Shop Talk With Demello Offroad: Navigating the Rough Trails of Small Off-Road Business
Jason Demello of Demello Offroad in Riverside, California is pretty much a household name in the Toyota off-road community. Today, the Demello brand offers bulletproof armor for Tacoma, Tundra, 4Runner, FJ Cruiser, select Lexus GX models AND the brand new Ford Bronco. Bumpers and sliders are Jason’s game when it comes to fabrication, and as far as suspension and installation goes, his team can handle it all at their SoCal location. From overlanding to rock crawling and everything else in between just happens to fall right inside of Demello Offroad’s all-encompassing wheelhouse.
Has it always been THIS good for Jason Demello though? Nope. Not even close. As what seems to be the story for most successful small businesses, trials and tribulations are prerequisite in order to make it on over to the sunny side of the street. Sure, there are always day-to-day operational obstacles to wrangle with but surviving just to face the problems of an established, profit-turning business is a struggle and right of passage on its own.
We had the opportunity and pleasure to chat it up with Jason, as he filled us in on his personal experience through the long days and longer nights associated with starting a passion-fueled business and keeping Demello Offroad afloat for so many years. You may have known bits and pieces of his story, but we were able to get down to the very bottom of where Demello Offroad all started and where its headed.
State Of Speed: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us, Jason. First off, tell us about your experience during the first phase of starting Demello Offroad.
Jason Demello: I started in my apartment garage in South Orange County but within two weeks, management served me a notice that there were multiple complaints about the noise I was making. Hindsight looking back, it was silly to think that would last. Those garages were meant for storage in a fairly new and rather high-end complex, and I was plugging in my 110 welder into the same outlet as the garage door opener. I learned where the breaker reset was real quick.
During that time I was working a full time job doing shipping and receiving for a small genetics start up company, and after hours I had to resort to bouncing around from the garages of friends and family who would let me work on my project. I cut all the material and bent the tube with my Harbor Freight bender, and frankly, those first three sets of sliders I made by hand were pretty bad—SO bad that someone on the TTORA (Toyota Tacoma Off Road Association) forum called me out for having piss poor welds and called me ‘amateur hours’, which I guess I was.
SoS: That’s harsh. How did you take that criticism?
JD: It stung but that guy was right. I made the choice to then make the best, be the best and take criticism as a way to grow instead of allowing it to push me back. I also made weld quality my top goal, so I practiced day and night to get better. Often after work on a Friday night, I’d sit in 2+ hours of traffic going to San Bernardino where one of my first business partners (Frank) lived. He had a small garage at his house where we could work. I’d camp out there all weekend working non-stop from morning into the night building sliders and bed bars. Good friends like David Hale and Dan Lilo also helped make things possible by agreeing to work for lunch, dinner or whatever else I could offer for their time.
SoS: Teamwork does make the dream work, huh? What platform truck did you start out building for and what year was this all happening?
JD: It was mostly Tacoma based back then in 1998-2000 even though these trucks were still relatively new in the off-road world. Most of the guys and companies focused on older Toyota trucks and considered the Tacoma a Camry with big tires.
SoS: So nothing for Chevy, Ford or Dodge trucks back then?
JD: In those early years we experimented with S-10s, Nissans, Fords, and basically anything we were requested to make but I’ve always been a Toyota guy. I’ve always been familiar with them and if I don’t know something about a Toyota off the top of my head, I can usually find the answer real quick.
SoS: How long did you spend working in other people’s garages?
JD: We got out first shop in 2002-2003-ish. I ‘clocked in’ there after work every day since it was now just down the street from my full time job. I even had one or two employees at the time cutting material all day or spray-painting sliders for me until I went full time in October of ’03 just after my son was born in June of that year. It was an exciting and tough time that’s for sure.
SoS: That is a big commitment going full time. What were some notable hurdles you ran into and what advice could you give to someone looking to turn away from 9-5 life to start their own shop:
JD: Wow, there are so many hurdles! I don’t think small business is for everyone and I really wouldn’t recommend it for most people. You really need an advantage to get ahead and stay on top. You need family money, a house to pull money out of, a dad with knowledge, a dedicated shop space, tools—ANYTHING that gives you an advantage. I didn’t have any of those things. All I had going for me was being too dumb to know when to give up.
I once heard Will Smith say in an interview something about running on a treadmill. He’s so competitive, that if you were to challenge him to see who could run farther and longer, he may die trying to beat you. That’s how I felt about building stuff. I don’t know how to stop. I I know I’m not the best, and I make mistakes but was so lucky to be blessed with the ability to blindly go forward when working on something.
It’s also worth noting that I had no shortage of good friends over the years that helped promote and build the business with me—I couldn’t have done it without them.
SoS: Sorry to focus on the bad times, but can you recall one specific issue that really knocked you back on your ass? You know, “the things that didn’t kill us, made us stronger” type of scenario?
JD: 2008 in general may have been the toughest notable problem. We were just hitting our production stride. The FJC had come out and we bought a new one in the hopes that we could make enough money off it to make the monthly payment. That vehicle blew up and we got slammed with orders. We moved into a bigger shop, hired more employees, took on more expenses and suddenly it was all cut off like the world had stopped turning overnight!
We had to make some tough choices, lay off important people at the shop and really had to evaluate what our shop space was going to be used for. I realized that I wasted a lot of time on my dream rock crawler and race truck projects I was never going to finish. I also didn’t need the lathe that still had no power running to it. I allowed myself one project at a time and sold everything else off.
I also subbed out stuff instead of trying to bring it all in-house, which is a common mistake I see a lot of shops do. It’s tempting in the short term. It makes sense—even in the long term but the problem is doing it at the right time. I’ve seen really large companies in this industry go from 300 in-house employees to reducing to just a fraction of that in one day. We’ve hit many roadblocks, but this was the biggest eye opener for me.
SoS: So you’d say that 2008 was harder to deal with than the impact of COVID?
JD: Yes and no. It was a great to have a surge in business during these last two years but it threw everything else out of whack. It permanently raised the prices of so much stuff in our industry. Customers think that we are making a killing because our prices keep going up but honestly looking around the room and seeing what everyone’s charging for similar products, we are all most likely losing money or at lease making less than we were before it all started.
SoS: So taking this into consideration, what would you consider is now Demello Offroad’s bread and butter items/services?
JD: Bumpers for sure. We are trying to focus on installations because over our 20 years in business, we’ve seen a shift. In the beginning, we often offered free install because honestly people would do it themselves but now people want cheap and fast but they don’t want to get their hands dirty. Unfortunately we are seeing people buy cheaper products made overseas or offered by big box stores. I’ve seen this coming for a while, and I hope I am wrong but because of this we have been currently pushing installations a lot more and just carrying more products.
SoS: Well, folks are going to need a shop to install that eBay lift kit that didn’t come with proper instructions, right? What trends in the current marketplace do you particularly like/dislike and what would you like to see more/less of in the future?
DM: The trend of pushing Toyota towards being a follower and not a leader worries me. If you cut me, I will bleed Toyota but when I saw the new Bronco coming out, I ordered one over two years ago. I swear they took every complaint from a Toyota FJC and Toyota 4Runner owner over the last 20 years and built them exactly what they wanted—minus the reliability and symbol on the hood. We got our Bronco and honestly it’s a home run. I’m just jealous that Ford did this and not Toyota because I don’t see Toyota coming out with a real frame SUV with a removable top, front and rear lockers sitting on 35s, and with tons of power to spare. I mean the new 4Runner is nice but it still falls short of the Bronco in my opinion BUT reliability has its place too. I wonder how long that will play a factor though with warranties extending way out and people trending towards more features and caring less about reliability. I’m just curious where this will lead.
SoS: Ford did not play around with the Bronco release, that’s for sure. Well, are there any new products we can expect to see from Demello Offroad in the near future?
JD: Oh yeah, rear 4Runner bumpers for ’03-current, rear GX bumpers, and finally a Tacoma rear bumper. Oh, and of course Bronco parts, which I am personally working on at home and on the weekends so I don’t cut into the production of new Toyota parts.
SoS: We’ll keep out eyes open for all of that freshness! Well, thanks for chatting with us for a minute Jason. Is there anything that we didn’t cover or something you’d like to add?
JD: I’d just like you for the opportunity to tell my story. I’m not a large business owner with a huge bank account or big ego that needs stroking. I’m just another guy who likes to go off-roading. While you may go into an office everyday or we may have completely different types of jobs, we are still the same. So please, if you see me on the trails come say hi. I started doing this because I love everything off-road. I love the outdoors. I love meeting new people who enjoy the same as me.
SoS: Thanks for keeping it real, Jason.
To stay up to date on product releases and news updates from Demello Offroad check in online at demello-offroad.com or give them a follow on Instagram @demellooffroad. If you prefer a live phone conversation, give them a ring at 866.333.6525 or if all else fails drop by at 12785 Magnolia Ave., Riverside, CA 92503. Either way, they’ll be glad to hear from you.