By Brandi Cowen
Fifty years ago, something special took root along a quiet country road running through southwestern Ontario.
Fifty years ago, something special took root along a quiet country road running through southwestern Ontario.
|The flower house bursts into bloom in the spring and summer, but come Christmastime, the flowers are replaced by hundreds of fresh cut trees.
Grobe’s Nursery & Garden Centre got its start in April of 1962, when current owner Peter Grobe and his father, George, launched a landscape maintenance business serving the city of Kitchener.
“My dad was a nursery salesman; he sold door to door. He was the brains and I was the grunt,” says Peter. “I did the planting and he did the selling. The problem was he sold too much and I couldn’t get it planted.”
Peter decided to quit his job as a body shop mechanic and make a go at working full time in the landscape maintenance business. Meanwhile George continued to sell an astounding number of plants. Business boomed as the city grew. In 1963, the father-son team landed their first major landscape maintenance contract at St. Mary’s General Hospital in Kitchener. In 1965, Peter’s brother, Paul, came on board to help keep up with ever increasing demand. Growth in the area showed no signs of slowing, so in 1966 the Grobes decided to open a garden centre near the tiny village of Breslau, just outside Kitchener.
To this day, Peter is still involved with his son, Perry, running the day-to-day operations of the garden centre.
|The Grobe’s sales yard features neat rows of potted plants and wide aisles to encourage browsing; to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Today’s visitors still pass through the 20-foot by 20-foot square that housed the original indoor area of the garden centre. Over time, a series of expansions have branched off that structure, sprawling into distinct areas devoted to backyard birds, fountains and statuary, and seeds and gardening implements. Wandering from room to room inevitably leads visitors out to Grobe’s main attraction: a meticulously organized sales yard bursting with colourful blooms and thousands of plant varieties to choose from.
“In 1990, we made a concerted effort to broaden our plant selection,” says Perry. “Prior to that, we would have larger blocks of fewer plants. But starting around 1990, we decided that if we were going to continue, we had to have a broader range to appeal to a broader number of people.”
“With the box stores going into the business, we had to have something that they didn’t have, and knowledge was one of the things we had that they didn’t have,” adds Peter. “The thing was to have the newer varieties and the better species prior to them appearing anyplace else.”
This strategy has paid off. People come from as far away as Mississauga, Toronto, London and Barrie, lured by the promise of plant varieties that aren’t stocked by their local garden centres. Grobe’s website, which is updated and maintained in-house, has proven to be a very useful tool for attracting customers outside the normal reach of the centre’s print and radio advertising. The site offers an extensive (although not complete) catalogue of the plants that can be found in the sales yard.
Not long before I visited, a customer from the Beaches area in Toronto phoned up to ask if Grobe’s really had a hard-to-find variety of Japanese maple in stock, as their website advertised. He was blown away to learn that the answer was “yes.”
|At a Glance
Grobe’s Nursery & Garden Centre
Peter and Perry Grobe
Years in business:
Setting the scene for sales
Row after row of perennials, roses, shrubs, and trees – including a number of species of fruit trees – encourage customers to take their time browsing for the perfect items for their outdoor spaces. Colour coded signs and tags on each and every plant make it easy for staff to direct customers to the options that are best suited to their specific growing conditions. These days, most of Grobe’s plants are sold in containers; the store was an early adopter of containerized planting.
“I remember spending March breaks as a boy potting up plants to sell in the garden centre in the summer months,” says Perry. “Peter and Paul identified early on that if you were able to keep the plants in the summertime, you would be able to do plantings in the summer time.”
|Grobe’s is offering this hybrid tea rose for sale this year.
Making the switch to container growing has been good for Grobe’s bottom line, Peter explains. “The perceived value is much higher than a transplant that you’ve got to nurse along like an incubated baby. It wasn’t hard to get more money for [container grown plants] because it looked like it was worth more money. We evolved into container growing with all the suppliers we deal with; it was a necessity. We have it now to the point where we have almost nothing that isn’t container grown.”
On occasion, high winds whip through Grobe’s six-acre facility and staff are put to work righting overturned containers. The centre’s trees fare better than many of the other plants because Grobe’s uses ribbed rubber ties to secure the potted trees to horizontal bars that run the length of the row. Bars are spaced far enough apart that customers can easily make their way up and down the row in search of the perfect tree. This spacing also allows staff access to care for the trees.
“We are a working nursery in terms of making sure that the things that have to be done to maintain the plant on an ongoing basis are done, from fertilization to watering to spacing to trimming,” explains Perry “For us, it doesn’t cost; it pays because the value of the product maintains itself if in fact you maintain the product.”
Grobe’s commitment to caring for its products extends beyond the boundaries of the garden centre. Customers worried plants aren’t performing as they should can phone or e-mail the garden centre with questions or concerns about their purchases. “We want to see what the problem is and try to address it prior to the customer bringing back a corpse,” says Perry. This service can be time intensive, but it lends itself to improved customer satisfaction and fewer returns under the centre’s three-year guarantee program.
Supporting this commitment to quality is a dedicated staff of 15 multi-functional individuals who can fill a number of roles on an as-needed basis. A landscape designer may be on a job site with a client in the morning, operating a forklift loaded with nursery stock at lunch, and answering customer questions in the sales yard in the afternoon. “Someone like that is far more useful to us because we know that at any time of the year, if some part of their job description dries up, we know we’re still going to have work for them,” says Perry.
More than skill, Grobe’s looks for a can-do attitude and a willingness to learn new skills. “We hire for attitude, not experience,” says Peter. “We’ve tried to hire for experience and that doesn’t work. I can’t change your attitude, but I can change your experience.”
Christmas tree country
Come Christmastime, Grobe’s converts into a winter wonderland. The indoor space devoted to fountains and statuary for most of the year becomes a home for brilliant potted poinsettias and artificial trees. Meanwhile the flower house, which hosts a riot of colourful blooms throughout the summer, is cleared to make way for hundreds of fresh cut Christmas trees.
|Grobe’s uses ribbed rubber ties to secure its potted trees to horizontal bars that run the length of the aisle.
After 40 years, Grobe’s has established a reputation as “Christmas Tree Country,” and earned a place in many cherished family traditions. Each year, parents with fond childhood memories of the annual trip to choose a tree bring their own children to munch on Timbits and sip hot chocolate while strolling up and down aisles of fragrant evergreens.
“You know you’ve got a problem when they come in and they’ve got 12- or 13-year-old children already and they say, ‘you know my mom and dad brought me here when I was only eight’,” says Peter. (Judging from his wide smile though, it’s really no problem at all.)
Throughout the holidays, Grobe’s appeals to a much broader clientele. The middle to high income customers who shop at Grobe’s during peak gardening season are joined in November and December by lower income families and non-gardeners. “What happens is we’ll find folks of just about every demographic and financial status because we try actively to court the fact that anybody and everybody has the ability to buy a tree that suits whatever it is that they have as criteria, whether it be longevity, affordability, or the type of species that they’re interested in,” says Perry.
All of the store’s trees are selected by the Grobes, who personally visit the tree farms to choose stock. Even with every premium Fraser fir tree guaranteed for 30 days, very few customers have ever needed a replacement or have received a free tree the next year. Customers who are particularly picky about their trees often make their purchase in November, when the trees start making their way onto the sales floor. Grobe’s can store these trees at the garden centre until customers are ready to bring their purchases home. Offering this option has allowed Grobe’s to extend their holiday sales. In recent years, the centre has sold upwards of 500 trees before Dec. 1. The store also offers a tree set-up and take down service. Last year, staff spent several weeks through the Christmas season delivering and installing their trees in people’s homes.
Since 1994, Grobe’s has donated over $40,000 from its Christmas tree baling program to KidsAbility, a local charity that provides rehabilitation services for children with special needs.
The secrets to success
Walking through Grobe’s retail space, it’s obvious that the centre’s secret to success isn’t much of a secret at all. The attention and care paid to little details are on display in aisle after aisle of quality products. You can see how invested staff are in the garden centre, and that gives customers confidence that their hard-earned dollars are well spent on Grobe’s plants.
|The main building is the result of multiple expansions branching off from Grobe’s original 20 foot by 20 foot building.
“We don’t give up on a plant if it’s not looking well because we have the resources and the space to work on it. But in terms of a customer coming to our place to look at it, they will not find substandard quality. Peter and I are extremely fussy about that,” Perry says.
“We’re the fussiest old birds in the business,” Peter adds with a chuckle. “And our suppliers know it.”
Taking the time to build strong relationships with those suppliers is another key to the garden centre’s long-term success. Some suppliers have been growing for Grobe’s for 40 or more years. They understand the quality the Grobe’s brand demands, and know how to deliver, year after year. In return, Grobe’s staff pass along insights gleaned from the sales yard, sharing the inside scoop on what consumers want and which once hot items are no longer selling well. This give and take is what makes the relationship work.
“Dealing with the suppliers is a two-way street,” says Peter. “They have to make money in order for you to make money; if they don’t make money, they’re no good to you.”
The third key to Grobe’s success lies in the store’s relationships with other garden centres. “You have to rely on peer knowledge from various parts of the country,” says Peter. In his experience, many garden centres experience similar challenges. “The scale and scope may be different, but the same problems are still there.”
Tapping into a network of fellow owners and operators can offer up advice on what has worked well (and what hasn’t) at other stores and generate fresh ideas to tackle perennial challenges that arise year after year.
Last but by no means least, over the past 50 years, Grobe’s operations have been rooted in one simple principle. As Perry says: “We only offer the very best plants, products, and advice at all times, because only the very best is good enough.”