Greg Bongiorno’s pockets were empty when he drove into the ancient city of Mesa, Arizona, a few decades ago. “So he just started working and never left,” said his son, Mike. “One of his jobs couldn’t pay him, so they gave him some furniture instead. Greg sold it, and that’s how he got into the furniture business. From 1979 until 2002, Greg owned and ran a few different furniture stores throughout the valley.” Greg is now owner of the Potato Barn conglomerate, three eclectic retail stores, at Gilbert, 28,000 square feet; Mesa, 24,000 square feet; Scottsdale, 22,000 square feet and, also at Gilbert, the warehouse/outlet store, 54,000 square feet. And the family just broke ground in Scottsdale for a new location, soon to be built, 42,000 square feet.
Their spirit blossomed when the Bongiornos left Europe. The joy of adventure, of family, of loving interaction. Or maybe the vision had already begun to percolate, “What’s beyond that turn in the road, that mountain, that ocean?
“The family history in America starts with my great grandparents who came over on the boat from Sicily,” Mike said. “They settled in New York, beginning in the city and slowly moving east to Long Island. Back east is so different from Arizona, the buildings are aged and have history. Greg was born in an area that had a vintage industrial feel. I go back and visit every year, and it really inspires creativity. The city has the old factories and warehouses, and Upstate has the old barns. I think Greg missed that feeling when he came to Arizona and so he tried to recreate it. The house I grew up in and now live in looks like it was plucked up from that area and dropped in our neighborhood in Mesa.
“Grandpa was always in the construction business, and he definitely took a lot of pride in how he designed a project. He was very creative in how he laid out a building floor plan. He enjoyed what he did and it showed in the final product. My Dad used to help out with the construction jobs, but I think he was determined not to get stuck in the family business. (When I was a kid, I said I’d never work in furniture either!)
“Dad really got into music as a kid; growing up in the sixties it was hard not to. That was when he started developing his artistic side. My grandpa told me that Dad always had a different style. He jokes that the only time he saw him wear a tie was when he used one as a belt!
“Greg kind of wandered around after high school, playing music and traveling the country. The kind of guy that will get in a car and just see where he ends up. And that’s how he ended up in Arizona.”
Several decades later, Greg’s philosophy has the Bongiorno family living an engagingly contagious leveraged lifestyle, time for work, time for relaxation, time for fun. They revel in their vibe, open-handedly offering it to their totally accepting customers. Up front, Potato Barn opens for business four days a week. That’s right, Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Customers know the wait is worth it and adapt their buying schedules to the concepts of their eccentric home furnishings friends. And the Potato Barn never advertises. Never?! Well, almost never.
Mike continues. “It was actually in 2002 that Potato Barn was born. Officially. It was in May of 1979 with a loan of $1000 and a pickup truck that we started up in our house at Mesa. That loan had to be paid back in 30 days with interest of a new sofa. We went out and purchased five sofas, and were able to pay back the loan.
“Eventually, when we were run out of the neighborhood, we took a 600 square foot location shared with an auto body shop in town. Moving from location to location gave us our gypsy beginnings.
“In 2002, Dad found an old abandoned building alongside some railroad tracks near the small town of Gilbert, a very unpopulated agricultural area in the south east valley, a little less than 25 miles from Phoenix. In that barn for many years potatoes had been packed, shipped and loaded onto the trains pulled up right next to the building. An old potato barn, so that’s what he called the store. He thought it would be great for a new concept in the furniture business. His idea was ‘to bring in some cool, unique pieces that are affordable’.
“We tried to create a different environment than a typical retail store. We were in an old dusty barn in the middle of a field. It was hot in the summer, cold in the winter and it leaked every time it rained. With some paint, a little demo and repairs to a very leaky roof, we stocked it with whatever we could find. And the furniture was ‘cool and unique’! Who knew this spot would soon be the fastest growing area in the country?!
“Greg’s inspiration really came from his memories of Upstate New York antique shops and cross country road trips seeing all kinds of vintage chairs, lamps, tables and European antiques in old, restored villages. His idea was to bring this cool vibe of home furnishings from all over the globe to people here in Arizona. The Potato Barn mission is to create a feeling with artistic and unusual pieces that can’t be seen everywhere.
“We’ve always had a laid back approach when it comes to sales, we don’t have any high pressure sales people following you around. We like to let the customers wander the store freely and get inspired by the one-off pieces we carry from all over the world. Our customers are their own salespersons. However, we are more than happy to answer questions and provide assistance when needed.
“Our selection is always changing with a lot of vintage or one-of-a-kind pieces coming in every week. We offer high style and quality for a reasonable price, like a boutique on steroids.
“Our hours and policies are also unique. Being open four days a week allows us to really enjoy personal and family time. It also keeps our prices down by reducing our overhead. It condenses our business and creates a sense of urgency for the customer. Almost like an event, a series of events. This is what we have this week, come back next week to see what’s new. Everything about our ‘bare bones’ operation is done to keep prices down for our customers. No commission sales people, no advertising, nothing extra that we would have to build into the retail price.
“Also, we truly are a family business. Most of our employees are related to us or are friends of the family. It has made it a great place to work. And to shop at!
“In 2010, my wife, Lindsey, started working for us. She is now one of the buyers and does some of the bookkeeping and accounting. Lindsey built our first website at home and then helped us get started with social media. Once we began to expand, we had a professional website built.”
Lindsey added, “I actually have no history in furniture or design. I worked at a jewelry store starting in my junior year in high school, and eventually worked my way up to management and buying. After almost 10 years in jewelry retail I’d had enough of the crazy hours and decided to join Mike at the Potato Barn about a year after we were married. As we grew, it just became a natural transition for me to take over part of the buying. And I can help add a ‘female touch’ with the accessories and décor I bring in now. And I can’t complain about working only four days a week!”
“None of us have had any real formal training in design,” Mike reflected. “It’s been a learned skill, developed over time. In the beginning Dad sold $99 dinettes, just like everyone else. In the ‘80s he manufactured sofas. He was always trying to design something different, even back then. It was in the ‘90s that we started having estate sales; there were a lot of vintage antiques to sell. During that time, we met a guy who was importing German antiques. We used to bring the containers in, park them in front of our house and sell them in our yard. That was the first taste of vintage for us and it opened our eyes to a totally different style. Since then we have tried to sell what gets us excited, stuff we want to buy for our own homes.
“After nine years, in 2011, we left the barn for a store with modern amenities. Like air conditioning and a parking lot. In 2012, we opened our second store in Scottsdale. We moved the Scottsdale location twice before we settled at our current location. Our third store is at Mesa; we opened it in 2014 and expanded it a year later. Our outlet/warehouse in Gilbert opened last year and we just expanded it last month.
“And, finally, last week (March, 2016) we finalized our new construction plans for a permanent location in Scottsdale. We are so excited to build a store from the ground up and have a building of our own to show for all the years of hard work we’ve put into this business.”
Family tradition will be in evidence at the Grand Opening. “We do come from a musical family. My grandpa was a prodigy on the mandolin, at least that’s what he told us. My dad has played in bands his whole life. I had a few bands I’ve played in and actually went to school to learn studio recording. As we speak, my little brother is trying to make it as a musician. His band will probably play at our Grand Opening in Scottsdale. When we left the original barn, we threw a big party, music provided by all of our own bands. So maybe we just use that side of the brain for music and it carries over to the furniture. Most musicians are a little quirky and think outside the box. And we run our business the same way!”
One doesn’t have to dig for humor with the Bongiornos, it’s always there, bubbling to the surface. Said Mike, “One of our early purchases was a five piece dinette that we bought from a Phoenix supplier, put it in the back of our pickup truck and headed back to the house to display our wares. But when we were crossing over the Tempe bridge, we noticed from the rear-view mirror that boxes were flying out and being struck by the cars behind us! Having no choice but to stop and retrieve our battered investment, we picked up the stuffing and bent metal and put it back in the truck. Our first sale was as-is and at a loss. Not all that much has changed!”
Potato Barn’s website doesn’t conflict with corporate vibes, it reinforces and supports them. A gentle approach defining the Barn’s vision, titillating the potential customers’ imagination, inviting them to “share” involvement. An invitation to come calling. “We specialize in a wide array of styles from urban industrial and rustic to shabby chic and vintage. Many items in our collection feature heavily distressed finishes and reclaimed wood. Take a look at our Gallery before you visit to see our style, and then come to our Scottsdale or Gilbert locations to enjoy a hassle-free shopping experience.”
The website’s Gallery features a huge range of enticing visuals labeled “Rare Rooms”, “Fabulous Finds”, “Our Shopping Experience” and “Design Details”, replete with provocative teasers like, “Choose a theme that spills from one room to the next, or create a unique environment through each doorway”. Or, “Sometimes you need just that one item to tie the whole room together. With our unique variety of knick-knacks and centerpieces, one is certain to call out to you by name. Placed in the right room, it will be the talk of your next party, with everyone asking, ‘Where DID you find that?!” And, “Who doesn’t love the thrill of the hunt?” Cognitive sophistication. Who can possibly resist?
Move forward and you’ll find Potato Barn’s policy statements. “No Returns, Exchanges, or Refunds. All Sales Are Final.” Customers are encouraged to bring their tape-measures with them, ”to bring in samples and pictures from items already in your home before you make your purchase to ensure your new piece has a happy home”. Thereby eliminating customer service!
Delivery is referenced, and Mike added, “In the past, when we just had one location, we handled our own deliveries. As we grew, it became more cost effective to use an outside company. Now all our locations use outside delivery companies. Since acquiring a distribution center in 2015, our Potato Barn delivery truck is now used to transport goods to all our locations.”
And “no advertising”? Never? Ever? “We have done very limited advertising in the past, just a handful of newspaper ads and one TV commercial in 2005. Since then, we have relied primarily on word of mouth. We’ve had a Facebook Page for a couple of years, and are just starting Instagram which we think will be a great tool for our business. It’s been hard getting Greg (who does not own a computer, has never used the Internet and still owns a flip phone) on board with e-mail advertising, social media and even a website until recently. We’ll get there eventually!”
Outreach to the surrounding communities also extends Potato Barn’s visibility. “We’ve donated furniture gift certificates to many of our local charities, auctions and schools. And we’ve sponsored some youth sports teams.”
The Bongiornos make their presence known at Furniture Markets. “There are four main Markets we attend each year,” Lindsey told us, “two in High Point and two in Las Vegas. Greg and Mike focus on the larger case goods, containers and upholstery, and I handle all the smaller stuff, accessories, art, rugs, mirrors, lamps. We run around like maniacs at the Markets, just trying to get as much buying in as possible and hope at the end we’ve made good decisions! Greg and Mike like to be the buying risk takers. I have a more conservative buying style. It keeps things interesting but, in the end, balanced!”
The immediate future of the new Scottsdale store is a great topic of discussion these days. “We do have plans to highlight our original barn beginnings with large art pictures that will hang in the store showing where we began. The interior will have exposed aged brick walls and old barn wood. We’re considering a small coffee shop within the store... but we’re not sure yet!”
And down the way? The founder’s perspective involves, “Trying to really establish Potato Barn as a brand”. Greg’s goal “has always been to try and deliver the most affordable lifestyle trends out there in the furniture industry. Now as we’ve grown and developed our own style, we are trying to bring our own designs to the stores. By working directly with the factories we are creating a look that makes us different from other stores. The brand and the concept is always changing, depending on what the industry is doing and what our spin on the trend is. And we know that this concept could do well in other areas. We have always talked about setting up ‘free reign franchise’ stores across the country. Loose guidelines where the owner can still put their own flair on it. It’s all part of branding the Potato Barn and the lifestyle.”
Mike and Lindsey’s shared point of view, “The future for us is really about the roots. First, we would like to grow some roots and establish some permanent locations. The Potato Barn has ‘changed venues’ a few times over the years. Different locations in different cities, but it was part of the process. We want to be able to call something home and really dial in to what we do. We have accomplished that in Scottsdale.
“The future is also keeping to our roots. Unique, cool and affordable. The past few years have been very experimental for us. We have really tried to come up with our own style by creating what we want to see in the stores. The new products and ideas that we have for the stores are very exciting. But the concept is the same, keep bringing in cool stuff and people will get excited. The home is an extension of our lives, let’s make it cool. Like our own personal gallery or museum.
“It’s hard to know exactly what the long term future of the Potato Barn is, we’re not exactly sure what we’re doing next month! It’s all about the feel. That’s the thing, there is no perfect formula. But we’re into this stuff, we enjoy it. We want to grow this brand so that we can keep doing what we do, it’s what we know. We were crazy enough to open a store in the middle of nowhere in a broken down barn. We’re crazy enough to keep going. I don’t think we are trying to take over the world, just carve out our little niche and go with it!
“Mesa will be our home for the unforeseeable future and maybe one day we’ll pass down our original house to the next generation.”
It’s all a matter of leveraging.
Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Greg, Mike and Lindsey Bongiorno, writers in residence at the Potato Barn, for their invaluable, insightful and entertaining input!! -JHJ
Janet Holt-Johnstone is retail editor at Furniture World Magazine.