In every recession or economic decline, there is one industry that many consider to be immune to downturn: food and beverage.
It’s little surprise, then, that independent garden center owners have been launching and operating eateries of every type on their properties for decades, to varying degrees of success. Lessons have been learned in the process, and many IGCs now have unique perspectives on how to effectively add a food service operation onto their retail businesses.
Garden center retailers delve into restaurant-style offerings for a variety of reasons and with a variety of goals: supplementing off-season business, driving traffic and expanding the garden center’s brand, among others.
These supplemental businesses also take a wide range of shapes and forms — because just like the garden centers themselves, on-site restaurants must be designed with local market demands and demographics in mind.
Looking before they leap
Nearly any entrepreneur will tell you that the restaurant business is one of the riskiest industries one could get involved in, and the statistics prove it, too. According to a 2005 report by the Ohio State University, roughly 60 percent of new restaurants close within their first year, and 80 percent close within 5 years. In order to make the transition into food service management, IGCs across the country have weighed their options and studied their markets carefully.
For six years, Jennifer Wilson, owner of Wilson Nurseries in Lexington and Frankfort, Ky., has supplemented the seasonality of her business with Sage Garden Café, a sit-down eatery in a separate building on the property of her Frankfort retail location.
“I suppose I feel a little bit like I’ve conquered that magic number in the restaurant business. If you make it five years, you’re going make it,” Wilson says. “I don’t know if that holds true, but it was a nice milestone to pass.”
Sage Garden Café began as many restaurants do — Wilson had an underutilized space that presented an opportunity. After renovating her 15-acre retail and growing property in Frankfort in 2011, Wilson was faced with the decision of what to do with a building she had used as administrative and landscaping offices. She considered converting the building to a florist, a café or an organic grocery store. The café seemed like the most season-proof option.
“Really, the restaurant became the push … I didn’t want the florist and I didn’t want the grocery because that was adding another seasonal aspect to an already seasonal business,” Wilson says. “Everybody eats 12 months a year. Part of it was just really great real estate that wasn’t being utilized as a revenue producer. Then, of course, part of it became increasing the destination aspect of who we were.”
The demographics of Frankfort, Ky., were a large determining factor in the direction of Sage Garden Café. As many of her regular customers were commuters who didn’t tend to remain in the area after normal business hours, it made the most sense for Sage to be a strictly lunch-oriented eatery.
At Angel’s Garden Center in Hopkinton, Mass., opportunity came in the form of another local business. Red Barn Roasters, a popular coffee vendor in the area, was seeking partners and licensees, and Angel’s Garden Center co-owner Jeff Doherty saw the chance to provide an extra service to both his regular customers and commuters passing his store on their way into metro Boston. Five years after its construction, Angel’s Café, located adjacent to the garden center, is now Red Barn Roasters’ flagship store and serves hundreds of cups of coffee per day, as well as a range of bagels, muffins and pastries.
Situated on the eastbound side of the Massachusetts Turnpike, Angel’s Café is an easy destination for travelers to stop off, grab a coffee and/or bagel and get back on the highway. Doherty says the café offers Red Barn Roasters’ full selection of varietals, espressos, iced coffee and other specialties.
“We have about 11,000 cars go by the door every day,” Doherty says. “We happen to be on the right-hand side of the road in the morning, so it’s an easy-off, easy-on. If I was on the other side of the road, I never would have built this. It’s location, location, location.”
Knowledge of her market has also allowed Carla Grogg, co-owner of Grogg’s Green Barn in Tulsa, Okla., to make the expansion into food service. This past February, Grogg and her husband, Kelly, launched The Reserve, a farm-to-table restaurant housed within their 3,200-square-foot retail building, in a 30-foot by 30-foot room they renovated earlier this year.
The Reserve is open exclusively for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, after the retail operations at Grogg’s Green Barn close for the day. A different five-course dinner menu is offered each week, featuring produce and herbs grown at Grogg’s and locally sourced meat and poultry. Grogg says there are currently no plans to expand into all-week dinner service.
Operating The Reserve is also a chance for Grogg to leverage the many edible demonstration gardens maintained at Grogg’s Green Barn, which were planted to show customers how to grow their own food. Those same gardens supply the garden center’s in-house restaurant.
“We already do really well [with] growing good, organic veggies, and we had a lot of demonstration gardens that we did for our customers. From the customers’ point of view, they want to see it growing, they want to see it themselves,” Grogg says. “Now, we’re utilizing those demonstration gardens that were already there, but they’re purposely planted for those harvested goods to be used in our dinners.”
Hurdles to jump
Managing a successful garden center can be difficult enough without also learning to operate a kitchen, bakery or dining space. Zoning, staffing, inventory and training all take on a new dimension in the food service world.
To simplify the issue of personnel, Wilson hired an HR director who is responsible for screening applicants for both Sage Garden Café and the retail nursery. Throughout the course of the year, Wilson Nurseries tends to employ 150 to 160 people, including seasonal hires, across both retail locations and Sage Garden Café. Wilson says she tries to cross-train some employees to fill roles in both retail nursery and café settings.
“You never know where your shortages are going to be,” she says. “Right now, I would say that we’re sharing probably five people who work at the restaurant and in the garden center, greenhouse, production or wherever. What we have learned is we try not to schedule them in more than one place on any given day … to not spread someone so thin so they can master at least one job.”
At Angel’s Garden Center and Angel’s Café, Doherty has found that training staff to fit into the coffee and pastry business has been a relatively simple matter of refocusing their existing retail skills.
“We have a great staff,” he says. “They like working [in the café] because they get tips. It’s a little bit of a different shift. Once you learn the register and the product at the garden center, then it’s just applying that knowledge and being able to think on your feet.”
Owning a café means taking on another full-time responsibility, however. Doherty says that the Angel’s Café operation requires close attention and adaptability in case of an emergency.
“It’s a lot of hard work. When you’re the owner and something goes wrong, it always falls back on us,” he says. “We could get a call at three in the morning from the baker who says, ‘I’m sick. I can’t come in.’ [When] someone doesn’t come in for a shift, we have to make sure it’s covered. It’s not easy. It’s not something I’d recommend that you build and you manage from afar. If you’re not on-site to watch things, it can easily slip away.”
Wilson learned a similar lesson about the time commitment involved with launching a restaurant during the development of Sage Garden Café.
“Initially, I would say I spent 75 percent of my time focused on construction, menus, hiring and exactly how this thing was going to work,” Wilson says. “Now I have a manager and a general manager and a front-house manager, so I’m able to do most of that through them … but I did have to jump through a lot of hoops. I sacrificed a lot of my time that I would have been spending on Wilson Nurseries focused on [the restaurant].”
Hiring a farm-to-table chef to run the kitchen at The Reserve at Grogg’s Green Barn may sound like it was a tall order, but Grogg says having a very specific vision for the restaurant and its menu made it easier to find the right fit. Matt Owen, head chef of The Reserve, represented the outside-the-box thinking that Grogg was looking for.
“We had a very particular person in mind, and we said, ‘We’re not going through with this unless we find someone of this mindset.’ Our mission for the restaurant was cooking only what’s in season and what can be harvested at peak ripeness right out of the garden,” Grogg says. “[Owen has] just fit in perfectly. He’s able to talk with guests about the different textures and flavors.”
Of course, before a restaurant can host guests and serve meals, it must be built. While renovating an unused space inside her store, Grogg said the noise and dust generated by the construction during business hours caused an occasional distraction.
“The biggest challenge was just construction,” Grogg says. “We had to stock up on concrete, and there were some loud noises and dust that we had to deal with for several weeks. But, we started in January, and January is pretty much a dead season for us. It kind of got exciting towards the end because you could start seeing the progress instead of just dust and construction.”
Return on investment
Despite the many challenges of conceptualizing, designing, building, marketing and operating a food service venture, several IGCs have found them to be worth the risk.
When Sage Garden Café first launched, Wilson says the reaction was immediately positive. The higher-than-expected traffic necessitated a transition away from a self-serve model into full service, as well as an expansion on Sage’s seating space a year after launch.
“It was my most immediate success, ever, in a business,” Wilson says. “We brought people in in droves. I think the area was just hungry, so to speak, for that type of restaurant. We were just swamped and had to make a lot of changes. We opened as a fast, casual place. Then, two months into it, we realized that we had to be full service. We had to have servers — we just couldn’t really manage the volume any other way.”
Sage Garden Café serves as another source of revenue for Wilson Nurseries, but more importantly, it also represents an extra dimension of her business, Wilson says.
“I guess my thought process is that it’s really expanded the brand,” she says. “Even when you look at our logos, our logos work in conjunction with one another. It’s a critical part of us now.”
Doherty says Angel’s Café complements his business well by creating an additional destination and helping customers feel more comfortable at the store.
“People love going in and getting something to drink or something to eat and then walking around with a cup of coffee and shopping for plants,” he says. “That’s been one of the big tie-ins. And we have a lot of customers that come in just to buy a plant and they say, ‘I think I’ll go next door and get a coffee.’ It just goes hand-in-hand. It’s a nice accessory. I think anything food related with a plant business — it kind of pairs well together.”
Although The Reserve at Grogg’s Green Barn has only been open since February 2017, Grogg says the initial responses show that hand-crafted, farm-to-table dining is exactly what the Tulsa community has been seeking.
“Here’s what I hear all the time; ‘It is about time somebody in Tulsa did this,’” Grogg says. “[Customers are] loving it, and they’re excited about the unknown of it, because we don’t post our menu before the dinner. It’s the excitement and experience of not knowing. We just have a wonderful, loyal base of customers who are trusting in that way.”
Horticulture retailers have known for years now that home-grown food is a rapidly growing and highly profitable sector of the industry, but as they move ahead with The Reserve, the Grogg’s Green Barn team hopes to push the envelope of what garden-to-table can be. Grogg says the mission of her company has long been to educate its market and provide solutions regarding organic edible cultivation, and the restaurant is the latest in that long line of efforts.
“We’re teaching people how, with an average backyard garden, you can plant blueberries and have fruit trees and you can have great edibles coming right out of your backyard,” Grogg says. “We’re reaching a whole new market.”