Stellar yet simplistic design, quality and environmental concern were always guiding principles in Ryan Lafrenz’s vision. Prior to launching Utility Goods—an award-winning lifestyle brand based in San Francisco, Lafrenz worked as an environmental consultant.
“My professional experience in the environmental field has always guided my socially-conscious business and manufacturing practices,” said Ryan Lafrenz—owner and founder of Utility Goods.
Prior to launching his first shop in San Anselmo, California in November 2016, Lafrenz founded AXL Brand— an award-winning organic apparel collection for infants and toddlers; goods are made locally in San Francisco.
“When my wife, Jessica and I were new parents looking for simple, clean, modern basics, we came up empty-handed, so AXL Brand was born,” Lafrenz said.
Moving Into Retail …
Lafrenz described himself as a “guy’s guy” who enjoys spending his leisure time fishing, camping, and zipping around on his motorbike. That lifestyle partially inspired the launch of the San Anselmo store.
“AXL Brand was a perfect creative endeavor while I looked to start something of my own with two babies at home. As they grew older I realized that creating in a very baby- and mom-centric world might not be best for me. At that time, I noticed there was a lot of retail space available in San Anselmo and thought this could be a great opportunity to start a men’s gifts and apparel boutique,” said Lafrenz. That’s how Utility Goods first came to fruition.
The entrepreneur explained that most items in the collection serve a purpose. That’s where the “utility” part comes in. Think wood pliers, wool blankets and picnic knives. These wares must also be well crafted of quality materials such as leather, wood, and a variety of metals.
With a desire to support smaller “maker” businesses, which ideally hail from within the United States, Utility Goods’ product mix offers niche, boutique style items.
The collection includes everything from custom candles and soaps from Manready Mercantile in Houston to small batch caps from The Ampal Creative in Southern California and heritage wool blankets by Faribault Woolen Mill in Faribault, Minnesota. It also offers leather and wax canvas goods by Bradley Mountain in San Diego, barware and kitchen accessories by W&P in Brooklyn, and beyond.
Apparently Utility Goods’ clientele aren’t the only design aficionados impressed with Lafrenz’s aesthetic vision and talent for curating. In 2017, San Francisco awarded Utility Goods one of its “Best of San Francisco” awards. That year, the company also nabbed the “Best of the County” title from Marin.
Many of its products are unisex and generally appeal to socially-conscious, style savvy consumers ages 20s through 40s. Although women were Utility Goods’ most frequented customers (in-store), beyond shopping for the men in their lives, its female demographic also visited Utility Goods to snap up novelty items for themselves.
Beyond launching the San Anselmo shop (which closed its doors in May 2018), Lafrenz had a location at San Francisco’s One Market Plaza. His wife Jessica initially spotted the opportunity while she was in the area, which is located near her workplace. In 2017, One Market became the site of Utility Goods’ second location.
In Spring 2020, Lafrenz was in negotiations to re-sign the lease—a plan that was scrapped when large tenancy changes altered the flow of people into the building. The lobby wasn’t drawing the foot traffic it was attracting before these changes.
After absorbing that hit, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation. “We temporarily closed One Market Plaza a few days before San Francisco shut down the city on March 15, 2020,” said Lafrenz. In July, 2020, this location permanently closed.
Beyond the San Anselmo and One Market Plaza locations, Utility Goods also debuted a mall location at Westfield San Francisco Centre. Despite the mall setting, which opened in 2018, Utility Goods remained true to its vision of offering novelty items of high quality.
“People loved our mall shop. Customers told us they didn’t expect to find the types of merchandise we offered in a mall,” said Lafrenz. Although the shop performed well its first holiday season, the mall’s customer base began to shift and the business suddenly took a downturn. The lease ended in January 2020 and Lafrenz suffered a huge financial loss.
At one point Utility Goods employed 15 individuals at its locations, but due to several changes and a pandemic, only the online business remains (at press time). However, many lessons were learned along the way.
“There’s always a silver lining. Online sales are going well and shopping via the web is up across-the-board. Some of our makers are crushing it,” revealed Lafrenz.
He explained the difficulty of attracting new customers at Utility Goods’ One Market Plaza location. Due to its location in a corporate building, it drew the same crowds every day. “It was difficult to get fresh eyes in the shop since most people there were employees of the building,” said Lafrenz.
Since the shuttering of his brick-and-mortar shops, Lafrenz has seen his customer base shift. Men currently represent the lion’s share of online sales. They’re purchasing items that relate to the outdoors lifestyle.
“Men don’t have to go to the office so they’re buying hats, which are easy to buy online,” said Lafrenz. Since people are home, candles are performing along with bar-related items. Other star sellers include Hella Slingshots; Blackwing pencils; Word notebooks; chocolate from Compartes; canvas and wax products from Bradley Mountain; and leather goods from Ezra Arthur and Leather Works Minnesota.
Sourcing the Collection …
Curating the wares tends to happen rather organically. Rather than snapping up goods at trade shows, Lafrenz uncovers new makers through word-of-mouth within the community. An active Instagram user, his wife also alerts him to novelty items she discovers while scrolling her feed.
When asked what else inspires his vision, Lafrenz reflected on his environmentally-conscious mindset. “If you’re buying an item that is built to last for 40 years, it has less of a chance of ending up in the landfill,” he said.
Niche items include double-edge safety razors from Rockwell; solid cologne from Fulton & Roark; and wooden airplanes by Tait Design Co. In a nod to the past, vintage items include San Francisco seals hats and 1970’s surf prints from Doug Walker—a filmmaker who uncovered a stash of surf photos at a California flea market.
From launching AXL Brand to opening the shops and online business, Lafrenz certainly learned by trial-and-error. Prior to opening new locations, he advises retailers to learn as much as they can about their customer base, speak with other retailers in the area, and do their due diligence.
“When you open a store, you have a vision, but sometimes you discover that the things you love won’t sell and the items that you don’t love will sell, so you must be flexible. You can still maintain your aesthetic and remain true to your vision, but ultimately you’re there for your customer,” concluded Lafrenz.