A garden center can learn a lot of lessons over the course of more than 80 years in business, but perhaps the most important lesson is to not get complacent.
Since 1930, members of the Bridge family have grown and sold plants in the Greenwich area of Connecticut, changing locations, facilities, strategies and practices, but always steadfastly rooting themselves in the business of plants. However, they know that all the experience in the world can’t prevent every challenge, and community support is another crucial resource.
Maggie Bridge, third generation Bridge family member and marketing manager of Sam Bridge Nursery & Greenhouses, says the business got its start when her grandfather, Sam Bridge, Jr., started growing and storing geraniums not far from the retailer’s current location.
When Sam married his wife, Mary Reynolds, she brought with her a sizeable tract of land, on which Sam Bridge Nursery & Greenhouses, as well as the personal property of much of the Bridge family, currently resides.
“Now, we have just shy of 20 acres, but the business itself probably operates on about five,” Maggie says, adding that the rest of the 20 acres is occupied by the family. “My father, his sister and his brother all have a house on the property.”
Sam started out with two greenhouses and grew most of his perennials in open fields until the second generation, current owners Sam Bridge II, Mary Jo Bridge Palmer and Ron Bridge, modernized the operation. Sam Bridge Nursery & Greenhouses now grows full crops of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs, water plants and tropicals each year. The retailer also offers landscaping services and “Premier Garden Care” to households in Greenwhich and neighboring towns.
“It’s mulching, weeding, pruning smaller things,” Maggie says. “We don’t do big tree work or anything like that. It’s not landscaping in the traditional sense.”
Expanding service offerings isn’t the only way Sam Bridge has evolved as a grower-retailer — facilities have also changed with the times. After many years of running most of its retail out of the property’s original barn, a new greenhouse was constructed recently to bring a change of atmosphere.
“We have a brand-new greenhouse that we opened in 2014 and that’s about 26,000 square feet,” Maggie says. “I’d probably say the entire front half of that building is all retail space. It includes our new store, three greenhouse bays that we do retailing out of, and then we grow in the back. We also have quite a bit of space outside the greenhouse where we keep perennials, trees and shrubs.”
The new greenhouse was further enhanced with a re-imagined storefront display area, made possible with the sacrifice of a few nearby parking spaces. Though parking is no longer as close to the retail building as before, Maggie says the interactivity and merchandising power has been worth the trade.
“We [replaced the parking spaces with] a whole mess of different kinds of vignettes, so it’s a little bit more for meandering and more shoppable,” she says. “There were a bunch of spaces right in front of our store, and then there was another side lot that goes pretty far back. We got rid of the front part, so we probably lost about, I would say, ten spaces or so. We have noticed a little challenge with [parking] but most of the feedback has been very positive.”
Since the Sam Bridge team has only had a few spring seasons to get accustomed to the new greenhouse, experimentation with new layouts and interior design is ongoing.
“With our new facility, there’s been a big learning curve involved, and we’re just trying to find the best way to set everything up and that always takes a few seasons to work through,” Maggie says. “So far, every spring has been different. We ripped up the way all our registers are set up. We took all the counters out, redid them and re-angled them and things are working pretty well so far.”
For all the evolution and trial-and-error Sam Bridge Nursery & Greenhouses has been through, very little could prepare the long-standing retailer for an unexpected complication from its local zoning board. Although Sam Bridge is located in a residential district, it has a zoning exception to run its business and has successfully co-existed with its neighbors for several decades. That was the case until a relatively new resident adjacent to the store property filed a complaint earlier this year.
“We’ve been at this location for 61 years and we’ve never had a single neighbor complain,” Maggie says. “This is the very first time this has ever happened.”
The Sam Bridge property includes a 100-foot surrounding buffer zone, mandated by its zoning permission, in order to not disturb nearby residences. However, one neighbor is still unhappy with the retailer’s day-to-day activity and special events.
“When my grandfather moved the business here in the ’50s, they had to go through a lot with the town in order to open,” Maggie says. “Between where our operation ends and [the neighbor’s] property begins, there’s actually 100 feet of trees. There’s absolutely nothing there. His biggest complaint is noise, but we only make noise from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and it’s minimal at best.”
As a result of the neighbor’s ongoing complaints, a cease-and-desist letter was served to Sam Bridge by Greenwich’s Zoning Enforcement Officer in August of this year. The letter claimed Sam Bridge is effectively a landscaping business operating on a property permitted as a nursery. This is based on an outdated interpretation of the nursery business model, Maggie says.
“It’s based on a code that was written in the 1940s that only defined nurseries as being places where you grow and sell plants. It’s very broad and very ambiguous. At the end of the day though, our business model has remained unchanged,” she says. “We have always offered this service to people. We’ve been doing it for decades upon decades and it’s something my grandfather did, it’s something my father did. The only thing that’s changed is that customers don’t want to do it themselves anymore.”
Sam Bridge Nursery & Greenhouses appealed the letter and gained permission to continue operations, but still must campaign to change Greenwich’s zoning language. A petition on behalf of the business on GoPetition.com has just under 5,000 signatures as of this writing.
“Right now we’re trying to gather as much support as possible so we can get the town to re-write the code and then pass it, so we’re able to continue operating as we always have,” Maggie says. “We have asked all of our friends, customers and neighbors to write in to the town and attend the meeting when they have and to sign our petition, too. It’s crazy but awesome at the same time. What’s really nice is to see all the comments people are writing and to know that we have had such a positive impact for so many years.”
Grateful for the support so far, Maggie hopes she and her family can put the zoning issue behind them and continue with what they’ve done best since the ball got rolling in 1930.
“We’re going to see what [the town is] going to do,” she says. “Unfortunately, they could have squashed it in the beginning and they didn’t, so it’s on them and we’ll just have to hope that they make the right decision and they change the code and we can get back to doing what we do.”