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This California Lens Lab Has an Inspiring Recovery Story

They were burned to the ground in last year’s wildfires. Six months later, they’re thriving.

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This California Lens Lab Has an Inspiring Recovery Story

SOMETIMES, THE THINGS that make you the best of the best are born of tragic necessity. On Nov. 8, 2018, the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in a century, raged through the Northern California town of Paradise, destroying it entirely. Eighty-six people died in the blaze, which destroyed more than 18,000 structures. Among them was Paradise Lens Lab, which the day before had just celebrated its seventh anniversary.

THE FIRE

“I was headed to work a little before 7am,” recalls owner Gary Bates of that day. “It was a clear day but off to the side, where the sun was coming up over the hill I could see either clouds or smoke around the sun.” After about an hour at work, Bates headed to a lookout point 200 yards away. “The flames … were racing up the hill towards the back of the lab.”

A brief discussion about what they might be able to save was soon abandoned. “The Fire Department was telling people it was time to run.” There were five staff including Bates working that day; all got out, but all lost their homes. A few days later it was confirmed that the building and all its equipment was lost.

This California Lens Lab Has an Inspiring Recovery Story

The rebuilt Paradise Lens Lab in Chico, CA. ‘It took us about three weeks to get our first edger and start the buildout,’ says owner Gary Bates.

THE REBUILD

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That weekend, Bates and wife Tammy’s first thought was to move to Oregon. “But we just decided we had too many people relying on us. We had to give it a shot. That day we were out looking for commercial real estate” in Chico, CA, 15 miles west of Paradise.

Already reeling from the loss of his business, a second shock followed: “I thought I was insured fully, you know, rookie business owner.” Bates’ insurer informed him that on the $400,000 worth of equipment and stock he’d lost, he was covered for just $3,500. Help was at hand, however. Prior to opening Paradise Lens Lab, Bates, who’s been in the optical industry since 1989, had worked at Coburn Technologies. He was able to marshal some contacts there to get some edgers delivered within a matter of weeks. Later, Satisloh came through with a donation of brand new digital equipment. And a group of local doctors he does a lot of work for gave Bates $50,000 to help him start back up. “The generosity and kindness was amazing right after the fire,” he says. Most importantly, Bates’ customer base came through, pledging to stay with him.

Not everyone was so helpful, though. According to Bates, one major industry player “actually tried to poach my business. They went into all my shops, and promised them all this awesome pricing to ‘help them out.’”

Thankfully, things moved fast. “It took us about three weeks to get our first edger and start the buildout.” He was able to take some customers back almost immediately, though some were asked to be a little patient, as he didn’t want to underserve anyone. “Within a month and a half we were able to get them all back and provide excellent service for them all.”

THE POSITIVES

Many in this situation would see it as an insurmountable setback. But the Bateses have been rewarded for their determination. He says that whereas before Paradise Lens relied on conventional surfacing, with the new equipment, they can now process digital freeform lenses. Amazingly, business is actually up about 32 percent from before the fire. “We’ve gotten more customers; people have reached out to us wanting to give us their business.” And while they still live in their travel trailer, because of a post-fire housing shortage, they’re philosophical. “At least we have a travel trailer,” Bates says.

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The rebuild at Paradise is now fully finished. “We’ve been complete for about three months now. It took us just a little over three months to build out and get all the equipment, get everybody trained and up to date,” he says.

PHOTO GALLERY (13 Images)

After years covering some of the farther flung corners of the world of business journalism, Heath has more recently focused on covering the efforts of independent eyecare professionals to negotiate a fast-changing industry landscape. Contact him at [email protected]

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