When COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020, Dutch Growers Home & Garden didn’t scale back or hunker down. Instead, the Regina, Saskatchewan, garden center dove headfirst into the construction of a new location, moving from their original 2-acre store onto 15 acres just outside the city.
“It really was our field of dreams,” owner Karen Van Duyvendyk says of the new location on a former golf course site. “It was just a field and people couldn’t see our vision when we were first starting.”
Dutch Growers, which has an older, family-owned sister store in Saskatoon, got its start as a boutique garden center when Van Duyvendyk and her husband Tim decided to break away and strike out on their own. Over the 16 years Dutch Growers sat at its original location, the company built up as much as it could, but eventually maxed out the property. “It’s really turned into a big business and we’re pretty proud of that,” Van Duyvendyk says. “It was very mom and pop at the beginning.”
That’s not the case anymore for the IGC, which sits at No. 79 on the 2021 Top 100 Independent Garden Centers list. As the company expanded, Van Duyvendyk says a lot of problems stemmed from the property’s size and shape.
So to handle the growing demand for its products, the company bought 15 acres of land just outside Regina right before COVID, with the plan to sit on it for a few years and make plans. “It was getting very small and it was very tight,” Van Duyvendyk says. “It was getting to the point where it was really restricting our ability to grow our business.”
But when the pandemic hit, Van Duyvendyk decided it was time to move forward with construction of the new garden center, complete with an expanded growing facility. It was a chance to not only expand but improve the garden center experience for both customers and staff.
“It’s always been that napkin drawing — that idea of, ‘If I could build a garden center, this is how I would want it to look,’” Van Duyvendyk says. “I think everybody does that. They all have that little magic plan in their mind.”
The investment was a “jaw-dropping amount of money” at more than $10 million [$7,943,916], but it’s already paying off, according to the company. Dutch Growers expects the water reclamation system will save a significant amount on water and sewer bills, and the modern lighting with LED and solar fixtures is reducing power bills.
“It’s amazing how a few small changes really do make a big difference to the bottom line,” Van Duyvendyk says.
Since construction had been deemed essential when the pandemic hit, there were plenty of available contractors and Van Duyvendyk seized the opportunity, officially starting construction in the spring of 2020. The IGC got lucky with contractors as well, hiring the same companies it had used in the past for repairs and improvements at its original store. “To be able to work with them on such a big project, and during COVID, it just fell into place perfectly,” she says.
When it came time to make the move, Dutch Growers shut down its original location around Christmas, and from December through April, shifted materials to the new site.
“We were closed for that whole winter, which isn’t unusual. In the prairie, we tended to close in February anyway and when COVID hit, we kept our online store open and we still had enough sales to make it worthwhile,” Van Duyvendyk says.
Maintaining curbside pickup and delivery, Dutch Growers made great use of the online store they’ve had for seven or eight years. Before COVID, that accounted for 10% to 15% of annual income, but in 2020, that number rose to about 30%.
“We were really fortunate that we had made all of the mistakes that you can make with online sales before, so we knew what to avoid,” Van Duyvendyk says. “But the demand for plants was so high and it was so easy to just do it all online so timing-wise it was perfect.”
A new home
The garden center itself takes up about 7 acres of land, with a few more taken up by the water reclamation system. The rest is open for future garden center development and potential partnerships with other local businesses like hot tubs or boating companies to create an outdoor living destination.
The increased growing space has allowed Dutch Growers to focus more on plant material that’s been in high demand like annuals, vegetables and expensive or difficult-to-find tropicals.
“We do a very large amount of tropicals out of Florida and California, and shipping is crazy,” Van Duyvendyk says. “I pulled every favor I could out of every vendor I’ve ever met this year to be able to get product. So instead of ordering a semi of tropicals every three weeks, we’re now starting to grow a lot of our own and do our own cuttings because we’ve never had the ability to do that before so that’s really exciting. I’m really enjoying that part of it.”
Another bright spot of the new location is the parking lot, which was never large enough at the old location. So the first thing Van Duyvendyk insisted on was an acre of parking. And while she was met with some resistance, she insisted on 250 parking spots and it paid off. During a big sale in August, the entire parking lot was full of customers, and some even parked on the road.
At the new location, sales are up almost 50%, some of which Van Duyvendyk attributes to COVID shopping. And with plenty of space for social distancing, the new garden center was a popular destination. And sales for 2021 look promising.
“Our approach has always been that when we have customers come in, they’re not just coming into our shop; we’re inviting them into our home and we treat them like they’re a guest in our home,” Van Duyvendyk says. “And now we have a nice, big, new home and we’re even more excited to have more company over.”
It’s always been that napkin drawing. That idea of, ‘If I could build a garden center, this is how I would want it to look.’ I think everybody does that. They all have that little magic plan in their mind.” — Karen Van Duyvenkyk, owner