#17 ON THE TOP 100 LIST
With a farm-to-table restaurant, extravagant holiday boutique and stunning seasonal plant displays, Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, California, is a destination garden center.
The IGC was founded by Roger McKinnon in 1965, but five years later, his friend Gavin Herbert Sr. purchased the business and moved it from Costa Mesa, California, to Corona de Mar. That’s where “the heart and soul of the company developed,” according to the garden center.
Throughout the years, Herbert Sr. established friendships with some of Orange County’s most famous names — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne — and even developed connections with Disney.
Now the garden center is run by Herbert’s son, Gavin Herbert Jr., who describes the business as “half garden center and half lifestyle with patio furniture and home décor.” The garden center sits on 5 and a half acres, with 10,000 feet of inside space dedicated to lifestyle, and the remaining land consumed by the nursery and parking.
An eclectic clientele
Since the garden center is “in too many businesses,” as Herbert Jr. says, it’s tricky to pinpoint their target audience. And while COVID-19 has attracted new customers this year — like many IGCs — he describes the regular gardening audience as “the passionate gardener that’s looking for unusual and different stuff, 80-85% of which are female, some with college education and typically north of 45 years old.”
But Herbert Jr. says clientele is quickly changing and so are the products they like. According to him, millennials don’t like the brands baby boomers like, and vice versa. Along with those customers, Herbert Jr. also describes the “high-volume, low price kind of guy” and the “extreme, specialty retailer that likes to experience customer service.” But the garden center is sure to have products for everyone.
Although the garden center attracted new plant enthusiasts, Herbert Jr. says sales did “dip” around March and April when the pandemic first began. Since they were considered essential, however, newcomers began coming in, which shot plant sales up 50%, soil sales up 70% and pot sales up 60%. Herbert Jr. connects that to the rising interest in container and edible gardening. Their rose and succulent categories continue to do well in California’s dry climate as well.
Not only did the garden center see a spike in plant sales, they are seeing sales increase during the latter part of the year, which is not out of the ordinary for them.
Roger’s Gardens’ busiest months are October, November and December, which make up two-thirds of their annual sales, Herbert Jr. says. Since Southern California has warmer weather year-round, these sales are holiday-driven.
“I think more people naturally shop for Christmas [and other holidays] than garden,” Herbert Jr. says. “Plus, no one here’s really doing holiday stuff so it draws people from a much bigger radius. My gardening customers are maybe 5 to 15 miles away, but when we do holiday, we get customers from Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside. That may only be 40 miles away, but it’s about an hour and a half with traffic.”
While COVID-19 has affected a lot of this year’s favorite pastimes, Herbert Jr. says the garden center is already “up considerably this year from last year.” He connects that to people wanting more normalcy in their lives.
“The fourth quarter of the year is always fun for everyone because there are holidays almost every other month,” Herbert Jr. says. “But especially now, with things as limited as they are, keeping something like holidays normal is a big deal.” As he drove around in October, Herbert Jr. says he saw a lot of homes decorated for Halloween, even though they may not be welcoming trick-or-treaters.
And when we spoke to Herbert Jr in October, he said people were starting to decorate for Christmas. “That’s telling me that even though people may not trick-or-treat or do typical Christmas events, they’re still doing the traditional deals to keep the rhythm at home,” he says.
He also associates the holiday décor spike to a change in needs. Before, Herbert Jr. says customers would spend 90 to 95% of their shopping on basic needs. But thanks to at-home delivery services, their free time is now spent on “experimental items and retail experiences.”
Spectacular holiday displays
Each year, Roger’s Gardens is “experimental” with its store displays. This year’s Halloween Boutique inspiration was pirates, so staff built a pirate ship and positioned it to protrude from the entrance as though customers were walking into a ship. The holiday section was separated into “below deck” and “underwater” departments so customers can shop for the corresponding home décor. They even hired a Johnny Depp impersonator from a Los Angeles-based look-alike company to portray Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
For Christmas, the garden center has curated hand-painted glass ornaments from Europe, diverse nutcracker options and whimsical Santas, along with other items that combine traditional themes and contemporary elements. And although the garden center sources some items from domestic and international markets, for the past few years, Herbert Jr. has looked to Germany to supply their custom-colored and customer-designed Christmas products.
“It just feels good to know nobody will have our product,” he says.
Another service that sets the IGC apart is the farm-to-fork restaurant they introduced about four years ago. Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens serves the season’s freshest flavors to customers.
In 2019, OpenTable, a restaurant reservation and review service, even rated the eatery as one of the Top 50 restaurants for vegetarians in America, and one of 100 Best al fresco and scenic restaurants in America in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Why did Roger’s Gardens incorporate dining into its services? While their fourth quarter is the busiest, the year-round garden center needed something to offset the slower months. Plus, it attracted non-gardeners.
“Opening Farmhouse changed business dramatically,” Herbert Jr. says. “First, there’s a whole bunch of people that don’t garden, so they wouldn’t necessarily come to Roger’s Gardens and now they do. They’ve discovered a whole other part of our businesses — the garden center and lifestyle component. That created more buzz around the brand as a whole.”
The chef at Farmhouse also creates a lot of buzz. Herbert Jr. says he was “lucky” to find Chef Rich Mead because he has “quite a name for himself in the farm-to-table industry.” With 35 years of experience, Chef Mead has cultivated a relationship with organic farms that allow for the fresh taste of local seasonings, ingredients and specially grown vegetables that customers love. A quick look at its Yelp review shows a four-star rating and repeat customers.
One unique aspect to the restaurant — aside from its location in a garden center — is its connection to Disney. In the mid-1970s, Roger’s Gardens acquired Disneyland’s original Magnolia Park Bandstand and used it for Christmas shows, Santa visits and more. Now, it serves as a special place for customers to dine within the Farmhouse.
Roger’s Gardens also likes to go green with its comprehensive sustainability programs and recently celebrated its 10th anniversary of selling organic products. They conserve energy by using LED products, skylights and programmable timers to reduce electricity consumption from lighting by 35%. They refrain from using plastic bags and trunk liners, and even reuse and recycle empty plastic plant containers that customers drop off. Their entire outdoor store has been converted to a low-water, “California Friendly” garden that promotes biodiversity.
Advice to other IGCS
From years of personal history to innovation, adaptation, personalization and holiday spirit, Roger’s Gardens has proven its position as an industry leader. As for other garden centers looking to implement holiday décor and events, Herbert Jr. says to “start slow, let your customers know and build from there.” In regards to the changing — and sometimes challenging — industry, he says IGCs will always be in favor and will be successful as long as they offer unique and differentiated items that appeal to their customers.