When Delores and Wally Steinhauser took over Wingard’s Nursery in Lexington, S.C., from Delores’ parents more than a decade ago, they started modernizing the company. Wingard’s Nursery became Wingard’s Nursery & Garden Center, they updated the logo and added new departments.
“We consciously said, ‘We want to protect the old but enhance it, and not enhance it in such a way it runs our long-term customers off,’” Wally says. “We didn’t even want people to know we bought it because Delores’ parents [Margie and Judson Wingard] were so loved.”
The goal was to keep the garden center’s charm but add contemporary elements to ensure the business not only had a rich history, but a bright future.
“One of the things we did is we really expanded the whole idea of the gift shop,” Wally says. “Then we decided three years ago to start selling fresh produce in a modest kind of way.”
A longtime tradition was what actually sparked the new idea to sell fruits and vegetables. Towering pecan trees dot the nursery property and also grew in Judson Wingard’s front lawn, and toward the end of the year, he would shell and sell the pecans during the holidays.
“That was one thing that gave us the thought that people will come here for food products,” Delores says.
Before making a large investment, Wally and Delores tested the idea of the produce department. The first incarnation was a 350-square-foot, open-air, roadside stand-like business, launched in 2013. They created signage and started offering fresh, mostly South Carolina-grown produce.
“The growth rate was really strong,” Wally says. “In 2014, it was 23 percent.”
The biggest challenge was keeping the fruits and veggies fresh in the South Carolina heat. Because of the department’s success, they decided to dedicate more resources to the market.
“In 2015, we took an existing, 1,500-square-foot straw shed, repurposed it, refinished it, added climate controls and put our produce in there,” Wally says, adding that the growth rate that year was 48 percent. “That gave us the flexibility to sell other things since it was climate controlled.”
The market now offers fresh baked goods, pork, milk, eggs, sauces, seafood from both North and South Carolina, in addition to an array of produce. A beehive enclosed in Plexiglas and vented to outside the market has also been a big attraction for customers. A map with information about exactly where the South Carolina produce suppliers are located is displayed, and products are labeled with farm and grower information as well.
Top sellers include locally grown strawberries and asparagus, heirloom tomatoes and smoked chicken salad, items that are either difficult to find or that aren’t available anywhere else. Produce is arranged in baskets and bins, giving the market an old-world feel. When produce isn’t fresh in the state, it comes from the next closest source.
“AS WE WENT DOWN THIS ROAD AND ADDED A MARKET, ALL OF A SUDDEN WE WOKE UP TO THE FACT THAT WE REALLY ARE FOUR BUSINESSES THAT ARE ALL INTERCONNECTED. WE HAVE AN ANNUALS AND PERENNIALS BUSINESS, A TREE AND SHRUB BUSINESS, A GIFT SHOP BUSINESS AND A PRODUCE BUSINESS.” — Wally Steinhauser
“Mark Balser, who is our produce manager, has developed really good relationships with the farmers and growers, and that has been a huge key to our success, because they take care of us,” Delores says. “We really like getting produce from people who we know. We feel like the quality is really there, and we can share those stories with our customers.”
Some of the family farmers, who sometimes make appearances at the garden center’s events, grow exclusively for Wingard’s now, Wally says.
“As we went down this road and added a market, all of a sudden we woke up to the fact that we really are four businesses that are all interconnected. We have an annuals and perennials business, a tree and shrub business, a gift shop business and a produce business. Each of them have their own manager, and they are run separately,” Wally says. “We [realized] we’re a lot more than a nursery or a typical garden center. We’ve really become this destination for four different things that people like, so we’re really a market. We felt it was probably time to rename and contemporize our logo as well.”
Refreshing the brand
Delores had been thinking about refreshing the business for a few years. She was inspired by White Oak Gardens’ transformation more than four years ago. The Cincinnati, Ohio, business created a new logo and website, and she was blown away by her impressions of the garden center before and after.
“It made a huge difference in the image of the place to me as an outsider looking at their two logos,” she says.
What really lit the fire for Delores and inspired her to move forward with her and Wally’s ideas in July 2015 was commentary from her daughter, Jordan, who was home from graduate school.
“We were talking about all of this, and she said, ‘When I look at our website, it just looks old and tired. If I pulled up this website, I would not come to your business,’” Delores recalls her daughter saying.
At first, Delores was hesitant to make such sweeping changes at the company her parents started in 1968.
The first aspects of the business that needed to be updated were the company’s old @windstream.net email addresses and the website.
The name, logo, website and brand needed to reflect the fact they were really four stores in one, and a destination for gardening, produce and gifts. The brainstorming started at a staff meeting, where people threw out ideas and suggestions for a new name for the business. Then, the Steinhausers sent the top ideas to staff and “extended family members who had been involved in the business over the last 30 to 40 years,” Delores says. For a while, there was a debate between Wingard’s Garden Market and simply Wingard’s Market.
“We had toyed with the name Wingard’s Garden Market, which I liked because it kept that word ‘garden’ in there,” she says. After votes were tallied, the winner was Wingard’s Market. “One thing that we’ve found is people have always called us Wingard’s. They never said Wingard’s Nursery and Garden Center. I don’t think it’s been too much of an adjustment for customers because they mainly know us as Wingard’s anyway.”
Once the name changed, everything else needed to be updated, including email addresses, the website URL, social media pages, business cards and store signage.
“Then it was a matter of changing the signage out on the road to the nursery, changing the business cards, changing the letterhead, redoing the website, redoing Facebook, so there was a method to our madness,” Wally says. “There weren’t any significant unintended consequences of the name change … We went about it the right way. We had the expense of changing signage in the nursery, but we knew that was all coming.”
Their graphic designer came up with a new logo they liked, and sent several versions using different colors. While on a trip to Bar Harbor, Maine, last summer, Wally and Delores saw a mixed container with a lime green sweet potato vine and a deep purple petunia, and it served as inspiration for the colors and look of their revamped logo.
“We both looked at it and said, ‘Those are the colors,’” Wally says. “So then we came back to our graphic artist, told her what we wanted to do, told her the colors, and told her what we were trying to achieve with the logo, and she set about working her magic and working on mock-ups until we finally had one that we liked.
“We just knew we wanted something fresh and contemporary.”
The new logo, name and website was unveiled in March, the start of the spring season. Though the Steinhausers aren’t sure how effective the changes have been yet, they know they are on the right track.
“Anecdotally, I feel like in the past, the only times you’d see a young person in here is when they were with their parent. It would be a young first homeowner, and parents would come in with their son or daughter and tell them what to buy,” Delores says. “Now we’re seeing younger regular customers, especially with the fresh produce because they are all much healthier eaters than we Baby Boomers are. And they want to learn to grow their own food, so quite a few of our people come for vegetable gardening classes. I don’t know that it’s because we changed the name or the logo, or if it’s just because everything came together.”
Delores didn’t really grow up in the family business. Her father loved azaleas and sold them on the side for many years, starting at 50 cents each, but he didn’t fully develop and launch Wingard’s Nursery until Delores left for college and he retired from his long career at South Carolina Electric & Gas in the early 1980s. She did watch the roadside azalea stand grow over the years, and gardening is in her family’s blood, she says.
“That’s what we all love to do and what we like to talk about,” she says. “We don’t sit around the dining room table and talk about politics. We sit around the dining room table and talk about what’s blooming, what’s growing and what the latest plant is.”
Delores majored in business and economics, and was working as an economics professor at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J., when her husband proposed an idea.
“This is the ironic thing. He would always say, ‘You get frustrated at work. It’s time to go sell azaleas.’ And I would say, ‘Are you out of your mind? You’re never, ever going to want to go sell azaleas,’” she says, laughing. “But we kept saying that. It kept coming up.”
Circumstances changed for both Delores and Wally, who worked for AT&T for more than 20 years doing everything from sales to marketing, and they considered the idea more seriously. At the same time, her dad was thinking about the future of the business. Delores asked him not to make any decisions until she had a chance to review her options.
“That summer, I spent at least a week if not two playing consultant. I took inventory, I talked with [my father] a lot, I went with him on buying trips to growers. I watched him buy things, and I asked him a lot of questions about how they do things,” she says. “I had worked in consulting at one point in my career, so I kind of knew how to be a consultant. I went home and wrote a full report.”
She sent her father her list of short-term and long-term recommendations.
“We talked, and he said, ‘I’d rather you stay in New Jersey and make money as long as you can, and we’ll try implementing these things and I’ll just keep talking to you about the business,’” Delores explains. “For me it was one of the most fun times of my life with my dad because I had a nice relationship with him, discussing this business, and he valued the things that I was recommending.”
It wasn’t the first time Delores offered him advice. She remembers telling her dad that it was time to invest in cash registers and get rid of the fanny packs employees once used to carry money.
Delores wasn’t quite sure if she wanted to take the plunge and leave her job to take over her family’s business. So she taught while running the garden center for about eight years, flying back and forth to New Jersey while working at the college Tuesday night through Thursday morning. Finally, she retired from teaching in December 2013.
Following in her father’s footsteps, she and her husband have “retired” into a whole new career.
“Our whole life, we’ve always said, if an opportunity is presented to us, then we typically try to take it because we don’t ever want to look back and say, ‘What if we had done this?’” she explains.
“We retired young, and we still needed something to do, and I just couldn’t play golf all day,” Wally says, joking. “We liked the business. We saw an opportunity. We had the skills. We had a great group of people who worked here, so it was really easy to slide into.”
Scott Culbreth, a sales rep for Hackney Nursery, has watched the garden center evolve over the years. He remembers when the Steinhausers, who had never owned a garden center before, took over.
“[They] were both successful, skilled people before they got into the nursery industry, and they brought those skills with them. If you have a business sense, it’s not that hard to transfer [those skills,]” Culbreth says. “They are willing to try different things. That’s the key in our industry right now ... because it’s all about foot traffic. And that’s what they’ve done with the gift shop and the produce and the plants. They are one of the success stories.”
There were some challenges, however. When they bought the nursery in January 2006, there were about 100,000 azaleas, Wally says, and they had to act quickly to sell them down to reduce their inventory and labor costs on the plants.
“We had 15 years of inventory we had to manage every year. We didn’t foresee that,” he says, adding that they also needed to optimize space on what had been an 8-acre business and add more parking.
What was once the core of the business, growing azaleas and other shrubs, is now a very small segment, as Wingard’s grows about 10 percent of their plants. But they had to change with the times and also adapt to the growing community. The historically rural area has exploded in recent years, and the “dirt road” that used to lead to the business is now a main thoroughfare.
“2016 is probably the strongest spring we’ve ever had. We’ve grown continuously since we bought the business, and this spring is without question our strongest yet. Revenue overall is up about 12 percent from YTD last year,” Wally says.
Delores believes her father would have been proud of the market. He was 85 when he finally retired from the business, and he still tended to his vegetable garden.
“He would love the fresh produce market. It wasn’t about the money [for him,] but the fact that people saw value in what he was doing,” she says.
After working in separate careers and in different industries for more than 20 years, Wally and Delores both say their “individual strengths complement each other.” Delores focuses on the analytical aspects, while Wally handles marketing.
“We debate ideas a lot, but we come to a better decision because of our different perspectives,” they wrote via email.
“[Owning Wingard’s] is a lot different than a corporate situation where it’s not your business,” Wally says. “This is our business. Decisions we make we can implement quickly. We’re able to listen to what customers say and get that feedback and change things quickly. It’s just a lot of fun, there’s never a boring day here. You get to be outside all day, I think it probably added 10 years to our lives.”