Designer Stone began in 1999 when Michael and Alisa Gentilucci started making cast-stone garden art in their Pacific Beach garage. The couple met the year prior while working for a local oceanfront blues bar. One day, while relaxing in their patio garden amid planters and garden accents, they contemplated a future together, and the idea of Designer Stone was born. They soon began making molds in the garage and realized they were onto something.
In those early days, they would frequently discuss the type of company they wanted to become. The first thought was always “highest quality,” followed by “original designs and reliable service.” With this unified vision of greatness, immense companionship, some perseverance, sacrifice, and a dash of good fortune, they landed in many of the most prestigious Southern California garden centers. Once established, they gained a solid foothold within the industry and were well on their way of becoming a respected statuary company.
As their small business grew, they bought a mixed use property in Ramona, a small “country” town in the mountains just east of San Diego. The property had a dilapidated Victorian cabin without a kitchen or bathroom, some crumbled out-buildings, and an unfinished two-story warehouse. Michael said, “Together we saw beyond the problems; we saw potential. It allowed us to live, work, and save time and money. With the help of Alisa’s father, we remodeled our home on nights and weekends and soon the house actually became livable.”
The cabin was built in 1906 and was a rather interesting building with two front doors. The left front door led to a small private room and in September of 2001, this room became Designer Stone’s Garden Shop.
Just as their mission is to produce the best quality sculptures, they also sought out other artisans to stock their shelves with handcrafted, American-made products. Some craftsmen created whimsical ceramic mushrooms, others rustic wooden birdhouses, and still others eclectic iron work. Their initial inventory consisted of ornamental garden art, with a strong sentiment for American craftsmanship.
They enjoy participating in the American Made Collective, and it provides an opportunity to provide their small community with unique handcrafted designs from across the country. Customers who visit the shop are surprised to learn that all of the sculptures are made in the production studio on the property, and they’re even more surprised to learn that Designer Stone distributes pieces to big-name catalogs and dropship companies such as Uncommon Goods, Wayfair, Smith & Hawken, and Red Envelope.
What began as a simple idea sprouted into a mission and has blossomed into an innovative and reputable company. Designer Stone Garden Shop is now commonly known as DS Garden Shop. The cozy room that once was the entire shop has become the bird room, and the rest of the house is a full garden shop with ornamental and practical garden goods.
Q&A with Michael Gentilucci, owner of DS Garden Shop
Smart Retailer (SR): What would you identify as an important turning point in your business?
Two thoughts immediately come to mind. First, when we started our business, we were eager and foolish and rented a building four times larger than necessary. We were spending $6,000 a month in rent, between home and business. We then purchased a mixed-used property in a more remote community that permitted light manufacturing, retail sales, and residence. By the end of the year, our productivity went through the roof. We tripled our retail sales and, instead of renting, we now owned property and, in the process, cut our largest expense by 70%.
The second turning point was realizing the need to differentiate ourselves. We transitioned our focus from providing our customers with traditional statuary to offering amusing original sculptures. When the recession hit a few years later, it was our original artwork that pulled us through. Customers were looking for uplifting artwork. The fact that it was handcrafted and American-made was a huge plus. I’m certain if we were offering what everyone was offering, we would have gone bankrupt, but instead we were able to weather the storm.
DS Garden Shop (DSGS): If you were given $100 to invest in your business how would you use it? What about 10,000?
A hundred dollars doesn’t go far in Southern California, but it would buy lunch for my team. They put forth an amazing amount of pride. It’s evident in the quality of product they produce and how they treat our customers daily. Ten thousand dollars would be a different story. When you’re building wholesale, retail, and ecommerce, it seems like every project starts at ten grand. Our store could use a facelift: a fresh coat of paint, new signage, more lighting, and some local press. However, solar panels would pay dividends immediately by eliminating a hefty electric bill that our store and manufacturing produce monthly. With ten thousand, I would still treat my team, but maybe we would go out to dinner and drinks too.
SR: What are you most passionate about? How do you inject that passion into your business?
DSGS: Everything I do is for my wife and children, but I would not have them without loyalty, gratitude, patriotism, and faith. I feel as a manufacturer and a retailer that we are on the right side of every issue. Our products are handcrafted, made in the USA, they’re sustainable, durable, and both environmentally friendly and user friendly. At some point we weighed the notion of outsourcing our products, but frankly couldn’t stomach the idea of not controlling the quality. We still sell to many of the same customers we did 20 years ago. We have an obligation to those accounts and to the next customer through the door to continually develop our product lines.
Ramona California Gift Shop: Designer Stone Garden Shop
Location: 1138 D Street, Ramona, CA 92065