Garden centers have been diversifying their businesses and combating seasonality with restaurants and cafés for quite some time. Their eateries and coffee shops have become destinations, giving people another reason to visit (and another opportunity to make an impulse purchase). They make shopping convenient, too. If customers become hungry or tired while browsing the store, they can take a coffee break, stay longer and may spend more. They can meet friends or family for lunch and shop together afterward. It becomes an experience, not an errand.

For the past few years, IGCs have provided something else through their on-site restaurants: education. They’re creating farm-to-table concepts using produce grown on site and showing customers how to turn their edible gardens into a meal. They’re sourcing meats and cheeses locally from vendors and talking about why that matters, and explaining how humanely raised livestock is nutritionally different.

It’s not just the market or customer preferences that have changed; the reasons retailers are offering food and dining are evolving, too. IGC restaurants were once established based on the needs of retailers, who wanted to diversify and add profit-centers, especially in the off-season. Now, they’re being developed to cater to the needs and interests of their local customers, who want to know where their food comes from and who produced it. Garden centers are responding and adapting to their communities and markets and focusing on the experience of their customers, and they’ve been successful.

In our May cover feature, assistant editor Conner Howard tells the story of three independent garden center retailers who have ventured into this very uncertain segment of business. The approach and models are very different — Sage Garden Café is open primarily for lunch and hosts special events like weddings, The Reserve is only open Friday and Saturday evenings, and Angel’s Café specializes in coffee and baked goods. Navigating a new business is daunting, but by listening to customers and responding to local trends, they’ve found it was worth the risk.

Jennifer Wilson, owner of Wilson Nurseries and Sage Garden Café in Kentucky and the star of this month’s cover, is celebrating her sixth year in the restaurant business. Wilson’s has been open since 1979, but she calls the restaurant her “most immediate success, ever, in a business.” You can read more about her strategies and the other companies’ stories in the cover story.

Michelle Simakis