A nosy pitbull luxuriates in the scent of sawdust a moment before trotting away from a pair of yawning basement double doors in South Philly. A few moments later, two curious children step into the frame to replace the dog on sidewalk level.
The kids stare into the well of the shadow down below, trying to process the figures dressed in dual-cartridge respirators. Jhonny Rincon pauses long enough to register their presence before the table saw whirs anew.
“Hey there,” says his partner, Cameron Rothwell. Even during pandemic times, the respirators have a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max feel.
Rothwell stoops over, applying linseed oil to the outside of yet another garden box, while Rincon busily cranks out more boxes from their makeshift workshop. Together, she and Rincon launched VENADO, a garden bed and furniture company in 2020, after both lost their jobs in the hospitality industry early on in the pandemic.
“You see the kids and dogs before the adults,” Rothwell says of the ongoing interest from passersby. “They’re like, ‘Oh, I was wondering what you were doing down there.’ And the next thing you know, your neighbors are your newest customers.”
Of course, passing neighbors don’t have to wonder too much after being drawn in.
The façade of Rincon and Rothwell’s home has the pronounced décor of two deeply stained Douglas fir window boxes that complement a tree box they installed on the sidewalk.
In addition to pine, they use Douglas fir as a suitable and less expensive stand-in for cedar, which they also use if a customer can meet the price. While Rincon handles most of the woodwork, Rothwell covers order inquiries in between applying finish and assisting in the woodshop.
Chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, who runs Kalaya Thai Kitchen and Kalaya Thai Market in South Philly, came across Rincon and Rothwell’s work while passing Wood Street Pizza on North 12th between Vine and Callowhill.
“I saw [their garden boxes] in front of Wood Street and they’re so beautiful, so I asked who made them,” Suntaranon says. Dean Kitagawa, the owner of Wood Street, then introduced Suntaranon to Rincon.
Four garden planters that Suntaranon bought last spring now accompany newly purchased tree boxes outside her restaurant. She also recently placed several large planters outside her South Philly residence.
“My dream for a long time has been to have beautiful planters in front of my house, but I couldn’t find the right ones,” Suntaranon says.
Now Suntaranon, who has been putting her South Philly sidewalk gardening on display for nine years, has an even better platform for her hydrangeas and assorted perennials.
“This is a tough time and people are finding that hidden talent that they can use during this crisis for a business opportunity, and I love to support them,” Suntaranon says.
Rincon is now the head chef at Wood Street. When he started working there in late summer 2020, he was also working in a restaurant in Ardmore that he was commuting to by bicycle from South Philly, after losing his job as sous chef at South Philly Barbacoa.
Similarly, Rothwell lost her job at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel after working as a server for years at places such as Will BYOB.
Once Rincon was stuck at home burning through savings he had put away for a planned restaurant of his own—one serving his native Mexico’s cuisine that he planned to name VENADO—Rothwell remembers Rincon bringing up garden boxes. He had made some for South Philly Barbacoa while working there.
“I remember him saying, ‘I wonder if anybody else would want one,’ ” Rothwell says. Soon they had an Instagram and Facebook page for their “baby VENADO,” as Rincon refers to it. The name refers to the deer that his grandfather would hunt in the mountains of Oaxaca before turning them into big plates of venison mole.
They were quickly hit up by Chef Ari Miller, of Musi BYOB, and scores of other chef friends and acquaintances showing the support and love that makes the Philly restaurant community so special.
Miller made the first purchase with VENADO—planters for his home—back in March 2020 before buying from them again this spring for his restaurant. Miller was especially attracted by the mobility of VENADO’s wheeled planters.
“We wanted to get moveable planters to demarcate a little bit of an outdoor dining space. It was perfect. Exactly what we were looking for, and it was Jhonny and Cameron,” Miller says.
“Being made by our colleagues who are hustling after losing their jobs makes it just super meaningful to keep it in the family in that way,” Miller adds.
Friends such as Chef Joel Mazigian (now with Milkhouse Creamery and formerly of Standard Tap) added to the early support.
Mazigian is one of several chefs who ordered custom wooden prep tables for their home kitchens. Rincon is currently finishing a set of bookshelves for one client after doing a series of garden beds that included a table top attachment to hold drinks for a neighbor’s rooftop garden.
He recently added coffee tables to his repertoire and says he and Rothwell are designing outdoor furniture for their own backyard. They hope to soon be selling whatever they come up with through VENADO.
Not bad for a team that had limited carpentry skills when they started out.
The start of lockdown carried one major silver lining for their nascent business.
“Timing-wise, it was spring and people were stuck at home,” Rothwell says. “They can’t go anywhere but their back patios, and people want to pretty-up their house.”
That silver lining and big purchases from the Passyunk Square Civic Association and local gardening stores helped them jump out of the blocks last spring, along with the support from hospitality industry colleagues. They say orders have been high this spring.
Learning on the fly became easier once Kitagawa made some substantial tool donations, including a hefty table saw that sped up their work. And after months of Rincon using a pet cargo carrier attached to his bike to haul lumber back from Lowe’s and Home Depot, the couple was finally able to buy an SUV last fall.
Rincon fills orders on Mondays and Tuesdays (his days off from the restaurant) as well as before shifts at Wood Street. He is working on more projects for Wood Street, including doing tables for whenever they return to indoor dining.
Kitagawa has known Rincon for 20 years after the two met while working at the original Friday Saturday Sunday. While he says he’s thrilled to have finally been able to land Rincon as his chef, he’s also happy that Rincon has the flexibility he needs to build his carpentry business.
“I encourage everyone to do something long term outside of the restaurant business,” Kitagawa says. “I’d love to see him keep his feet in it with us and still be able to be creative and do something that he loves to do.”