts, you’re paying for things that add value, like higher-quality materials and consultation to custom-design the ski to your size, ability and preferred trails and conditions. In Wallace’s words, “Parlor designs and build skis for individuals, while the big brands produce skis for the mass market.”
I’ve had conversations with reps from large manufacturers who have boasted an advantage over the little guys in the sophistication of their technology and materials, but Parlor is among several smaller manufacturers who are now incorporating Titanal in their construction (a key material for dampness and stability once used only by major shops), so that gap has clearly narrowed. Add in the unquantifiable value of personalized customization and customer service, and suddenly the extra cost starts to seem like a relative bargain. And it’s not just celebrities and Boston Brahmin that patronize Parlor’s services. “We have teachers and carpenters who are clients and we have CEOs and hedge fund guys. What they share in common is their passion for the sport and their desire for a better product and to be more involved in it.”
After touring their production facility and learning about the skis and the people behind them, I was three sheets to the wind on the Parlor Kool-Aid, but to properly assess the skis I needed to see how they performed on the mountain. I met up with Parlor production worker and social media stoke-machine, Alex Schwieger, at Killington recently to test out a few models from their custom lineup—a set of fifteen templates that are customizable in length, core material, profile and graphics (about two thirds of Parlor’s production). The conditions were what you’d typically expect for December in Vermont—firm with the occasional icy patch, save for about six inches of untouched powder on the side of Needle’s Eye underneath the Gondola—so we stuck with the Cardinal Pro and the Kingfisher (93mm and 105mm waists, respectively) and skipped out on wider models better suited for softer, deeper snow. We were also joined by Skiology’s weather guru, Matt Bramble, who tested out the Rhinochaser, one of Parlor’s new line of snowboards that make up roughly 10% of their production (these start at $850).
With their light, nimble feel and minimal swing weight, the Kingfishers excelled in the soft, fresh snow on Needle’s Eye and moved from edge to edge with ease and their early-rise front rocker absorbed impact impressively well, making them well-suited to effortlessly bounce around soft bumps and natural terrain. The glades were unfortunately not open due to the shallow coverage, but these skis would be heroic maneuvering deftly between the trees the day after a Nor’easter. On firmer snow they felt less at home, chattering significantly at speed and when placed on edge as you’d expect from a light, all-wood-construction. While the Kingfishers can indeed carve on the hard stuff, they definitely excelled more in soft snow. They might easily serve as a one-ski-quiver out west, but in the east they would better serve as a member of a multi-ski-quiver as the vehicle of choice for soft snow and powder days. They reminded me very much of the Rossignol Soul 7s, and if you’ve noticed how many of those litter virtually every ski resort, you know that’s a very strong endorsement.
The Cardinal Pro shared the Kingfisher’s rocker-camber-rocker profile, but with a narrower waist and two layers of Titanal underfoot, which helped make them a completely different breed of ski. The dampness and stability from the added metal made them a perfect fit for the firm groomers, and I really enjoyed letting them loose with some fast GS turns down Superstar and Skyelark. The front rocker helped keep them nimble and to absorb bumps and crud, so they still felt great in the stashes of powder we found throughout the day. The Cardinal Pros are Alex’s daily driver, and I could see why; these skis can tackle just about anything that the Northeast throws at you, and their combination of stability and maneuverability made them an absolute blast in even the most challenging, variable spots. These belong in the conversation for best East coast one-ski-quivers, and they reminded me very much of the Nordica Enforcers.
Matt took the Rhinochaser board out for a few laps off the Snowdon Bubble, testing it out in everything from icy three-o’clock-groomers to soft natural bumps. He found the board to be highly torsionally rigid, making it a great choice for a powder day or charging down soft groomers and open bowls, but not as well-suited for bumps, terrain parks and firmer snow.
If you’re in the market for a unique pair of skis with the utmost build quality, Parlor is making some incredible skis that are more than capable of tackling the Northeast’s most pucker-inducing terrain and erratic conditions. While the ready-made lineup may be more price sensitive, you’re better off spending the extra coin to get a fully customized, one-of-a-kind set of skis. The absolute best way to do this is by signing up for one of their classes, offered in two-day or once-weekly-for-three-week formats, which gets you a pair of fully customized skis, a hands-on lesson in ski manufacturing, and food and beverages for $1,750. If you want to test the skis before you pull the trigger, they have demos available all season long at Stowe, Wachusett, Shawnee, Fire On The Mountain (a ski shop in Dover, New Hampshire), and, of course, at their headquarters in East Boston. Parlor also has 28 demo days scheduled at 19 different ski areas this season, so there are plenty of opportunities to take them for a spin and see for yourself what the buzz is about.