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Keeping it hot

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Nick’s Garden Center & Farm Market use roasted chilies to bring customers in during slower months.

Maria Zampini | May 3, 2013

A bushel and a peck and instead of a hug around the neck (as the Doris Day song goes), it’s a big fat check! Who would think a bushel of roasted chilies could draw crowds, long lines and be a money-maker? The Ortega family — Richard, Randy and Bella — of Nick’s Garden Center, that’s who. They’ve infused a little family culture and history into their garden center, and it’s heating up sales during the typical “off season.”

The Ortega’s used to be in the truck farming business, so it was a natural step for them to have a farmers market as part of their garden center. The farmers market portion of their business is open June through October and features the freshest fruits and vegetables in season.

Starting around August 1, their favorite pepper, chilies, are ripe. For eight weeks customers visit Nick’s to buy chilies by the bushel and have them roasted so they can take them home to freeze and use them all winter. Nick’s has two roasters going full time and they can roast 200 bushels a day. Of course the roasting process takes an hour or more so what’s a customer to do but shop the garden center while they wait!

Of course the season is topped off with an annual Chile Festival, which includes cooking demos, a salsa competition and of course, roasted chilies. In fact, starting mid-April, the Ortega’s bring a little taste of home to the store and a Mariachi band plays from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. each and every Saturday.

Like many independent retailers, Nick’s does several special events throughout the year as they feel the longer customers stay in the store, the more likely they are to purchase. They also host a spring and winter open house. In addition to the Chile Festival in the summer, Nick’s presents Pink Days for breast cancer awareness. Autumn brings a traditional Fall Festival, which includes a sanctioned giant pumpkin weigh-off boasting 25 to 30 entries, which weigh in at between 1,000 to 1,200 pounds each! Events are only a part of why Nick’s is successful.


Q: What actions have you taken to stay in business?

A: Owner Richard Ortega says, “We’ve been agile, remained relevant, and are open to change. Don’t be complacent!”


Q: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced over the last year, and how did you handle it?

A: Ortega says they have two primary challenges. First, in Colorado they are facing water shortages and drought. To counteract this they are trying to educate customers on water wise techniques as well as offering plants that do well in their arid environment. 

Secondly, they share a challenge faced by all independent garden centers. They strongly feel that now, more than ever, consumers have many choices of how to spend their money and are looking for real value. Ortega believes that IGCs are perceived as always being more expensive than the big box stores and in fact, quite often products are more expensive. He sees the need to drive home the fact that when they come in Nick’s Garden Center, there is perceived value: the best quality and selection of plants, outstanding customer service and awesome ambience.


Q: What has been your most effective marketing tool?

A: Nick’s largest advertising expenditure is direct mail. Their newsletter, The Garden Basket, is mailed out four times a year to more than 11,000 subscribers. They also publish a circular six times a year which reaches about 150,000 homes through ADVO shared mail. Both pieces are skewed toward spring. They also send out regular eblasts to their mailing database utilizing Constant Contact.


Q: What are you doing to reach younger generations?

A: Nick’s has engaged staffer Bert Gallegos as their social media guru. Bert brings a passion to increase both their website presence and up their game on social media platforms such as Facebook (www.facebook.com/NicksGardenCenter) and Twitter (@nicksgc). They have surpassed 5,200 ‘likes’ on their Facebook page and have more than 1,800 Twitter followers.


Q: How do you get feedback from employees and/or customers?

A: Nick’s has an open door policy with employees. As owners we are on the floor working side-by-side with workers. Management is hands-on in regards to getting direct and immediate feedback from both employees and customers.


Q: How do you reward your best-performing workers? What do you do to keep company morale up?

A: Nick’s rewards their employees with year-end bonuses. They strive to create a fun working environment, which in turn reflects to their customers. They show appreciation for hard work on busy days by taking a simple, but meaningful action such as ordering pizza for lunch. They also enjoy surprising the crew with unexpected treats. Last June they took their crew to a concert and occasionally they get tickets from vendors to sporting events which they’ll pass on to employees and their families.


Q: What has been the best business advice you’ve ever received?

A: “Find a sense of purpose in whatever you do,” says Ortega.

 


Maria Zampini is president of Upshoot LLF and Director of Plant Development and Ornamental Program Manager for the HGTV HOME Plant Collection.

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