Company that turns plastic into patio furniture successfully expands into Denver area during pandemic

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Considering that Jay Dillon is expanding his outdoor furniture business in the middle of a global pandemic, things are going well.

Dillon’s company, Yardbird, which uses repurposed plastic debris from the ocean to make the furniture, had been planning to expand from its base in Minneapolis to Denver, Kansas City and Detroit. The novel coronavirus then broke out in China and other Asian countries where the company gets about 55% of its products.

As the disease spread around the world, Yardbird went from scrambling to get its goods from overseas to the prospect of having the products but little demand for them after U.S. businesses started closing.

“It’s nothing that we obviously chose to do,” Dillon said of growing the company during a pandemic.

“It felt like a roller coaster ride, at one point pushing to get the product and then saying ‘No, don’t get product, hold up on product,’ ” he added. “Ultimately it was this up, down and then up again. It’s been chaotic. It’s been chaotic for everybody.”

It’s also been surprisingly rewarding for Yardbird as economic activity has started to pick up. The company opened its first Colorado location last week in Lone Tree when retail stores were allowed to reopen while following guidelines to keep COVID-19 from spreading. Dillon said the Lone Tree showroom did about $250,000 in business. The company’s sales, primarily online, totaled roughly $2 million over the past two weeks.

“We were aiming to do about half of that (in sale) in a normal environment,” said Dillon.

He figures the timing has been serendipitous for Yardbird. Restrictions on business are easing at about the same time the weather’s getting warmer and the backyard beckons as a safe place to venture.

“As the weather becomes nice and people can’t go out to events, if they haven’t been impacted that much financially, we’re seeing that they’re investing in their outdoor space to entertain close friends or their families, just to be outdoors,” Dillon said. “In that regard, we feel very grateful, very fortunate. We’re just glad we don’t sell men’s dress pants since people aren’t going into work.”

Dillon and his father, Bob, launched Yardbird in 2017. The elder Dillon has experience in importing and retail. The son worked in marketing and for a medical devices company.

It was Dillon’s personal experience of shopping for outdoor furniture that led to starting Yardbird. He saw an opening for a product that wasn’t as expensive as that sold by high-end retailers but of higher quality than some of the lower-priced furniture.

Dillon, who lived for a while in Hong Kong, visited factories in Asia and learned more about how other companies use plastic that winds up in the ocean. He said large nets are used to collect plastic and other garbage on the beaches in Hong Kong, “but you’re still swimming in a ton of debris.”

“About 60% of everything we sell has intercepted ocean plastic in it. An average set will have at least 20 to 30 pounds of that plastic in it,” Dillon said.

Yardbird works with businesses in China and other countries to produce strong plastic whose colors won’t easily fade. The company gets about 10% of its products from Europe and 30-35% from the U.S., including a supplier in Durango.

The supply-chain challenges caused by the coronavirus outbreak has Yardbird exploring more domestic sources of material, including aluminum. The company is going to manufacture a new line of Adirondack chairs.

However, Dillon thinks some products from other countries would be hard to replace, such as hand-woven wicker furniture.

Yardbird opened a showroom in Kansas City Monday, but has pushed back an opening in Detroit, which has been a hot spot for the coronavirus.

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