Photos courtesy of @WorldRedEye
F1RST Surf Shop in South Beach, Florida was opened in 2008 by friends Mark Gamez and Christian De La Iglesia. With the beach as their backyard, the boutique owners strive to provide their community with a real surf culture experience, something they say is seldom found in the bustling heat of Florida, a place not necessarily known for stellar surf spots, but definitely defined by many dedicated and successful athletes. Surfers to the core, Mark and Christian focus on satisfying every kind of customer that rolls through F1RST, whether they are longtime locals or traveling noobs. With a killer rental program and a representation of the core retail surf shop, F1RST stands out as a one-of-a-kind shop with the knowledge to back it.
TransWorld Biz caught up with owners Mark (MG) and Christian (CD) on their humble beginnings, the Florida community, and the bright future of F1RST.
Number of locations?
How long has your store been around?
Coming up on 5 years
Experience before opening your own shop?
MG: Besides lurking back in the late 80’s and skipping school and hanging around our local surf shop all day (IWS Coral Gables), I moved to Encinitas, California in 93’ w/ Felix Arguelles (Ammo USA) and Jose Gomez (Shilo). They connected me with Chris Miller, Mirko Mangum Tim Swart, Jeff Taylor and Sal Masekela. This was back in the early Planet Earth, Rhythm and Adio footwear days. Chris and Jose would let me work on graphics and computers after hours, they taught me the basics on graphic design and helped me out tremendously. Chris would kidnap me every morning after a surf session and take me to the Carlsbad offices after our surf sessions. I’d hang out and listen to Mirko handle sales, Jeff Taylor and Sal would handle team and marketing stuff until Felix showed up with the team van with all the team riders and then we’d go skating til the wee hours of the night. I’d do whatever odd jobs they’d throw my way, from picking up denim in Compton to filming. I was able to live the skate life and surf everyday. Couldn’t have asked for more.
I moved back to Miami around 2003 and by 2006 or 2007, I opened up a shop prior to F1RST, which was doomed from the very beginning. We had a very high rent and a side street location. We were broken into two weeks after we opened and were hit pretty hard financially. After that, every day was an uphill battle. Learning how to keep a business afloat on a minimal budget and no cash flow will teach you a lot more than any college degree ever will. That shop survived about 2 years and eventually folded.
Christian approached me shortly after, we had been friends for a few years and I knew he came from an extensive background managing shops for Quiksilver and Island Water Sports. He liked what I had started and wanted to continue to move forward and I linked up immediately after created F1RST. We put together the last remaining dollars we both had and made one final push to make the shop happen. Within the following year, we found a better location in the Continuum Building (located directly across from Nikki Beach and less than 50 footsteps from our main break at South Beach. The recession offered us an opportunity to negotiate a better location and better long-term deal in a prime location. We’ve been growing ever since.
CD: Growing up on the shores of Miami Beach I was a beach rat laying low amongst the older local guys of the North and South Beachs. Hung out at my local surf shop, Tradewinds, and instantly knew at 14 years old this is what I wanted to do. Always worked in a pair of board shorts for most of my life, did some corpo work for some hotels where I honed my customer service skills and after living in Hawaii just before the millennia, came home to the opening of Quiksilver South Beach, the third company owned store in the retail division. I bled red for those guys selling the cool aid and helped open multiple retail stores across the country. I had great mentors along the way from Dewey Doan to Greg Soloman on the executive side of things to shop operational mavericks like Kim Hemphill and Gary Kessler, who helped fine tune my outlook on what surf retail should be like. After 5 years with Quiksilver being a General Manager from outlet stores to flagships, I moved on to helping a buddy of mine with his surf shop, Island Water Sports Miami, where I was able to help him with what was happening on the larger scale and he guided me on what it took to be a surf shop owner. After three years, I decided to part ways and found an opportunity in the location Mark had and decided it was time, after ten years of no surf shop presence in South Beach, to make things happen….and so F1RST was born.
Do you have an online store?
Percentage of inventory dedicated to hardgoods?
Percentage of inventory dedicated to men’s apparel?
Percentage of inventory dedicated to junior’s apparel?
Percentage of inventory dedicated to accessories?
Percentage of inventory dedicated to footwear?
Percentage of inventory dedicated to sandals?
What are your top three most profitable product categories?
CD: Due to our close proximity to the ocean, rentals are our most profitable category, Tees, boardshorts and footwear/sandals.
What has been the single best-selling brand over the past six months?
Vans and Billabong are tied.
Who are the top three reps that service your store and what makes them special?
MG & CD: By far its Dimitri Kjos from Billabong, VZ, and RVCA. Dim has always been in our corner and our biggest advocate and has always believed in us. The Network (Brothers Marshall, Iron & Resin, Herschel Supply Co.) Caleb, Ian Perez, and Danny Leder are an excellent crew and the family behind Vans (Sean Ferreira and Rees Miilikin) are always on top of their game. Mike LaCerra definitely holds it down for Sun Bum and Watershot. Frankie Senese from Firewire and Brixton is great. Sorry, that was eight. Ryan Langhorne from Matix gets Best in Show.
Favorite local/ best kept secret surf spot?
The spot that has only 4-5 live feed cameras pointing at it. Our back yard is the spot to be at, it gets crowded and its a chess match out there from donkeys to visiting pro’s when it’s firing. It keeps you on your toes and gets your game right for when you travel to places that aren’t the dream set ups with no one out.
What is your overall impression of the local market over the past six months?
MG: We’ve seen growth and a changing of the guard. A lot more attention is being put towards the small guy. Our core customer is still about the tech product that Billabong, RVCA, or Reef offer, and that’s great. As far as technical product, those brands are years ahead of the game, but there is a certain satisfaction that comes when a customer has sought your store out because you carry a certain brand that no one else carries in the area.
CD: Our local market is a diverse mix of an international crowd both living here and traveling through. Because of this, you don’t have the traditional surfer or action sports minded big box mentality that is reserved to shops north of us and in other parts of the country where people identify with Volcom or Quiksilver. Quality of the threads to the forwardness of screens and cuts matter most to those that could care less about whether it is one of the big guys or not. Because of this, companies like Iron and Resin, Critical Slide Society, and Deus check well for us. Of course we still have to dance with the tech savvy companies, because there still is that crew out there and found that of the big guys we work with like Billabong, RVCA and Hurley, they deliver the best story.
What store (or multiple stores) are your closest competition?
MG & CD: We have no competition [Laughs]. We have a close relationship with Scott Payne at IWS North Miami Beach and Chris Williams and Ed Selego at MIA Skateshop. We all refer business to one another and keep the lines of communication wide open. If we don’t have a certain Channel Islands Surfboard in stock, we call Scott, or if a customer is looking for core skate items or core skate shoes, we send ‘em to MIA and visa versa.
Most infamous customer?
Last time you caught a shoplifter?
We can smell a shoplifter from a mile away. We would hate to find one. They’d get barred from entering South Beach let alone our shop. We let our local crowd treat our shop like they’re own so we have lots of eyes out there, nobody wants that kind of trouble brought on them.
Overall expectations for your business over the next 6-12 months?
MG: Winter and Spring are our strongest months or ‘high” season . We just expanded to 1600 square feet and so far the response is great. We are anticipating a very strong Holiday/Spring season.
CD: Within 6 months we project at least a 10% comp increase each month, doing a collaborative effort with a local hotel and launching a SUP rental program off a 32′ pontoon boat that we have had being custom built for the past 5 months. Our 12 month outlook has us working on some future collaborative efforts with key brands and hotels as well as shooting for 5-10% comp increases year-over- year.
Is your shop altering the way you buy for 2014?
MG: Yes. We just returned from Agenda Long Beach and recently remodeled our shop. Our new layout and design allows each individual brand to be showcased to our taste and vibe and we let the product do the talking and not some loud POP advertisement telling you what you buy. I’ve never been a fan of walking in to a shop and having a 72” poster of so-and-so staring me down wearing a pair of budget sunglasses.
CD: We always look to cut the fat off our buys and product mix, so as we move into each season, we recap on what was moving and what were duds. The economy around us was the last to be affected and the first to rebound. So with our expansion and the healthy response to our brand mixture, we see the needle moving forward on our past buys and that has given us the green light to keep buying the way we had been, even go deeper on some brands that just came to us in the last three months I.e The Critical Slide Society.
If yes, how are you altering your buying?
MG: Our merch seems to be maturing because of the customer we have coming in. We are seeing the price point on even the basic tees being pushed into the $35-$50 category due to the customers living around us that live in a higher tax bracket than the average guy. We don’t really have a back to school or teenage following. Our demographic is a bit older, so we have been seeing a transition in to more cut and sews and knits and more attention to the style and fabrics of a product.
Is your shop working closer with any particular brands?
MG: We are in talks on some excellent collaborations with some of the brands we work with. Without letting too much out of the bag, we are excited for 2014 and beyond.
What are some things brands are doing to work with your shop?
MG: Paying attention to us! It’s not easy being a “real” surf shop in what most consider a place that doesn’t have surf. Once you pass Ft Lauderdale south, it seems that most companies forget about the rest of us. Truth be told, there is a solid demand for what we are doing…..we are the drink in a barren dessert. Aside from paying attention to us, definitely working with us on terms and stopping by to see what we are about helps them understand what may or may not work in their line.
Anything else you want to add?
CD: Surfing is no longer the sub culture; it is a culture that influences all sorts of arts from mix media to music to fashion. Miami is having a huge creative burst on the shores to our local main land from Culinary to the arts, fashion and music. We love it as it inspires creativity to blur the lines where it was once so divided.
MG: Thanks to everyone that is in our corner. We didn’t forget about you Josh Redd. I see you Ryan O’Leary. Big ups to Mikie Bates, Egan and Duffield over at the Nixon and IVI camp. Ian Soto at Hurley and Raen Optics, Tom Matteson and Martin Barbosa at Channel Islands. Neco at Insight. Myer, Rory, Hagan, and Jesse at Super. Steve Avery and Reola at Lost.