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Creating Outdoor Rooms

Gary Evans, Cinde Ingram -- Casual Living, February 15, 2005

What started as inspiration at last year's HPBA Outdoor Room display booth paid off immediately as Jerry Isenhour invested in his store.

Now he's finishing four other outdoor living room vignettes inside the store, with murals suggesting a lake view, a leafy backyard area and an exterior wall with backlit windows.

Isenhour began by talking with designer Christi Spangle during the 2004 HPBA Expo in Anaheim, Calif. He wanted to remodel his store and was particularly interested in turning a small part of his parking lot into an outdoor room area, measuring 17′×29′.

"Until I talked with Christi in Anaheim last year, I thought basically people who were doing that had massive backyards," Isenhour said. "But what I'm finding now is this is a bigger market for somebody who has a little backyard because this becomes the backyard, and there are different ways we can screen it for privacy."

When Spangle visited The Fire Place, Patio & Grill Center in Concord, N.C., she helped Isenhour with a two-level layout adapted to the sloping terrain. Isenhour's crew built a stone hearth pit, barbecue island and bar height table as well as a large pergola. Passersby on the busy two-lane road who noticed the stone work underway outside the store returned with ideas for their own outdoor rooms.

"I made a $40,000 investment in outdoor rooms and sold $60,000 worth of goods in the first two weeks that otherwise would not have been sold," Isenhour said. "We're surrounded by seven lakes, including Lake Norman and Lake Wiley, and we've got a big percentage of high-end homebuilding in this area."

One advantage for Isenhour's 15-employee company is its skills with rock and stonework. "The only thing we don't do in-house here is the floor stamping," he said.

Spangle described Isenhour's operation as a total turnkey project. "The stone, the rock, the furniture and fixtures are there and he has contractors who can build a deck," she said. "He can even bring in a landscape designer to design and implement the surrounding. As a shopper, a one-stop shop like that would be ideal."

Tapping into his technicians' ability to create stone grill islands and outdoor fireplaces, Isenhour asked them to build a storefront counter with the appearance of a grill island inside the store. His customers said they had seen those in magazines, but had never touched them and didn't know anyone who could build them. While Isenhour's staff writes up the order, customers express amazement with the Ring of Fire displayed nearby, which can become an add-on sale, starting at $3,995.

With those kinds of payback on his investment, Isenhour made more moves inside his store, where he relocated the offices and began setting up four outdoor room vignettes. Getting customers to come inside was the concept he wanted to capitalize on — not catching them going down the road but inviting them to come in and see what could be done in a small area.

"He liked what we had done in Anaheim with the façade of an exterior and wanted some ideas of how many he could do," Spangle said, adding his interest ranged in styles from rustic and traditional to contemporary. "So we talked about finished materials he could incorporate to achieve those looks," she said. "He was very willing to do whatever design concept we came up with; he was eager to get started and open-minded, which made it nice. Basically, I gave him the layout and design scheme and he went with that."

Isenhour has proven himself open to change over the last 25 years since his chimney sweep business opened as The Chimney Doctor. He added wood stoves when sales in that category grew hot. He continues to expand its fireplace end "because people are willing to spend about $24,000 on one fireplace," he said. "A lot of people want the gas outdoor fireplaces, but we're also building regular masonry fireplaces." The business moved and expanded about eight years ago, when Isenhour added the patio furniture category.

"I concentrated on dining sets for the last eight years, but now most of our orders coming in are for seating groups," Isenhour said. "I think we're going to see a large increase in our patio (sales), but it's going to be on that end. Consumers don't want glass-top tables anymore; we've sold all of our tile tops, cast and faux stone tabletops."

Isenhour finds deep seating groups are hard to keep in stock because they sell so well. The store carries outdoor furniture from Carter Grandle, Jensen Jarrah, Hanamint, Meadowcraft and Suncoast.

His next plan is to move away from portable grills and toward strictly built-in grill sales. The store's grill lines include R.H. Peterson Fire Magic, Modern Home Products, Vidalia, Big Green Egg and Broil Master.

Each night now as the store closes, employees carry the outdoor furniture inside, but keep the fire elements stoked to attract attention.

"When it starts to get dark now, this fire pit's burning, the fireplace is burning and the lights are burning all night here," Isenhour said. "What we've found is, we'll come by here on Sunday afternoon or at night when we're closed, and we have a lot of people standing around looking at stuff. This shows them different ideas they've never thought of."

Drivers often do double-takes and make U-turns for a closer view of these outdoor room vignettes. Cast aluminum deep-seating groups prove popular along with custom stone fireplace, firepit and grill islands.

Keeping enough outdoor furniture in stock is a nice challenge to have. Moving it inside when the store closes is inconvenient but necessary as people continue to visit after hours.

Backlit windows on a wall with an exterior appearance help set the outdoor room mood in one of four vignettes inside the store. Deep seating groups like this one are ringing up sales.

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