By BARBARA KATE REPA
Five years ago, when many saw the neighborhood becoming inhospitable to mom-and-pop businesses as ever more corporate chains moved in, Tricia and Ron Benitez turned a deaf ear to the naysayers and opened their one-of-a-kind clothing boutique at 1850 Fillmore Street.
They stocked it with pieces for men and women by indie designers for the customer they described as a “sophisticated prepster” and named it Asmbly Hall, a moniker they said “describes a gathering place for the community that brings fashion, art and music together.”
Five years later, it’s all come true — even the mom and pop part, since the couple welcomed daughter Harlow 21 months ago. Mayor Ed Lee recently chose Asmbly Hall to kick off the “Shop and Dine in the 49” campaign, a holiday initiative to encourage spending in to the city’s neighborhoods. And Ron this year became president of the Fillmore Merchants Association.
“I’ll be the first to admit, we didn’t coast — there were obstacles and challenges along the way,” he says. Among them: adjusting the business to the changing demographics of the neighborhood. “It’s transient here now. Customers we thought would be long term have come and gone,” he says. The couple also had to tweak the original notion of offering only locally made goods — although more than half of Asmbly Hall’s offerings are still manufactured in San Francisco.
They continue to buck the newer conventions, not only with the shop’s vintage decor, but also by maintaining lower prices than many of the Fillmore boutiques.
“As the street has become more commercial — and despite the ‘rising everything’ in San Francisco — people are pleasantly surprised that we keep accessible price points,” says Tricia. “It also works to our advantage that we’re a small local business. People who come in often ask: ‘Are there more stores like yours?’ The unfortunate part is that there aren’t many left — but it helps us stand out.”
You won’t find strollers and juice boxes strewn about most of the street’s sleek new boutiques. But they’re part and parcel of Asmbly Hall, where Harlow — not yet two years old, but already a budding fashionista — spends most of her waking hours under her parents’ watchful eyes.
Their joint training in the corporate retail world — with stints at the Gap, Levi’s and Gymboree — helped them hone their chops at product offerings and development. Ron recalls they were among the first to stock sporty and casual athleisurewear. “Once it got accessible, though, it lost its novelty,” he says. “That made us rethink what we carry to stay one step ahead.”
They’re also stepping out with a new line: private label tees, shirts and outerwear offering “the Asmbly Hall flair and twist.” They’re starting first with items for men, who quickly proved to be more loyal and easier to define. “We’ve also discovered our clothing is timeless. Our typical male customer has been in the work force for some time and cares about quality, good fit and design,” says Ron. He adds that male shoppers often do something women rarely do: buy clothes without trying them on.
The couple also has plans to add another natural: children’s clothing.
“We really didn’t expect that. It came from a lot of friends and customers egging us on,” says Tricia. “And now that we have Harlow, we have lots of friends who are also new parents. Products for toddlers will give local customers another option with clothes that are reflective of us.”
An online business added three years ago now accounts for about 20 percent of their business. But asmblyhall.com acts mostly as a catalogue for the shop, with some customers perusing it before they come in so they can shop more efficiently.
“What continues to be important and keeps people coming in — and keeps us authentic — is that we invest in the customers. We know their kids, and whether or not they’re locals or tourists,” says Ron.
“That’s what I love and what I’ve been most surprised about — the number of relationships we have been able to make as customers turn into friends,” adds Tricia. “They genuinely want to support us and keep the business going. We’re not just a business — we’re a neighborhood shop.”