Doing It Their Way
By Tom Lassiter
PhotoS: ©2018 RICK BOLEN PHOTOGRAPHY. WWW.BOLENPHOTO.COM.
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
But more, much more than this
I did it my way
— Lyrics by Paul Anka,
vocals by Frank Sinatra
Some of the most interesting things at Villa Terrazza Patio & Home are not for sale, but they play a crucial role in the retailer’s success.
Take, for instance, the towering giraffe sculptures, each carved from a single tree trunk by artisans in Zimbabwe. Theresa Deere, who owns Villa Terrazza with her husband, Michael Robertori, years ago made them a staple of her previous import business. Now she holds on to the remaining pair.
As lead designer at Villa Terrazza, she uses the wooden giraffes to help create an ambiance unlike any other in Sonoma, the wine country town where ambiance is as necessary as a corkscrew.
And the three-dimensional wire man, wearing a Panama hat? He’s not for sale, either. Though he never says a word, he prompts lots of conversations.
The couple’s dogs also are good icebreakers. Guinness, a chocolate Lab, is director of Customer Relations. His sidekick, Rugby, is a cockapoo who retains the title of Chief Comfort Tester.
“We’re trying to start a conversation the best way we can,” says Robertori.
Deere adds, “We’re just different. We have our vibe.”
Fur babies and non-transactional art objects help make the store warm and inviting, the couple explains. They make it easy to engage guests, and conversations begin naturally.
Michael Robertori and Theresa Deere, owners of Villa Terrazza, with Guinness, a chocolate Lab, who is director of Customer Relations. His sidekick, Rugby, is a cockapoo who retains the title of Chief Comfort Tester. Note wood giraffe in background.
The pressure to buy is off, as is the pressure to sell.
One phrase you’ll never hear at Villa Terrazza, Robertori says, is “Can I help you?”
The sculptures and the dogs are important parts of Robertori and Deere’s life together. All are part of the experience recipe at Villa Terrazza.
The store sits on Broadway, Sonoma’s main thoroughfare, which is also California Highway 12. Petaluma is to the west, Napa to the east, and Santa Rosa to the northwest. It would be difficult to spend much time in the Napa Valley and not pass by the reddish-brown building with its distinctive terra cotta tiles and front awning.
Villa Terrazza offers outdoor kitchens, hearth and fireplace products, plus recliners and home theater seating. However, “Patio furniture is our bread and butter,” Robertori says.
The shop has about 3,500 sq. ft. indoors, with another 1,500 sq. ft. of outdoor showroom. More than two-dozen casual manufacturers are represented, Deere says, which makes for a challenge as well as an opportunity. There’s not enough space to adequately represent the offerings of so many companies in matchy-matchy vignettes. So the couple opts for a more eclectic approach that’s more in keeping with Northern California’s wine country lifestyle.
“We frequently will mix manufacturers,” Deere notes. “For example, I have a couple of Gloster chairs sitting with a Point sofa. We try to mix it up.”
The Point brand may not be well known to many North American casual retailers. Spanish-based Point made an appearance in temporary space at Casual Market Chicago in 2015. Robertori and Deere liked the brand’s distinctive styling and “bought out the booth,” which provided floor samples for special orders that continue today.
Under a white table and chairs is an outdoor rug with colors that pop; in the foreground are three lamps from Fermob.
One of Point’s big drawing cards is its exclusivity. It’s not a line that customers are likely to see anywhere else. Point’s distinctive colors, materials, and Euro-contemporary styling give Villa Terrazza additional cachet. Plus, the brand’s uniqueness makes it highly unlikely that shoppers will be able to leverage another vendor’s pricing in hopes of a better deal.
Point, Deere explains, “is just something different. When you just carry the Tropitones, the OW Lees and the Brown Jordans, every store looks the same. So you have to have something that sets you apart.”
Robertori completes the thought. “Our challenge is to differentiate ourselves. Every (casual merchant) shops at the same market, so that’s always somewhat of a challenge. But we really have to look different.”
Robertori would be on Cloud Nine if he could fill Villa Terrazza with beautiful, high-end, and untraceable furniture. No labels, no brands – other than Villa Terrazza, of course. He’d be thrilled if his friendly competitors in the region could do the same.
As it is, Robertori says Villa Terrazza and “our fellow stores in the market area” strive not to carry the same lines. If the brands are duplicated, owners try to showroom different groups. The goal is as much exclusivity as possible “so, from the consumer standpoint, they are not going to see the same thing.”
For Robertori and Deere, success means getting along with competitors as well as building a loyal customer base. Everything, they say, is relationship based.
Wicker seating goes well with a teak table; in the background is the obligatory display of throw pillows.
A Matched Pair
Robertori, an East Coast native, spent 18 years in corporate information technology before “a midlife crisis” sent him searching for another way to make a living. It was some two decades ago, a time when teak furniture poured into the United States from the Far East. Robertori ended up in Alameda, California, selling teak furniture.
Deere, a native of England, was also in California, selling African imports, including the carved giraffes from Zimbabwe. They crossed paths and struck up a relationship.
“We matched very well on many different levels, including a business level,” Robertori said. “So we decided to try and do something together, and we started looking around for a storefront.”
In 2005, they discovered an empty store for rent in Sonoma; shortly thereafter, the course was set for their business future.
“I have that entrepreneurial spirit,” Deere says, “and we had both worked for ourselves for a long time. So when we came together, it was a natural mesh.”
Five employees assist the couple with Villa Terrazza. Three work in sales, and two work in logistics, providing “white glove” product delivery and set up.
The extra emphasis on customer service and adding value to the Villa Terrazza experience is critical, Robertori says. It’s another way to differentiate the store from e-commerce resellers and from stores that focus mainly on price.
Shoppers mainly concerned with price, Robertori says, “may not be our customer.”
Statistics indicate that Sonoma County, with a population approaching 500,000, has plenty of households that are likely consumers of better-quality, high-end casual furniture and other Outdoor Room products.
An Outdoor Room display in the outdoors, with a fireplace, fire pits, and protection from the elements.
Median household income is projected to be more than $73,000 by 2020, according to an economic profile published by the county in 2016.
The average price for a home in 2014 was more than $570,000.
Many of those residences, the couple says, are second homes owned by people living and working in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, a two-hour drive or less to the south.
“It’s absolutely a well-heeled clientele,” Robertori says, “and we are fortunate.”
Little escapes the couples’ notice when newcomers step into Villa Terrazza. Dog people may gravitate to Guinness and Rugby, while the unique sculptural objects may captivate others. Robertori and Deere use the casual conversation time to study the colors worn by the shoppers and listen – really listen – to what they have to say.
Clothing colors reveal much about a person’s general preferences, including upholstery fabrics and frame colors. “People tend to wear colors that they like,” Deere says. A person wearing blues and grays probably will be steered to furniture in those colors, she says, and away from products predominately brown.
Deere will suggest that shoppers try sitting in lots of different products. The style doesn’t matter so much as the person’s reaction to the comfort provided. That gives Deere clues on which type of product may ultimately win the sale.
“They will gravitate to what they think is most comfortable,” she explains.
Shoppers that have photos of their deck or patio or backyard make Deere’s job even easier. Photos indicate existing colors and how much space there is to work with. “A picture speaks volumes,” she says.
“We do a lot of discovery when we’re trying to figure out what their tastes are,” Robertori says, “because we have so many manufacturers represented.” Choices get easier when the number of collections gets narrowed to two or three.
The couple has found that their market, with so many rental properties for vacationers and second homes, is ripe for extra-low maintenance products.
“People do not want to deal with cushions,” Robertori says. Though the region is generally arid, cushions still get dusty and dirty. If there are trees nearby, like those around the shop’s outdoor showroom, cushions suffer from tree debris and bird droppings.
One solution to cushion upkeep that is getting traction in wine country is casual furniture with permanent, internal cushions. The built-in cushions, usually of reticulated foam, are situated under the seating product’s resin wicker wrapping and invisible. Yet the comfort provided to the posterior is much greater than a seating box of resin wicker stretched like the head on a snare drum.
Rugby relaxes in style near a warming fire, among an intriguing collection of objets d’art including a small statue of the Buddha.
Villa Terrazza carries an internal cushion furniture collection made by Patio Renaissance. That product has done well, Robertori says, adding, “We think that it’s going to become bigger.”
“It’s cushioning you can leave outside year-round,” Deere says.
Shoppers (generally male) who are interested in the technical aspects of a cantilever umbrella or a hearth product get Robertori’s juices flowing.
“The technical sale is the sale I like best,” says the former information technology expert. “An engineer is my favorite kind of guy.”
The couple position themselves as a resource for customers. They are problem solvers. From helping a shopper find an occasional table to designing a six-figure outdoor kitchen, Robertori and Deere relish the role.
“Outdoor living is a significant part of living, and we have a lot of experience with that,” Robertori says. “We share that information with people, and they’re very appreciative.”
Villa Terrazza entered the hearth business following the Great Recession in an effort to replace lost furniture business and become less dependent on a single seasonal category.
California’s strict air quality standards prohibit wood-burning fireplace products in new construction. Villa Terrazza emphasizes gas products, and Robertori says he tries to steer remodeling projects to gas whenever possible, even when a wood-burning hearth is grandfathered in.
“I think the days of burning wood in Northern California are numbered,” he says.
Hearth products are displayed around the store’s perimeter, where they take up minimal space next to exterior walls. Outdoor kitchen products also are stationed near exterior walls. The majority of the showroom is dedicated to casual furniture, arranged in five vignettes.
“Whatever your tastes are,” says Deere, “we’re going to have something to suit your palette.”
Shoppers entering the front door usually are greeted by a display that leans toward contemporary styling. Deere says that the clean lines emphasize that the store offers something different. Even if the shopper is looking for traditional patio furniture, the fresh look conveys that Villa Terrazza is not a typical casual merchant who plays it safe.
Yet there are plenty of traditional and transitional choices. That becomes apparent as shoppers explore the other vignettes and sit-test numerous chairs, loveseats, and sofas.
“Whatever your tastes are,” Deere says, “we’re going to have something to suit your palette.”
Shoppers won’t find much in the way of accessories – no dinnerware, no placemats. There’s just a few small pottery items, and other unusual items that can’t be found elsewhere in town.
That’s a shift from the early days.
“When we first opened, we had every table, every horizontal surface covered with accessories,” Robertori recalls. “It took away from the furniture. All that is gone.”
The shop didn’t do much with decorative pillows when it first opened, and that product category wasn’t a home run. The coupled learned that “just having a few around doesn’t do it. They did not take off until we went into them in a big way,” Robertori says.
Now decorative pillows are concentrated into wall displays that are visible from throughout the store. The bright colors and patterns featured in pillows by Elaine Smith and other vendors now excite shoppers and drive sales.
“We use color to beckon people,” Robertori says.
The same strategy is employed outside, where brightly colored furniture by Fermob, Loll, and other manufacturers usually is stationed to catch the eyes of motorists.
“I don’t know if you’re a fisherman,” Robertori says, “but we’re chumming for people to come in.”
The local economy influences the way the shop positions itself in the marketplace.
Villa Terrazza’s website dedicates a page to “Winery Furniture.” The nation’s most famous wine-producing region brings a constant stream of tourists and wine lovers who need places to sit and relax after a strenuous round of tasting and shopping.
Villa Terrazza even offers a “mobile bar cart,” which facilitates keeping wine chilled while storing more than 40 bottles of wine and racks containing 100 pieces of stemware. The cart is a heavily customized product made by Brown Jordan.
The couple once entertained the idea of opening a second store. While there were potential economic benefits, there were also definite drawbacks.
Robertori and Deere enjoy working together. They don’t mind their nearly round-the-clock responsibilities, even though “it’s crazy sometimes.” They reward themselves with a couple of major vacation trips each year.
A second store would have caused the couple to separate during work hours to manage the two locations, an option they couldn’t abide. And, “by diluting ourselves,” Robertori says, “we couldn’t give people the kind of service that we want to give them.”
So they tabled the idea of a second location. It’s enough to be a single destination store, in a neighborly town, in one of the nation’s most beautiful regions and most accommodating outdoor living climates.
Because, as Robertori says and as all casual furniture retailers know, “Lifestyle counts.”
Store Name: Villa Terrazza Patio & Home
Address: 869 Broadway, Sonoma, California
Owners: Michael Robertori and Theresa Deere
Key Executives: Tony Navarra and Jerilynn Coward
Year Established: 2005
Web Site: www.villa-terrazza.com
Phone: (707) 933-8286
Number of Stores: 1
Number of Employees: 6
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Barbecue: Alfresco, Brown Jordan Outdoor Kitchens