Hemlock Hat Co.'s signature design includes colorful fabric on the underside of their hats, a small innovation that’s led to fast growth for the startup
There’s something likable about Hemlock Hat Co., a new startup in Vista whose funky straw hats are gaining fast popularity.
Founded three years ago by 28-year-old Anthony Lora, the startup’s hats are now sold in over 1,500 retail stores, including coveted spots at Tilly’s and The Buckle.
The hats have a signature style that makes them recognizable. From the front, it looks like a well-constructed lifeguard hat. But tip your head back, and a secret splash of fabric art peeks out from under the brim. Although the word “hemlock” might inspire thoughts of a poisonous plant, the brand is supposed to reference the shade tree.
But it’s not really the design of the hat that is striking. It’s Hemlock’s founder. Sitting in Lora’s office, the young CEO doesn’t even try to sell his story.
“Everyone usually has a detailed, dramatic story about why they started their startup,” Lora said. “I didn’t have a passion or a dramatic journey that brought me here ... I don’t wake up thinking about straw hats.”
Lora is straightforward about why he started Hemlock Hats. He was between careers. He needed a way to make money, and so he started looking around for a product he could make and sell.
As a SoCal-raised kid, Lora grew up skating, surfing, and cruising through surf shops. Brands like Billabong, Volcom and RipCurl were the epitome of success.
“I guess I always wanted a clothing company or a surf brand,” Lora said. “It seemed like the Southern California version of the American dream. The Sun Bums of the world, with an office by the beach.”
With fresh, entrepreneurial eyes, Lora went back to those surf shops of his youth and started taking a closer look at the products on the shelves. Is anything missing? Do any of these staple products look out-of-date?
Well... there’s the straw hats.
“There they were, over and over and over again; the same style everywhere,” Lora said.
Coming from a family of artists, Lora said the bill of the hat was a perfect canvas for design. He decided to attach a unique print to the underside of the hat. This season the prints include pineapples, flamingos, sharks, and avocados, among other designs. It gives the hat some personality, without being too flashy from the front. It also allows the hats to change with the trends of each season.
Lora got the hats manufactured in China and then worked on finding stores to place them. Luckily, Lora had experience finding placements for products in brick and mortar stores. He previously worked as a marketing and account manager for a wholesale distributor and contract manufacturer for sports supplements.
This background serving retailers helped Lora know exactly what would appeal to them. For one, most small surf shops didn’t have the room for piles of straw hats. Most times, retailers stack hats haphazardly on shared tables or on top of aisle display endcaps. Lora decided to solve the display problem for retailers, so they didn’t have to figure out where they could squeeze in more product. He designed a hat tree that displayed Hemlock’s hats, while not taking up too much floor space.
“One of the biggest parts of our success was that tower,” Lora said. “We solved a merchandising hiccup for a lot of brick and mortar stores who didn’t have much space.”
Today, Hemlock’s hats are in over 600 different store brands, with 1,500 total retail locations in 43 states carrying its product. The hats range in price from $28 to $34. The company has other sources of revenue, including partnerships with brands to create sponsored hats. Lora declined to disclose his revenue publicly but did note that the company has been profitable since 2018. Based on current projections, however, Hemlock expects to sell 200,000 lifeguard hats in the next year. In fall 2020, they’ll also be introducing other types of headwear.
Hemlock employs nine people in San Diego and 14 remote, contract sales representatives nationwide. The company’s headquarters in Vista are attached to its warehouse, where Hemlock does all its own packing and shipping.
Lora has big plans for 2020. He’s had interest from large retail brands that want to stock Hemlock Hats, but he needs to increase production and his sourcing capabilities before inking those partnerships. Hemlock also has room for growth on the e-commerce front. About 70 percent of Hemlock’s sales are done in brick and mortar stores, while only 30 percent come from online sales.
“I didn’t know a ton about e-comm,” Lora said. “For me to meet factory minimum and buy all this product, I didn’t want to just hope that it would all sell online. So brick and mortar came first for us.”
One day down the road, Lora can imagine a Hemlock Hat Co. shop with a variety of headwear sold on its shelves.
For now, Lora is just focusing on setting up a good foundation for the company. He started the business with his own personal savings and has yet to take any investment money to help support the business.
“Business takes time,” Lora said. “We’re still figuring out stuff out. But who knows where we’ll be in the next few years?”