Without formal training in business or horticulture, Tara Heibel had reservations about opening a garden center. But as an industry outsider, she had an atypical perspective that set Sprout Home apart from the start.
“One thing I was scared of starting out was opening a retail store with no business training,” says Heibel, who previously worked as a painter, art gallery manager and corporate art consultant. “But you learn by doing, and when you really love it, you learn quickly.”
Heibel fell in love with plants while landscaping homes she was rehabbing as a side investment. Unfortunately, her choices were limited.
“Back in the late ’90s, even in the city, there wasn’t much plant material I found interesting,” she says. “It was a very conservative landscape, excuse the pun. The material and merchandise at garden centers weren’t akin to my aesthetic direction, so I knew there was a need. Then I realized there were other people looking for the same things.”
Heibel envisioned an urban garden center offering nontraditional plant varieties and modern accessories (as well as design services and classes) that appeal to design geeks and plant geeks alike. She opened Sprout Home in Chicago in 2003, and in Brooklyn in 2007.
“I had the advantage of not having formal business training, because it made me think outside of the box,” says Heibel, past president of her chamber of commerce. “It forced me to look at things from a different angle, to explore and experiment with things people weren’t talking about yet.”
Because Heibel started Sprout Home to provide plants and products she couldn’t find at other retailers, like alsobia and chocolate cosmos, she says her store draws “a different clientele than most garden centers get.” She’s amassed a diverse, loyal following, from “younger design professionals who appreciate our stylistic intentions,” to “plant geeks who appreciate our selection.”
You learn by doing, and when you really love it, you learn quickly.”
Heibel relies on word-of-mouth, social media and press coverage to drive traffic into her stores and website. Sprout Home’s online store ships products around the country, but plants are only sold in stores.
Last May, Sprout Home opened a second store in Chicago (across the street from the existing location), more focused on products than plants. Similarly, another store is set to open across the street from the Brooklyn location in August. Then, Heibel will expand into a third city and start developing Sprout Home’s own product lines.
“I work a lot because I love it,” she says. “Being around plants and flowers makes me happy.”