Cinde W Ingram -- Casual Living, 5/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Gethsemane garden Center's urban location on more than two blocks of Chicago's North Clark Street brings both challenges and blessings for owner Regas Chefas. During the spring and summer season, his love of color spills out onto sidewalks and captures the attention of passersby.
"Our tables are painted bright green and our awnings are purple with pink lettering," said his wife Kathleen Chefas, who manages the center's Wild Pansy Gift Shoppe. "It's just a flavor when you come in that's very unique to our garden center - and people notice that. Sometimes it's great that it's not all under cover because in summertime when you're driving down the street, we have to put all of our overflow carts on the sidewalk so all you see are masses of flowers and happy faces lining the street."
Most customers are drawn from Chicago and its suburbs, but many loyal out-of-state customers return several times each year. Some drive an hour and a half from Indiana or Michigan to haul away plant material, a category Regas added 40 years ago to extend the selling season of the Christmas tree and pumpkin business his grandfather and father had started. Regas, his brother and sister grew up selling Christmas trees. Now his grown children, Sarah and Regas Chefas Jr., come in to help out when they are in the area.
His family's Christmas tree lot became the foundation for the garden center, which grew through the years as Regas was able to add bits of property for new divisions, off site storage and customer parking areas.
Kathleen and her daughter Jennifer Gehant run the gift shop on the ground floor of a bright yellow two-story building, which houses offices on the second floor. The shop building connects to a 5,000-sq.-ft. greenhouse featuring tropical plants. Another approximately 5,000-sq.-ft. structure contains GC Home, offering selections of garden accessories and seed.
Regas expanded the original business by sourcing local plants. "We were still small until 1995. Now we're one of the largest independent garden centers in the Midwest," she said.
Because of its urban location, Gethsemane Garden Center was never able to buy huge pieces of property at one time. "We grew slowly as we accumulated and that gave a flavor to the garden center that's different from either having one huge box store or one of the new conservatory garden centers," Kathleen said.
Customers who arrive with preconceived notions of independent garden center products being more costly compared with home improvement or big box stores often find those ideas proven wrong. "The reality is that we're not (more expensive)," Kathleen said. "Even with the economy and the price of gas going up, we still haven't raised our prices for the last four years on our plant material. We just held our prices where they are."
Seven years ago, the garden center added outdoor furniture - starting with bistro tables, chairs and umbrellas. The category generated enough interest for them to add an outdoor furnishings department five years ago. This year's season started on April 14-15 with an annual Spring Open House, and it will end just before Halloween when the store transforms for holiday sales.
Outdoor furniture is set up in vignettes, in big covered portico areas and with umbrellas to create outdoor room settings, Kathleen said.
"Last year, we had a big 40x60-foot tent, but this year we built a series of pergolas on the outside and we're putting our furniture under that," said Mark Rosenberg, who brought casual furniture experience when he joined the company three years ago. "Because we're in the city, we get a lot of small area requests. We often see shoppers looking for a bench for the balcony or the backyard."
Gethsemane's bestselling furniture products include Kingsley-Bate for teak, Ratana for woven, Summer Classics' import line and Treasure Garden's umbrellas. New lines added for this season include Jardin de Ville and Seasonal Living's concrete tables.
"Kettler has a table that hooks over the balcony rail and folds out," Rosenberg said. "We got that because it's a great idea for the city."
"Another category we do well in is with acacia wood from Vietnam," Rosenberg added. "That's a good category because it covers the lower end of the spectrum. You know you get all kinds of people in your store, not just the high end."
To attract a variety of customers, Gethsemane Garden conducts a series of educational lectures, special events and advertises selectively. "Mostly people come in and they are wowed, and they come back and bring friends," Kathleen said. "It's always word-of-mouth. We have only one classical music station on the radio in Chicago and we heavily advertise and partner with them. We do very well with it. And, just like everybody else, we've built up an email list and we use Twitter and Facebook - the young people do that." The company also constantly updates and improves its website.
In addition to its annual Spring Open House, Gethsemane hosts a big sidewalk sale in September, a children's festival in October and a holiday open house in November. "For our children's festival, we really go all-out," Rosenberg said. "We have a petting zoo; we have a maze, which is made out of hay bales; we have mimes, music and entertainment - it's all free."
Good customer service is a hallmark of the garden center's approximately 70 fulltime, year-round employees. "I have never been in an organization that is so customer service oriented," Rosenberg said. "If somebody comes in and says ‘I want a tree,' we will walk them over and introduce them to somebody to make sure they are comfortable. We want to make sure that anybody who buys anything from us is happy with the service."
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