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Transforming American Patio & Fireplace

It might seem like a long way from the courtroom to the outdoor room, but Darlene Lewis said the transition was one of the best decisions she's ever made.

Darlene and Les Lewis purchased American Patio & Fireplace in Gainesville, Fla., in 1995, two years after it opened with an inventory of PVC patio furniture. Darlene had just had the first of their three children, and the thought of leaving a small child with a nanny to continue a career as an attorney seemed too much to bear.

"We wanted more flexibility and felt this was the way to go," Lewis said.

Just like the journey Lewis made from being an attorney to selling casual furniture, the store bears little resemblance to its former self. Trips to retailers elsewhere in Florida and to Atlanta convinced them that PVC was not the way to go, so they increased the quality of their furniture offerings. They also moved the store to a better location, expanding showroom space from 1,500 square feet to 4,000. Shortly after moving in 1997, "fireplace" was added to both American Patio's name and its showroom, making room for the grill category in 1998.

"Casual furniture is a fairly easy industry from a service standpoint," Lewis said. "Adding fireplaces and grills increased our dealings with service issues. There's quite a difference between chips on a piece of furniture versus igniter problems on a grill."

Furniture is displayed vignette style in the 3,000-sq.-ft. main showroom, separated from the smaller grill display space by a pass-through. Conversation settings dominate the 20-plus groupings, with aluminum and wicker love seats and lounge chairs accentuated by arrangements of greenery from a local artist who gets a chance to display her wares.

The store carries furniture from Summer Classics, Homecrest, Carter Grandle, Hanamint and Brown Jordan International. Lewis said the casual furniture category continues to expand beyond aluminum and sling into a pleasing array of styles. Variety is one of the ways specialty retailers can compete against the big box stores.

"Mass merchants are getting into conversation groups, but they don't carry much variety," Lewis said.

Bringing in the hearth and grill categories, while providing a counterseasonal punch to even out a casual furniture retailer's year, also added a level of complexity to the business. The Lewises relied on other hearth and grill retailers and manufacturer reps to help them learn the basics. During the annual Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association Expo, they take extra time with the reps from the products they sell or are picking up.

Hearth offerings include accessories from Minuteman International, Pilgrim Home & Hearth Wares and Dagan Industries, wood and gas fireplaces and gas logs from Empire Comfort Systems and CFM Specialty Home Products (Majestic Fireplaces) and electric fireplaces from Dimplex North America Limited that Lewis said sell "very well."

On the grill side, American Patio & Fireplace sells units from Broilmaster, Evo, Fire Magic, Lynx, Alfresco Gourmet Grills, DCS and Viking Range. Sales are good through the price spectrum and American sells 150 a year, Lewis said.

The store enjoys a robust business with builders, who refer customers to American to outfit their decks and outdoor kitchens.

"We're the biggest grill dealer in the area," Lewis said. "Our only competitors are kitchen appliance stores that dabble in grills.

"Les has really become the local expert," she added. "He's busy all day long answering questions about grills and fireplaces."

American Patio capitalizes on the grill business by selling such accessories as side burners, griddles, covers, smoking chips, seasonings, sauces and a variety of tools. The demonstration grill gets fired up nearly every Saturday during the main grilling sales season, which runs between May and July.

The store also conducts two cooking classes a year, which draw sellout crowds of between 40 and 50, who pay $30 for a demonstration and plenty of food and beverages. Buyers of upper-end products are invited to the event, which Lewis said breaks even while increasing customer loyalty.

The Lewises run the store with two employees. Darlene Lewis manages the office and does the buying and the books while Les Lewis works the floor and coordinates the service and installation calls.

Even during Florida's last hurricane-soaked selling season, Lewis said sales were up 15% despite having to close for six days during various parts of hurricane season.

Lewis said she doesn't regret her decision to trade in the pinstriped skirt of the legal world for a pair of khaki pants and a polo shirt to sell casual furniture.

"Even on our worst day when customers are giving us heck for whatever reason, we just say, 'Hey, it's patio furniture,'" Lewis said. "But we get nice phone calls and cards from a lot of customers whose outdoor spaces we helped design.

"We get invited to many parties," she said.

The Gainesville, Fla., store has gone through several changes over the last decade.

Photos by David Johnson

Darlene and Les Lewis

Bringing in grill business added a level of complexity to the Lewis' business.

Furniture is displayed vignette-style in the main showroom.

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