How I Made It: She couldn’t afford to be an artist. Now she designs stores for America’s biggest food retailers
Deborah L. English is founder and president of DL English Design, which has created the look of stores for food retail giants such as Whole Foods, as well as other types of clients. The firm started out in the early 2000s in English’s house. It is now a multimillion-dollar business that employs 35 to 40 people between Los Angeles and San Francisco. English, 62, and her team have designed and built some of the largest food spaces in the U.S., including one of the biggest Whole Foods locations west of the Rocky Mountains — the 77,046-square-foot Arroyo Whole Foods Market in Pasadena. Last year alone, the studio completed nearly 3 million square feet of space, emphasizing customer experiences and community engagement.
As a child, English would draw on everything, “including the hymnals at church,” she said. She was about 10 years old when she first found a way to capitalize on her passion for the arts. Growing up alongside seven siblings, “financially oftentimes it was a struggle,” she said, and English learned from an early age that if she wanted to earn some pocket money she had to be creative. It was Christmas when she set up her own window-painting business in Norwalk. She painted snowflakes, fir trees and elves on the windows of local shops to save enough money to make Christmas presents. “It was my first endeavor into entrepreneurship,” she said. “It later expanded to Valentine’s.”
Forging her own path
When she was still a teenager, English had a daughter. She had originally entertained the idea of becoming a watercolor artist and was taking college classes to improve her technique. She soon realized that, as a single parent, becoming an artist wasn’t an option.
English quit college and started seeking positions that were somehow related to the arts. Her first job consisted of pinstriping and airbrushing cars for a small shop in Whittier. She had applied for an administrative position, but her employer found out about English’s artistic ability and decided to put it to use. English went on to silkscreening T-shirts and bumper stickers, working at a photo lab and for a printer, all while taking art classes at night. “I went everywhere that had a class in the times that I could take it and still work and raise my daughter,” she said.
English was a sign designer when she made her first meaningful connection. The company she worked for was linking her with customers, including the Wherehouse Entertainment record store chain. Eventually, English became Wherehouse Entertainment’s design director, and when CEO Louis Kwiker moved to Bristol Farms, he asked her to go with him.
“He gave me opportunities to learn,” she said. “He’s one of the biggest influences in terms of how I think of myself in relation to my own team now.”
English spent five years at Bristol Farms as VP of design and construction, learning as much as she could about the food business. On the side, she began developing her own company, establishing long-term partnerships with Whole Foods and other clients. Then, the economy crashed.
As the recession ravaged the country in 2009, English had to lay off most of her team. “There were 14 of us, and I kept one,” she said. Her revenue dropped by 90%.
“I saw people folding up all around me,” she said. “I was fortunate that I was small enough and I just had to hunker down, take everything I had and put it into the business, so that we would survive.”
Investing in people
When clients began to return, English had to adapt. “It became very clear to me that I had to build up some resistance so that I could weather storms more easily,” she said.
During the downturn, one of her contacts in the construction and architecture industry had decided to close his business. He called English, asking if she could complete one of his projects. At the time, English didn’t have a space where she could execute designs, but she accepted and coordinated the project as an outside vendor. Shortly after, she invested in a facility that would allow the studio to build the things that employees designed.
Now, English trains her workers to design and execute, so that if either side of the business is slow, every member of her team can share in the work that’s available.
Meanwhile, she also expanded her range of projects to restaurants and bars to become more resilient in the face of the ups and downs of the market. “Although food generally is more recession-proof than anything else — because people have to eat — I was heavily focused on the food retail side, and that wasn’t a very good idea. Bars and restaurants are always going out of business and somebody else comes in instead, so there are a lot of opportunities.”
Designing for the digital age
For English, much of her work now is also about preventing physical stores from becoming obsolete in the era of online retail. She designs experiences for her clients’ customers — to keep them coming back. This shift is part of the reason why DL English’s restaurant business is growing and the studio has recently expanded into food halls. “The demand for that type of hyper-relationship between food retail and food service is really growing,” she said.
English was 40 years old the first time she traveled abroad on a solo business trip to Germany. “It changed my worldview completely,” she said. “I was U.S.-centric, and I thought that the world revolved around us. When I went there, I realized that it’s not like that at all.”
Since then, English has climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, hiked the Inca Trail and completed most of the Torres del Paine W Trek in Patagonia. “I want to experience a lot of things, and they inform my work.”
One of her bosses once told English that she could go as fast as she wanted, as long as she knew how and when to stop. That’s the way she operates, she said, avoiding situations that would regularly keep her up at night. Yet, there are times when she regrets not having done more.
“I think my desires and my passions would have me be a lot bigger than I am,” she said. “I want to have my product line, I want to do work in Europe. But I try to temper these out and not get too far ahead of myself — maybe because I was raised in a condition where I always had to be careful.”
English lives in Pasadena. She owns a beach house and a boat in Long Beach, where she likes spending weekends whenever she’s not traveling. She has two granddaughters with whom she enjoys spending time. To unwind, English likes sculpting. “Big, life-size sculpting.”