This California-based, family-run company, which prides itself on its customized, quality mattresses, is not only surviving — it’s thriving
Made-to-order, high–quality mattresses and customer-friendly services like in-home mattress flipping have helped Square Deal Mattress Factory build a loyal following and have kept the independent manufacturer-retailer in business for 100 years.
“It’s more difficult for a little company like this to succeed. We’ve been blessed and fortunate to have strong support from our community, and because of those loyal customers, we’ve been able to survive and prosper,” says Richard Lash, chief executive officer and the third generation to run the family business. He operates it today with the fourth generation of the family — his daughters, Jamie Anderson, chief financial officer; and Jessica Lash, secretary.
The company has survived 100 years of changing consumer tastes and shopping habits, as well as economic downturns, from the Great Depression of the 1930s to today’s pandemic-induced recession. That is no easy feat. A recent article in The Washington Post noted data from online reviewer Yelp Inc. showing that in just five months in mid-2020, 80,000 U.S. small businesses permanently closed their doors, and the American Bankruptcy Institute expects small business Chapter 11 filings to be up 36% for the year.
While others struggle, Square Deal is celebrating its centennial by expanding its factory, adding equipment and machinery, and rolling out its first boxed bed.
Now run by descendants of founder Ennis Rife, Square Deal sits on its original site in Chico, California, a city of about 100,000 people nestled among national forests in the northern part of the state. (See story on the company’s history below.) The business draws most of its customers from a 200-mile radius that stretches from the Oregon border to the north and Sacramento to the south, and from the Pacific Ocean to the west and Lake Tahoe to the east.
The company’s customers skew a bit older, typically ages 35-70. Richard describes the average shopper “as a more mature customer who is looking for a mattress with better quality and longevity.”
“Maybe they’ve already made a mattress purchase and weren’t satisfied with it,” he says. “For them, a bed isn’t just a commodity. They appreciate good health and comfort, and appreciate a good night’s sleep.”
Doing it their way
To satisfy those customers, Square Deal maintains many of its decades-old traditions and prides itself on making two-sided mattresses (including pillow-top and adjustable-friendly models), prefers all-natural Dunlop latex over memory foam and still offers a line of inner-tufted mattresses made with cotton. It produces a wide variety of mattress types, including innerspring, all-foam and hybrid.
“We dabbled in air — but that quickly deflated,” Jessica says with a laugh. (Jessica, Jamie and Richard are quick to laugh. Their enthusiasm for their business and affection for each other come through clearly in conversation.)
“As manufacturers, we can choose the type and quality of components we put into the mattresses we sell. A lot of stores nowadays are selling basically the same beds with different labels slapped on them,” says Jessica, who oversees the team of 15 that handles both mattress production and upholstery, another key revenue stream for the company.
But the business doesn’t shun innovation and has a new tack-and-jump quilter that will allow it to freshen up its mattress cover designs. “We go to ISPA EXPO and stay up to date with all the newest technologies and then decide what’s viable for us and right for our customers,” Jessica says.
Like other independent manufacturer-retailers, Square Deal touts its ability to customize mattress sizes and shapes, whether a customer wants a round bed, an angled foundation, an RV mattress or a Wyoming king. “We’ve done Wyoming kings, California kings, Alaska kings. Every state seems to need its own big mattress,” Jamie adds with a laugh.
By the end of the year, Square Deal expects to open a new production facility on its existing site that will house the new quilter and double its manufacturing space to about 12,000 square feet. As part of the expansion, the company is adding equipment to reduce mattress handling and streamline production. The changes are expected to increase production capacity from an average of 10-15 pieces a day to as many as 50.
“Homey and classic”
Square Deal’s mattress showroom already has been expanded several times over the years. “In 1970, it was about 12 feet by 20 feet with three beds,” Richard says. Today, the showroom — actually spread over several rooms — totals about 2,000 square feet and displays 40 mattress models, including eight promotionally priced mattresses. Those eight mattresses are shown separately as Murphy beds housed in custom-built cabinetry operated by what Richard describes jokingly as a Rube Goldberg system.
“Customers looking for a guest room bed or kids’ room bed love it,” Jamie says. “They like the space-saving idea and get a kick out of it. We don’t say, ‘Let me show you our lower-end line of mattresses.’ We say, ‘Let me take you into our wall-bed room.’ ”
The other bedding showrooms are inviting, light and airy, with plants, table lamps, accent furniture and decorative touches to make customers feel welcome and comfortable. Framed family photos remind shoppers of the company’s long history, and seasonal displays like a tree at Christmas keep the store’s look fresh.
“We had an employee go shop our competition and she was amazed at how much better our showroom looks than others,” Jessica says. “Here, it’s like coming home. It’s not sterile with a bunch of plain mattresses and bright lights. It’s homey and classic.”
Square Deal’s mattresses are retail priced from $100 to $7,000, with bestselling price points ranging from $1,200 to $2,400 for a queen size. Beds carry 10-year or 15-year warranties.
The company offers a wide array of sleep accessories and has an attachment rate on those items of about 90%. Sometimes mattress shoppers add only a mattress protector to their purchase, but more often they go home with a package of discounted accessories from the retailer’s selection of pillows, sheets, duvets, blankets, bed skirts and other items.
Sleep accessories vendors include DOWN Inc., DownTown Co., Malouf, Pillow Co. and Talalay Global. It also carries adjustable bases and frames from Leggett & Platt, Malouf, Mantua (Rize) and W. Silver, and offers a line of custom upholstered headboards. One small showroom displays high-end home fragrance and cleaning products, as well as other gift items.
Square Deal cross-trains its employees so that even those who work primarily in production can step in and sell mattresses if needed, but generally has a staff of four retail sales associates. In a bit of whimsy, staff are called “dreamologists.” “All of our sales staff have been given their ‘beducation,’ ” Jamie says.
“We try to educate the consumer,” Richard explains. “I want to explain to them what’s in the bed and how I made it. If they end up choosing to purchase a mattress somewhere else, that’s too bad for both of us, but I’ve shown them a good quality product and, hopefully, when they leave here, they are better educated.”
It’s important, Jamie adds, that the company give its customers “the square deal” promised by its name. “Well, I guess because it’s a mattress it’s more of a rectangle deal, but our mattresses are the real deal,” she says, joking.
At your service
The company is venturing into e-commerce and has developed a boxed bed specifically to be sold online. The 9-inch latex mattress will be split into three layers to be assembled and inserted into the cover by the customer. Shipped in two boxes, it is expected to retail for $1,700 for queen size.
Square Deal had been hesitant to jump into e-commerce, in part because it prides itself on white-glove delivery to customers, which includes new mattress setup and removal of the old bed.
For years, the company recycled mattresses on its own, literally ripping up the used beds it picked up from customers’ homes and sending the various components to recyclers. “We had it down to where only about 25% (of the used mattress) went into the landfill,” Richard says. Since the state’s mandatory mattress recycling law went into effect in 2016, the company has recycled bedding through the Mattress Recycling Council’s Bye Bye Mattress program. The company’s history of dismantling those used mattresses “gave us insight into what our competitors were making so we could go above and beyond them,” Jessica says.
Square Deal has shipped beds all over the country, particularly after the 2019 Camp Fire that decimated nearby Paradise, California, and scattered area residents to other states. “We shipped from Wyoming to back East,” Richard says.
Customers in the immediate area typically can pick out a mattress in the Square Deal showroom and receive their made-to-order bed in three to five days. When Covid-19-related supply chain delays early in the pandemic sometimes extended that delivery window, Square Deal began to build up its inventory of components to ensure customers can receive their bed sets quickly.
Because Square Deal manufactures two-sided mattresses, it offers customers a flipping/turning service for a nominal fee. “With the quality of materials we use, a lot of our beds are on the heavier side and are not the easiest thing to turn or flip,” Richard says. “We’re proud to offer our customers this service.”
The schedule is up to the customer, Jamie notes. “We’ve had a customer call every two weeks,” she says. “Most call quarterly or some once a year.”
And true to its roots a century ago when people would freshen the interior of a mattress to extend its life and improve comfort, Square Deal will tweak a customer’s mattress years after purchase. “It’s like a tuneup for your car,” Jessica says. “We can tune up the mattress to make it softer or firmer and give you several more years of comfort.”
The service, which costs about $250 for a queen-size mattress, is ideal for customers whose health or sleeping preferences have changed over time. “It’s all spelled out in our care package we give each customer at the time of purchase,” Jamie says. “It’s lifetime comfort guaranteed.”
The wonders of word-of-mouth
Like many independents, Square Deal relies heavily on word-of-mouth to promote its business, and has placed its beds in small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts to introduce them to travelers.
“People will call us and say, ‘We enjoyed your bed immensely on a trip,’ and will have us ship them a mattress,” Jamie says. The company also has outfitted a number of facilities for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as CAL FIRE.
When it comes to marketing, Square Deal uses an encompassing approach: ads in local magazines and on radio and TV; direct mail; and billboards, bus placards and movie theater scrolls, as well as occasional sweepstakes that allow the company to build its email database. A recently launched Instagram account augments social media efforts on Facebook.
“But No. 1 is word-of-mouth,” Jamie says. “If a customer has an amazing experience shopping here, loves their bed and tells all their friends, that’s the referral we want.”
Growing Up in the Business
When Square Deal Mattress Factory was founded in 1920 in Chico, California, it was common for consumers to get their worn, flat mattress refilled with cotton, kapok, animal hair or other materials instead of buying a new one. Unfortunately, it was not uncommon for some unscrupulous mattress makers to substitute lesser quality or even unsanitary fills, thinking customers would never know what was inside their bed once it was sewn back up.
Ennis Rife, known in his family as “EV,” was working for a manufacturer who sometimes did that, and he didn’t like the practice. Just 16 at the time, Rife quit and started his own mattress business, promising every customer “a square deal.” The name — and the business ethos of quality products and honesty — stuck.
“He grew the business from there, supporting his mother and sisters and later his own family,” says Richard Lash, chief executive officer and the third generation to run the manufacturer-retailer. “My grandfather was a very honest man and treated everyone fairly. He also developed a real passion for the bedding business that he passed on to the later generations.”
But it wasn’t always certain the business would remain in the family. Although Richard’s mother, Lois Lash, and grandparents often took him to the business when he was a child, Richard’s father, Dewey Lash, spent his career working for a telephone company, and Richard went to college with plans to become a teacher. When he graduated in the early 1970s, teaching jobs weren’t plentiful in the area, so Richard, who had trained in the family enterprise to be an upholsterer to earn extra money, stayed on at Square Deal, running the business alongside his mother for decades. Square Deal apparently has a powerful pull on the family: When Richard’s father later retired from his telephone career, he trained so he could run the company quilter.
Following his mother’s example, Richard started taking his own daughters to the business when they were infants. “When I was in junior high, I wanted a pager and my parents said I could only get one if I worked for it,” Jamie Anderson says. “I started by putting invoices into the computer and then helped with bills and a marketing newsletter and it went from there.”
Jessica Lash enjoyed spending time with the sales and manufacturing teams when she was younger. “I always wanted to be around the people sewing. We’d come in and make little purses and bags,” she says. “They made it so fun, I wanted to sew more.” After graduating from high school, Jessica learned how to run other machinery, including the quilter and even the dreaded tape-edge. (“When I told her she had to learn to tape, she cried,” Richard recalls. “But she’s really good at it now.”)
Those early experiences at Square Deal shaped the daughters’ roles in the business as adults. Today, Jamie serves as chief financial officer, overseeing sales and financials, as well as customer service. Jessica, secretary of the company, leads the manufacturing side. Richard describes his CEO role as “the problem-solver,” although his daughters call him “the head of everything.” “He comes up with new ideas,” Jessica says. “He’s the idea pusher.”
Richard’s eldest daughter, Jennifer Wilson, isn’t directly involved in the business, working instead as a project manager in the construction sector, “but we pick her brain about a lot of things,” he says.
And now there is a fifth generation of the family, some of whom eventually may want to be part of the business. Just as Richard and his daughters did, the children already are spending time hanging out at Square Deal. Jamie notes that her 5-year-old son Asher currently has his sights set on being “a garbageman” but “he loves to come into the shop.” “I remember the employees making it so fun when we were kids, and that’s exactly what I want it to be for him,” she says. “He loves coming in and making things.”
“My mom Delpha Lash and dad have six grandkids now,” Jessica says. “It will be a blessing if any one of them would want to take over the business, but it has to be their choice — just like it was for us.”
Company Makes Mattresses — and Much More
Like some other companies in the bedding industry, Square Deal Mattress Factory started producing personal protective equipment when the novel coronavirus outbreak began last spring. In its case, Square Deal added production of cotton face masks with adjustable straps, which it continues to sell.
The year before, Square Deal shifted gears to make mattresses for victims of the Camp Fire that killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings, decimating the town of Paradise, California.
Those are just two examples of how the independent, family-owned manufacturer-retailer in Chico, California, can pivot quickly. Those instances also demonstrate the company’s long history of diversifying its products and services to meet new needs when they pop up.
A varied product line is nothing new for the company, which, from its start has offered upholstery services and custom furniture, in addition to making and selling mattresses. At one point, it also sold carpet. Today, Square Deal offers cut-to-order foam and, unexpectedly, velvet urn bags used by funeral homes to present the ashes of the deceased to loved ones.
Square Deal makes its own shredded latex pillows with latex scraps leftover from mattress production, and Jessica Lash, secretary of the company and the fourth generation to run it, is experimenting with crafting bags that can be made from leather leftover from upholstering furniture and headboards. The upcycling has the added benefit of being environmentally responsible by reducing waste, another longtime priority of the company.
“I like to say I’m the last buggy whip manufacturer in Northern California,” says Richard Lash, chief executive officer and third-generation company owner. “We do just about everything — and a lot of things no one else does anymore.”
Julie A. Palm is chief wordsmith at Palm Ink LLC in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has 25 years of experience as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines and as a publications director. She is a past editor in chief of both Sleep Savvy and BedTimes magazines. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images by Ashley Carlascio/AVH Photography