Thriving on connections in the big city

Features - THE TOP 100: No. 30 | Gethsemane Garden Center

Gethsemane Garden Center has seen 40 fruitful years in Chicago thanks to local ties to the community and strong relationships with suppliers.

September 19, 2016

Jodi Miller

At Gethsemane Garden Center, people have been an important resource since the retailer first opened as a Christmas tree lot roughly 40 years ago. Robust offerings of green goods, as well as continued partnerships with growers and the local Chicagoland community, have kept Gethsemane relevant and competitive through decades of shifting economic realities and customer tastes.

Though Christmas trees remain a strong seller for the IGC, owner Regas Chefas says annual flowers are also an inventory cornerstone. Long-standing ties with annual flower suppliers help Chefas coordinate and pre-plan his spring inventory with his suppliers.

“The biggest portion of our business is annual flowers, and we’ve been dealing with the same growers almost from the beginning,” Chefas says. “Some of the people I do business with, I started with their fathers or relatives and we’re still working together and plan the season together, as to what they’ll grow.”

“The biggest portion of our business is annual flowers, and we’ve been dealing with the same growers almost from the beginning. Some of the people I do business with, I started with their fathers or relatives and we’re still working together.” — Regas Chefas, owner, Gethsemane Garden Center

Roses are also a staple at Gethsemane. Chefas says his supply is grown from bare root in an adjacent greenhouse. The facility is also able to keep unsold roses through the winter and perk them up in time for the big selling season.

“We do very well with roses,” Chefas says. “We mostly buy bare root roses, and we pot them up in the early spring. We have a nice facility off-campus here that we raise the roses in. Then we have a coal-framed greenhouse that will overwinter the roses that we had in the previous year and they seem to do really well. By spring time, they’re twice as big as they were when we put them in there.”

Gethsemane Garden Center enjoys long-standing relationships with growers.
Courtesy of Gethsemane Garden Center

To round out its offerings, Gethsemane also deals in produce that is grown on-site, including herbs, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Though the produce program is profitable, it constitutes a relatively small portion of total sales at Gethsemane.

“Since we do a lot of the growing ourselves, as a percentage basis, it’s a very good profit maker,” Chefas says of the produce program. “But, total sales, it doesn’t amount to a lot. It fills out our program and we’ve been doing it for a long time. We deal with a lot of public garden spaces, where they’ll come in and we’ll work a deal with them and we plant certain things for the different ones.”

Making the most of their space

Being located inside the city limits of a metropolitan center like Chicago can present a unique mix of advantages and disadvantages. Chefas says being nearby so many centers of activity brings great visibility to Gethsemane gardens and provides easy access for traffic from all over the city.

“We’re between Wrigley Field and Evanston, Ill., on the same street Wrigley Field is on,” Chefas says. “We get good traffic as far as visibility goes, and we’re near the outer drive, so it makes it easy for people to come from the Near South Side and the South Side and shop at the garden center.”

On the other hand, an urban setting doesn’t allow for an abundance of parking spots, growing facilities or retailing space, let alone display gardens that show off Gethsemane’s products. Chefas says his operation has found a way to display his products in a win-win solution for him and the city.

“One of the nice advantages we have here in the city is … two streets run together right in front of us, so [the city] put an island in there to divide the traffic,” Chefas says. “So, I have an agreement with the city where I plant our show garden in the island. It’s gotten to the point where we really put a lot of effort into it.”

The urban IGC enjoys strong traffic from the Near South and South sides of Chicago.
Courtesy of Gethsemane Garden Center

An eye on the future

No grower/retailer is immune to inclement weather, and Gethsemane Garden Center is no exception. With higher-than-expected temperatures striking throughout spring and summer in 2016, Chefas says plant goods were under extra stress and foot traffic suffered after a strong start to the year.

“[The season] started out pretty good, but the heat in the summer time has really slowed things down. We started out, and through April, May and June, we had a decent amount and we’re still ahead, but we’re slowly giving it back in this hot weather. It’s tough on the plants. You have to water a lot. People are still coming in, but it’s not like it normally is at this time of year. It’s a little slower every day.”

However, a slow summer won’t prevent Gethsemane Gardens from its yearly mission of self-examination, improvement and expansion of inventory in preparation for the upcoming spring season.

“We always try every year to fix the place up and do a lot of painting and sprucing up, try to get new ideas and look for things,” Chefas says. “We try to keep abreast of all the better flowers we can find. I send buyers everywhere to look for stuff.

“It’s always fun to go to some of the other garden centers that you hear of,” Chefas adds. “Being in Chicago with the IGC Show here, once in a while, we’re on the bus tour. It’s just nice to have people come in and talk and visit back and forth and get some ideas.”