Making it Happen
By Tom Lassiter
Photos: ©2018 Gordon Gregory Photography. www.gordongregoryphoto.com.
Bon Air Hearth, Porch and Patio doesn’t have an official motto, but if it did, that motto would be, “We make it happen.”
When a customer wants a fireplace in the master bedroom, where there’s never been a flame or a chimney, the team at Bon Air Hearth, Porch and Patio makes it happen.
When the buyer of a Twin Eagles grill opts for natural gas, but has no connection to the main at the street, the team at Bon Air knows how to make it happen.
When a new Bromic radiant heater needs a 220-volt supply run, to make the customer’s porch cozy even when the air is chilly, shop owners Mikki and Joey Hopcroft make it happen.
Their customers in and around Virginia’s capital city don’t want to be bothered with building permits, arranging for natural gas service, or choosing an electrician.
“The customer doesn’t have to do anything,” Mikki Hopcroft explains. “And that’s what they want. They come in and pick out what they want; you tell them what day it’s going to be there. That’s all they care about.”
Crafting a seamless, no-fuss customer experience over the last 15 years has built a solid reputation for Bon Air Hearth, Porch and Patio. That reputation, as the go-to place for luxury lifestyle products and service, drives customers to the store on the southwest side of Richmond. Reputation, and a smattering of social media, keep Bon Air’s name in circulation.
Customers routinely come in to shop for patio furniture, or a grill, or a fireplace remodel, and say, “I had three people tell me, ‘This is where you have to go,’” Hopcroft says. “Well, I can’t buy that type of advertising.”
That helps explain why Bon Air’s advertising budget is zero.
Unusual Route to Retail
HVAC technicians, installing gas fireplaces sold by competitors, routinely call Bon Air for advice. Those calls usually are routed to Mikki. “My husband,” she says dryly, “taught me everything I didn’t want to know.”
A smile crosses Joey’s face. “Mikki can cut and thread pipe,” he says.
Long before opening their shop, she learned about pipefitting, including how to figure long runs and pipe diameters and flow rates, while working alongside her husband, a master pipefitter.
The Hopcrofts understand so much about the construction trades because they spent years as independent business owners, running gas lines for hearth products sold by other retailers. They installed gas fireplaces for homebuilders. They once had a commercial sheet metal business. Joey Hopcroft, as a Class A contractor, performed major remodels and built two homes for his family.
Over time, the Hopcrofts developed an understanding of gas products from a service tech’s point of view. They value quality and reliability and safety above all. While working in the field, they talked with homeowners. They found themselves answering questions that should have been addressed by the merchants who sold the gas products.
Homeowners, the Hopcrofts concluded, weren’t getting the information they needed to make good decisions. That, along with the realization that they were getting a bit too mature to spend so much time crawling under houses, led to an inspiration.
“My husband had the brilliant idea that we should go into retail,” Mikki says.
Joey reasoned that becoming a vendor of gas appliances would enable them to put their product knowledge to work while downsizing their personnel management responsibilities.
“So here we are,” Mikki says.
Sam Ferguson, grill specialist.
Macon Richardson, casual furniture specialist.
The Hopcrofts operate Bon Air Hearth, Porch and Patio with four employees, in addition to themselves. There are two sales associates: Sam Ferguson specializes in grills, while Macon Richardson focuses on casual furniture. Other employees include an installer and administrative assistant.
The couples’ background in technical service informed their decisions about which hearth companies and products to represent. Later, as grills were added to the product lineup, and then casual furniture, the Hopcrofts used the same criteria.
“We said, ‘We’re only going to sell the best of the best,’” Mikki explains. “We don’t ever want customers to have buyer’s remorse. The only way we’re going to make money is if we put stuff out there that doesn’t get callbacks.”
Callbacks, also known as service calls or warranty issues, deplete time, energy, and profits. The Hopcrofts’ focus on providing a trouble-free customer experience is the foundation of their store’s rock-solid reputation.
It’s not usual, Joey says, for customers who made a purchase 15 years ago to return and announce, “I love my fireplace!”
“And,” Mikki says, “I love my grill.”
Happy customers make referrals. Just as 2017 was drawing to a close, the shop wrapped up an $18,000 outdoor fireplace, a wood-burning project. The homeowner came to Bon Air on the recommendation of a relative who had purchased gas logs.
The outdoor fireplace project will be followed by a pergola project. “We don’t sell pergolas,” Mikki says, “but our carpenter’s going to do a pergola for them.”
Even when customers want something a little unusual, Bon Air Hearth, Porch and Patio makes it happen.
|A Sunbrella kiosk invites customers to select from a wide range of fabrics.|
Bon Air Hearth, Porch and Patio takes its name from the surrounding neighborhood, which dates back to the late 19th century. Many of the homes are two-story, Victorian frame houses set on wooded lots. Streets are narrow and winding, more like rural lanes than metropolitan thoroughfares.
Bon Air – literally, good air – started as a country retreat for residents of Richmond. The city center, across the James River, is about four miles away as the crow flies.
Mikki Hopcroft sits in one of the cozy alcove vignettes that give her store much of its distinctive atmosphere. There’s a casual dining set with a market umbrella, flanked by gas-burning fireplaces. Walls are painted in soft, muted tones, which make fireplace surrounds and mantels pop.
The craftsmanship in the stone and tile masonry is matched by the fine carpentry. One mantel, painted in gleaming white, features radial designs hand-carved to match the pattern in cast tiles adjacent to the firebox.
Bon Air’s master carpenter– an independent craftsman – is equally proficient at masonry. The Hopcrofts keep him busy. “I would say 90% of what he does is our work,” Mikki says.
“People love him,” Mikki says. “He has great reviews.”
They have similar relationships with an electrician, a gas fitter, and a wood stove installer. These tight working relationships with craftsmen and technicians are by design. “Joey realized early on that we need to be in control of the whole project,” Mikki explains. In this case, control means entrusting technical and construction work to a person whose expertise and standards are at least equal to, if not higher than, one’s own.
The Hopcrofts use a collaborative process that works seamlessly for customers. Joey offers design services for customers who want a fireplace in a remodel. He’ll bring in the carpenter, who may make suggestions on how to integrate existing themes into the new construction. Other independent craftspeople ultimately may be involved, but the homeowner gets just one bill, from Bon Air.
The goal is to make things easy for customers and help them make decisions that will keep them happy. Sometimes that means gently steering people in a different direction.
“We sell wood stoves, but we actually try to talk people out of them,” Mikki says.
The reason, she explains, is that people sometimes have romantic notions about wood stoves that don’t consider the realities of maintaining a woodpile, keeping the fire stoked, and hauling ashes.
The real market for wood stoves is farther outside the metro Richmond area, she says. “Our customer gets upset if there’s a dead battery in the remote,” she quips.
Bon Air’s relentless focus on understanding customers and what they want has kept the business growing while competitors have foundered. There were more than 10 hearth stores in Richmond when the Hopcrofts launched their business in 2003. Now there are fewer than half that many, Joey says. Bon Air is the only one that does its own installations; others refer customers to independent installers.
“Our business has grown really well since 2008, since the economic downturn,” Mikki says. “Our business was up in 2008, and sales were up in 2009. We don’t sell anything that anybody has to have. Everything we sell here is pure luxury.”
The emphasis on tasteful luxury is apparent throughout the store. Visitors step into a spacious entrance area where hearth and patio products get equal emphasis. Overhead, an inverted market umbrella, its post dramatically shortened, is suspended upside-down from the tall ceiling. Lamps glow through the white canopy, making it an umbrella chandelier.
The interior of the 6,400-sq. ft. showroom, designed by Joey, is a series of irregularly shaped vignettes. Sightlines are short. To see around a corner or through a door, a visitor must take a few steps this way or that, which leads to new discoveries. Each vignette has at least two entrances, creating more invitations for visitors to wander and explore.
|The store began carrying patio furniture only seven years ago, but that has made it a 12-month business.|
Bon Air’s décor is spare. Artwork and decorative items (almost none for sale) create a tasteful atmosphere. “We don’t want to be in the bric-a-brac business,” Mikki says.
Nor will you find placemats, tableware, or other items covering dining tables or filling shelves. Those sorts of things “assault my senses,” Mikki says. They’re fine for other merchants, but not Bon Air. “That’s just me.”
Tim Wood, a sales representative for Telescope Casual Furniture, Mendota hearth products, and Ratana furniture (new to Bon Air for 2018), describes the store as “very tastefully put together. It’s not overdone.”
Moreover, Wood says, the store reflects the talents and strengths of the entire staff. The Hopcrofts, he says, “want to cull from everybody. They’ve got some talented employees.”
Macon Richardson gets credit for bringing Bon Air into the casual furniture business. A veteran of casual furniture sales, he approached the Hopcrofts in 2011 and made the case that their store – then known as Bon Air Better Living Products – get into the patio business.
“Furniture has built our business, probably three-fold,” Richardson says. “We’re a 12-month store now.”
Richardson takes credit for the store’s current name. While the Hopcrofts initially went with a name that didn’t pigeonhole them to a particular product line, Richardson knew that, “We needed a name that was more explanatory.” He added “porch” to “hearth and patio” to differentiate Bon Air from a crosstown competitor. He thinks the extra syllable makes for a catchier phrase.
Richardson is the furniture buyer and sets the floor. About 90% of furniture sales are special order. Products in the showroom are there to spark interest and ideas.
“Richmond is a very beige town,” Richardson says. “People want very neutral stuff, until they come in here and see stuff that’s color. All of a sudden, the neutral game plan goes right out the window.”
Wood, the Telescope sales rep, says the team at Bon Air understands the market and knows how to expand on it.
“They bring in some color and different looks that you wouldn’t see at other stores,” he says. “It may not be exactly what people will buy, but it gets their attention.”
Richardson is betting that Ratana’s lineup will rev up customer interest this season. “People come in looking for traditional, until they see something that’s not, and they don’t know they want it until they see it,” he explains. “We’re excited.”
Richardson also added Barlow Tyrie to the lineup for 2018. Bon Air has had only a limited teak selection (NorthCape) in the past.
Grills occupy the front of the shop (previously a hardware store) and are visible to motorists through tall showroom windows. Between the storefront and the street is a large patio, complete with a built-in Fire Magic grill and countertop. During Outdoor Room season, the patio will be outfitted with casual furniture and perhaps a Frankford cantilever umbrella. Two fire pits with LED lighting complete the look.
The Fire Magic grill purposefully remains uncovered, Mikki says. “It’s been out there for 11 years, and it still looks like it did the day it was put out there. That,” she tells customers, “is what you are paying for.”
That subtle message about quality and durability undergirds the philosophy at Bon Air Hearth, Porch and Patio.
“We’re extremely knowledgeable about everything we sell, because we don’t want buyer’s remorse for anybody. I don’t want to sell anything a Big Box store sells. I don’t want to sell anything that has a one- or two-year warranty,” Richardson says. “We don’t have time to deal with warranty stuff.”
With a small staff, time sometimes determines what can and cannot happen.
|A display with Big Green Eggs stands out in the grill department.|
A few years ago, Bon Air staged regular patio cooking demos using its two brands of ceramic grills, Big Green Egg and Primo. The store hired a top-flight chef and people turned out. Unfortunately, the demos “just got to be too much.”
Most of those attending the free classes had already purchased grills. The chef (“a phenomenal chef”) wasn’t trained on ceramic grills and didn’t execute grilling by the book. The demos, Richardson says, “became more of a social thing than a marketing thing.”
So the cooking demos were mothballed, but they may one day return, bigger and better.
The team at Bon Air has developed plans to add a second story. Engineers have confirmed that the structure, which has a precast concrete roof, can accommodate another level.
Joey Hopcroft and Richardson envision a glass-enclosed second level to feature casual furniture and grills. Some of the glass partition walls would be designed to fold back and open the space to the elements, perfect for showcasing products and special events.
Theoretically and structurally, “We could do it,” Richardson says. But making that commitment likely would mean expanding the staff and growing the annual volume to cover the additional overhead.
Will Bon Air Hearth, Porch and Patio take its business to new heights? Time will tell if they can make it happen.
Store Name: Bon Air Hearth, Porch and Patio
Address: 8801 Forest Hill Avenue,
Owners: Mikki and Joey Hopcroft
Year Established: 2002
Web Site: bonairhearthporchandpatio.com
Phone: (804) 320-3600
Number of Stores: 1
Number of Employees:
Gross Annual Sales: $1.5 million
Sq. Ft. of Building Space: