By Kari McMahon
When the U.S. economy experienced the Great Recession between 2007 and 2009, Susan Brandstetter and her husband, Russell, felt the impact. The owner of a 25,000-square-foot garden center walked away from a commercial lease on their property. They were left with a garden center but with no one to run it.
The couple decided to take ownership of the garden center and reopened it in 2011 as Fertile Ltd. Under their ownership, the center in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood offers landscaping services and sells products ranging from flowers, shrubs, trees and garden tools to ornaments.
“I did not know what a petunia was,” said Brandstetter, who used to remodel and manage her family’s property rentals. “I just kind of decided I was going to wing it.”
Nine years later, the couple is potentially facing another recession, deeper than the previous one. The U.S. economy has declined significantly as states implemented stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the country. The orders have changed how businesses of all sizes operate.
The federal government has set aside funds to help businesses as part of the coronavirus relief package, which includes $670 billion for forgivable loans to small businesses.
On March 20, Illinois implemented a stay-at-home order. Garden centers could operate under the order if they provided delivery or curbside pickup, according to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Garden centers were allowed to reopen May 1 to customers as long as they adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Fertile’s receives 55% of its business from landscaping, 35% from retail and 10% from trade. Under the state order, landscaping services were deemed essential and so Fertile did not close. The center is located outside, so customers were able to pick products while social distancing, Brandstetter said. Although many customers didn’t realize Fertile was still open.
“When everything opened on the first [of May], there were so many people who came out to shop,” Brandstetter said.
Walter Knoll, a 66-year-old from Roscoe Village, visits Fertile every spring to see what products it has and feels it’s more personal than a big box store such as Home Depot, he said.
“There’s never any pressure to buy, it’s a nice place to just walk by and see some beautiful plants and greenery,” Knoll said.
The clientele of the garden center is reflective of the neighborhood. Brandstetter, who is a member of Northwestern University’s Women’s Board, said the typical demographic of customers is families with young children, but amid the pandemic Fertile is seeing more people in their 20s.
“I’m hearing a lot of garden centers reporting a large number of new customers, people that have never gardened before, a lot of young customers,” said Danny Summers, managing director at The Garden Center Group, a garden center advisory company.
There has been an unexpected demand for vegetable plants, which took Brandstetter by surprise.
“I had to call four nurseries today to try to get vegetables because the guy who I always buy vegetables from every year has sold his out,” Brandstetter said.
When Brandstetter finally reached someone, she was told the price for a minimum order of vegetable plants would normally be $1,500, but in the current climate it would be $3,000.
Securing vegetable plants in the first weeks of the pandemic was a challenge because suppliers didn’t anticipate the demand, but supply is now catching up, Summers said.
Many people in Chicago don’t have a lot of space and come to Fertile looking to do container gardening, Brandstetter said. Annuals, plants that flower and die in one season, are one of Fertile’s most popular products because they’re perfect for container gardening, she said.
“Normally people would start picking things up in early April and this year they didn’t, they put everything off till probably the third week or fourth week of April when there was some information about garden centers being open,” said Dick Ooykaas, owner of Green Glen Nursery Inc., a landscaping and garden center wholesale supplier located in Elwood, Illinois.
For garden centers that couldn’t operate during March and April, wholesale suppliers had to dispose of their spring annuals because they only last for one season, Brandstetter said.
Fertile typically operates with 10 members of staff but currently has seven, Brandstetter said. Fertile has seen significant demand for landscaping services but as it gets busier, she expects people may have to wait a few weeks because of demand and minimal staff, she said.
The garden center faces another challenge in managing customer numbers. Pre-crisis, Brandstetter said she would expect high traffic on weekends for retail and high traffic on weekdays for landscaping. So far, this pattern has remained consistent amid the pandemic, she said.
Garden centers must try to spread out customers, who would typically visit on a weekend or during a major holiday, more evenly across the week by encouraging them to come at other times to help manage social distancing, Summers said.
Despite the challenges many small businesses are facing amid the pandemic, Fertile is in a financially stable position. The couple didn’t need to apply for a small business loan and could rely on their equity line of credit if faced with any funding challenges, Brandstetter said.
In the first four years of running Fertile, Brandstetter saw growth in sales but in recent years sales have remained steady. Last year, Fertile had sales of about $1 million, Brandstetter said. She expects sales to remain the same this year but emphasizes it’s hard to tell when it’s so early in the season, she said.
“I think the pandemic has created a desire for people to get outside,” Brandstetter said. “So, I think if anything we’re one of the really fortunate businesses that people are going to really embrace while they have to stay at home.”
Many garden centers across the U.S. share similar optimism, Summers said. This is in contrast to the general feeling among small businesses. The National Federation of Small Businesses’ optimism index has fallen 13.6 points over the course of March and April.
“I think we are optimistic,” Summers said. “I think it’s introducing a lot of people to stay home and be more interested in plants and gardening and their landscape.”