Organic growth

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Gilbertie’s Garden Center has stood the test of time by adapting to market demands, listening to customers and building a strong organic brand over the past century.

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March 15, 2022

The Gilbertie’s team grows more than 200 varieties of 100% USDA Certified Organic herbs and 40 varieties of microgreens.
Photos by Julie Bidwell

rom its beginnings as a cut flower operation 100 years ago to the well-known retail garden center and wholesale organic herb and vegetable operation it is today, Gilbertie’s Garden Center has stood the test of time by truly listening to market demands.

Now in the fourth generation of family leadership, the Gilbertie’s experience is steeped in history. The retail IGC has been on the same spot since the greenhouse operation, Gilbertie’s Organics, was first founded in 1922 and it’s standing strong today, complete with the original 1930s farmhouse.

Throughout the ups and downs of its long history, Gilbertie’s Organics has always operated a retail garden center, simply because it has always worked. “That business kept us really going and the retail has done very well. The retail has never gone downhill,” says Sal Gilbertie, owner and grandson of founder Antonio Gilbertie.

What sets Gilbertie’s apart from the competition, aside from their USDA organic certification, is their knowledge of individual customers and their dedication to education. “We work with our customers a lot. We’re kind of like nurturers and teachers,” says Carrie Gilbertie, Sal’s daughter-in-law, who has been general manager for more than 25 years. “I don’t think of it as being a retail space; it’s an experience.”

The garden center is a very traditional model, with no POS setup or even a computer system. Customers can (and do) come in, have a cup of coffee and chat with staff about problem plants or get gardening advice.

“We’re just really community-based,” Carrie says.

Employees know customers by name, and some will even jump in their cars and head out to a customer’s property to inspect a failing plant. “We work with our customers one on one; it’s very personal,” Carrie says. “We want to be more of a neighborhood hub than a shop.”

On the 7-and-a-half-acre parcel, a little less than 3 acres are dedicated to retail space. Much of the rest is occupied by the greenhouse operation, which makes up about 60% of Gilbertie’s annual revenue.

Heading up Gilbertie’s Organics is Sal Gilbertie, whose grandfather Antonio founded the company after immigrating to the U.S. from Naples, Italy. While Carrie heads up the retail store, Sal is focused on the greenhouse operation, which offers more than 200 varieties of 100% USDA Certified Organic herbs and more than 40 varieties of microgreens, including special blends like Sal’s Mesclun Mix, Fall Harvest and Pete’s Super Greens wholesale. The company also offers certified organic arugula, rainbow chard, mesclun mix, kale and lettuce mix to restaurants, organic markets and grocery stores. Sal has even co-authored eight cookbooks highlighting ways to use herbs and microgreens.

It’s that dedication to listening and adapting to what customers want has helped Gilbertie’s stand the test of time. While at one point, there were nine garden centers in Westport, there are now only two, but Gilbertie’s is still going strong.

The company’s quick pivot into the herb sector helped solidify Gilbertie’s as a community staple.

The growth of Gilbertie’s

While at its start, Gilbertie’s sold cut flowers, it evolved over the years to meet customer demands with potted plants, then herbs, veggies and ornamentals. But the retail operation didn’t really take off until the late 1950s.

The Gilbertie’s story began when Antonio came to the U.S. in 1901 and settled in Westport, Connecticut. Antonio and his two brothers, who immigrated with him, started out their careers working at Fillow Flower Company, supplying cut flowers to New York.

“In those days, there was no airfreight, so if you were growing cut flowers and shipping to the New York market, you had to pretty much be within either the train route or within a 50-mile radius,” Sal says. “So, there were a lot of greenhouse growers that grew everything that you could possibly think of here in the Northeast, which you could not have imagined today.”

In 1919, at 54 years old, Antonio struck out on his own and purchased the land the Gilbertie’s retail location stands on today. Two years later, he built a couple of greenhouses and started growing his own plant material. “But he was smart enough not to grow what Fillow was growing,” Sal says.

Rather than growing the roses and gardenias that Fillow was growing, Antonio opted for cool-season crops like ranunculus, anemones, freesia and dianthus ‘Beatrix’ bulbs. He then learned how to pre-cool bulbs like daffodils, tulips and irises, allowing him to ship to New York before anyone else.

“Right after New Year’s Day, he was shipping these things and nobody else was doing it until about March. So he was way ahead of the curve and he made a lot of money during those days,” Sal says.

Antonio went on to build more greenhouses, and later secured another range of facilities in Norwalk after the original owner went bankrupt. The bank let Antonio run it for a year and eventually, he bought them out to expand his growing footprint.

Colorful tropicals and unique statuary options are another draw for customers who peruse the retail garden center in Westport, Connecticut.

Flowers to food

Antonio found great success selling cut flowers to New York buyers. In fact, Sal says they’ve found tickets in the basement from the late 1930s that show Antonio was getting a higher price for certain plants than Sal could get today in New York.

But when World War II hit, Antonio switched his focus to vegetable plants as Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged Americans to start victory gardens. Starting with the basics like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, Antonio started growing big, 104-plant trays for vegetable gardeners.

“In those days, there were no garden centers as we know them today,” Sal says. “You had to go to a greenhouse range to get your starter plants. So you bought 104 of one particular variety of tomato or pepper or eggplant, but the gardens in those days were pretty big because people did their own canning and preserving and things of that sort.”

The operation was incredibly successful, but after WWII, “everything changed,” Sal says. Airfreight took off in the 1950s and drove cut flower growers all over the Northeast out of business as buyers opted for Southern-grown greenhouse flowers.

“They all either went out of business or diversified and our family chose to diversify into potted plants,” Sal says.

So Gilbertie’s decided to start growing cyclamen and poinsettias for the holidays, and ornamentals like hydrangeas and azaleas, among others. Then in the late 1950s, the company started looking for more options to grow to fill their greenhouse space.

Around that same time, an estate superintendent gave Sal Gilbertie, Sr., the current owner’s father, the order for a massive herb garden. The estate owners, who had made their money in perfumes, wanted a huge pie-shaped garden designed with each slice containing 60 herbs of different kinds.

To accommodate the order, Sal’s father grew 100 4-inch pots of each herb, leaving plenty of plants left over after the estate project was completed.

Sal was fresh out of school at the time, so he started helping his father, and they quickly sold out of the herb plants. “And my father said, ‘Quick, learn about herbs,’ and that’s how we got into the potted herb business,” Sal says.

Gilbertie’s diversified into potted plants in the 1950s after airfreight became more popular for shipping plants from southern growers.

Growing a reputation for herbs

Sal’s father passed away unexpectedly in 1959, leaving him to take over the business at just 22 years old. Luckily for him, the president of the Herb Society of America, Edna Cashmore, lived in a neighboring town and took Sal under her wing and helped him find his way.

“She started telling me what to grow and things of that sort,” Sal says. “She and her board of directors would meet at her house every June, from all over the country. She wanted to grow for the board of directors because they couldn’t find these herbs anyplace.”

By 1969, Sal was growing 70 or 80 herb varieties and the nearby Danbury Fair was celebrating its 100-year anniversary. Simon & Garfunkel, who had released “Scarborough Fair” just a few years earlier, was going to perform, so Sal grew 70,000 pots of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme to sell to attendees.

“I figured it would be pretty easy to sell one plant to every 10th person who came to the fair that year, so I took a big, giant booth there and it turned out to be a disaster,” Sal says.

Sal only sold about 400 herbs, leaving him with tens of thousands of leftover plants. He had to think fast, so he hit the road from New Haven down to Westchester County, stopping at every garden center or flower shop he could find trying to sell his excess stock.

After receiving question after question, Sal realized his main problem was that there were no labels or care information on his pots. So he developed his own labeling system with the plants’ common names, Latin names, general uses and care.

“And then, besides that, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the ecology boom started and everybody started going on healthy diets. People started going to Europe and seeing the herb gardens there too and it really started to take off,” Sal says. “And we were the only game in town.”

Realizing they needed more space, the company bought a farm and built another range of greenhouses to grow herbs. They diversified their stock once again, adding microgreens and cut flowers. Since Gilbertie’s already had a reputation for herbs, the company changed its name to Gilbertie’s Herb and Garden Center. But that soon changed as well.

Garden centers were becoming more popular in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, so wholesale business was booming for Gilbertie’s. “At one time we had 800 wholesale customers — garden centers that we were selling to — but then they all started going out of business,” Sal says.

While many blamed competition from big-box stores, Sal notes that a large part of the problem was increasing property values. “Guys that bought a piece of property for $10,000, all of a sudden McDonald’s wanted it for $1 million so that’s why all those garden centers went out. And when they went out of business, we went downhill very quickly,” he says. “We had so many good customers that just closed up because their property was worth so much money.”

So the company once again switched up its stock, moving back into ornamentals. But their strong reputation for herbs and vegetables made it hard to break into the annual and perennial market. Instead, Gilbertie’s opted to focus on herbs and microgreens, gaining organic certification nearly 25 years ago as customers’ interest in chemical-free food has taken off.

Sal Gilbertie, owner of Gilbertie’s Organics

Starting a new century

After 100 years in business, Gilbertie’s is entering a new age of retail operations, and that starts with marketing, especially during a centennial celebration year. Of course, Gilbertie’s plans to keep its core brand strong, focus on community building and keep its identity as a certified organic operation, but the IGC is trying some new things as well.

“The old-timers always say, ‘Everybody knows who we are. We don’t need to do advertising.’ They’re not really getting up to speed as to what’s going on in the retail industry now,” Carrie says. “We’ve been around for 100 years and people tend to get set in their ways in a fourth-generation business so it’s time that we spread our wings a little bit and get out there.”

So Carrie is pushing social media efforts and SEO optimization for better visibility among younger customers, along with telling the Gilbertie’s story. She’s also working with a graphic designer to clean up the garden center’s social media and revitalize their branding for a new, cohesive and modern look.

She has also hired a videographer to shoot footage of the farm and retail store in April and May when it’s filled with blooms and the farm is busy. She plans to put together a short three- to four-minute documentary about who the Gilberties are and where they’re taking their business to share on social media.

“I say it all the time — this is exciting stuff!” Carrie says. “Not too many people can say that their business is 100 years old. That’s something that you should be really proud of, and you should shout it from the rooftops.”

And while the pandemic gardening boom has brought a lot of new faces to Gilbertie’s, the garden center is a bit tucked away on a one-way street, so Carrie is also looking for more ways to get the word out. She still sees new faces coming into the garden center, saying, “I’ve lived here for 10 years and I never knew you existed.”

As Gilbertie’s looks to the future, the company is looking to continue modernizing its buildings and greenhouses as they age. “We’re always just trying to fix around something that was built back in the early 1900s,” Carrie says. “There was not a lot of thought back then as to how the garden center would grow or how we’d need more parking.”

In Carrie’s 25 years, Gilbertie’s has grown significantly, but the company is sticking to its roots. The company has made significant upgrades to its greenhouses, building a new herb house and switching out old oil furnaces for gas. And while some things have evolved like diversifying stock and adding SKUs of native plants, the core tenet of listening to what customers want hasn’t changed.

“I think it’s more about what’s important for our community,” Carrie says. “It’s more just figuring out what the customers are looking for and working with that, which is really organic edibles.”

In fact, edibles is one of the retail store’s largest departments, and it’s been growing stronger over the past decade, even before the pandemic sparked a new interest in vegetable gardening. As vegetable gardening continues to grow, so does Gilbertie’s unique stock.

“People come for the uniqueness,” Carrie says. “We have 25 or 26 varieties of basil and 17 varieties of rosemary. There’s really nothing like it.”