Christianne Laing, owner of Avid Gardener in Cambridge, Wisconsin, had been considering adding local foods to her inventory of plants, hanging baskets and small houseware items for several years.
Last fall, she took the leap, launching sales of locally produced Wisconsin cheeses, honey and coffee — plus sustainably and organically produced wines from around the world — on Black Friday.
“I think it’s brought in some new traffic,” says Laing, who opened Avid Gardener in 2014.
Laing got her start in gardening in the early 1990s, tending to the stylized gardens on a private, 4-acre estate in the suburbs of Milwaukee. Later, she moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where she worked as a nursery manager at several local nurseries.
In 2001, she and her husband, Jay, opened their own landscape business, Red Hawk Nursery, in Cambridge — a small community of around 1,400, roughly 25 miles east of Madison.
“Our first account was for a neighborhood that was going to be in a parade of homes and they needed all the model homes and common areas dressed up with annuals,” says Laing. “I think that first year we planted over 10,000 tulips.”
For around a decade, in addition to their landscape business, the couple also grew vegetables and flowers on their personal farm to sell at local farmers’ markets.
All of that experience helped Laing feel equipped and confident when deciding to split off and open her downtown Cambridge retail business, Avid Gardener; meanwhile, Jay continues to run the couple’s Red Hawk Nursery.
“That history has helped me in the retail store. I know how to grow stuff,” she says. “I know how to grow flowers and vegetables and [maintain] landscapes, so I can answer all sorts of questions from people that come in and want help.”
Individualized customer service
Laing’s penchant for one-on-one customer service extends to her new lineup of wines, cheeses and other local foodstuffs.
Many of the food items she stocks have unique origin stories. The wines she carries, for instance, are “all biodynamic, organic, or sustainably produced,” Laing said, including one popular variety of Spanish old-vine zin. Her cheeses are from smaller producers in Wisconsin.
Since her food inventory launched in November, Laing’s shelves at Avid Gardener have also stocked small-batch charcuterie meats, artisan honey and fresh roasted coffee beans — all produced in the Madison area, as well. “These are specialty items that [local grocery store] Piggy Wiggly doesn’t have here in town,” she says.
Laing includes signage about the artisan products so that customers can read about their origin and flavor profiles. But her most successful sales strategy is talking to customers directly.
“One of the biggest things I have going for me is the individual, personal interaction I’m able to give my customers,” says Laing, who runs Avid Gardener with help from just a few part-time employees.
“That holds true with any product in the store,” she says. “I’m able to talk about them [all], and I’ve found that even if people come in and are browsing, if I engage them in conversation, they usually end up buying something.”
Attention to detail
While many independent garden centers are generations old — enjoying the benefit of longtime name recognition and a built-in customer base — Avid Gardener is a relative newcomer to the industry, preparing to celebrate just its sixth year in business this spring.
In that short time, though, Laing has established a reputation for providing high-quality plants at competitive prices.
“I’m starting to get known for the quality of my plants,” she says noting that she grows as much as she can at her farm’s 18x24-foot greenhouse, while sourcing all the rest — annuals, herbs, and hanging baskets — from nearby Wisconsin growers.
Laing prefers to source within a 75-mile radius, in fact, so that she can personally go on site and pick her plants by hand.
“I’m pretty picky,” she admits. “If I wouldn’t buy it for myself, I won’t sell it to a customer. Oftentimes I take the extra time to go to the growers and literally hand pick all of the plants I want,” she says. “My experience has been, if I just say, ‘I want 25 of those and 50 of those’ [without hand pulling], I’m not getting the quality I want.”
Laing credits her high standards in sourcing for helping her stay competitive with other garden centers in the region.
“There is a fairly decent-sized garden center about 10 miles away and another around 20 miles away, and I’m able to stay competitive with their prices,” she says.
Smart business model
Laing’s business success can also be attributed to careful planning.
Before opening in 2014, she spent over a year meticulously developing a business plan — one that was encouraged by a local economic impact study, which suggested a small retail garden shop might thrive in the area.
“The numbers looked promising, and they gave me the confidence to say, ‘Yeah, I think I can pull this off,’” she says.
Now, thanks to her prominent location on the small town’s Main Street, Laing is able to draw in a lot of downtown foot traffic. Once she gets folks into the shop, they tend to linger.
“Because I am open all year round, I need to focus on items outside of just plants and only gardening,” she says. “I try to change the inventory up. One of my proudest things is, men come in here and they like it. They say, ‘Oh, this is a cool shop.’ You know, guys aren’t big shoppers. The wives come in, but I have enough stuff that I [also] hold the men’s attention.”
In addition to foods, Laing also stocks small, useful houseware and decorative items such as candles, soaps and lotions.
“Most of what I try to bring into the shop is functional and serves a purpose,” she says. “I do a lot of houseplants and terrarium products, which are popular right now. I carry rugs, hats and rubber boots. I stock items that are useful rather than tchotchkes to sit on your shelf.”
An added bonus to her Avid Gardener business model: it often sends business to the couple’s Red Hawk Nursery — and vice versa.
“They kind of feed each other,” she says. “People come in [to Avid Gardener] looking for landscape work, and I can feed that to Jay sometimes. Then we can take plants from this store and use it for his clients’ containers. So they’re pretty intertwined.”
Back before COVID-19 hit, in the midst of long, cold Wisconsin winters Laing came up with some clever approaches to drum up business before the kickoff of the busy spring planting season.
As part of a Valentine’s Day date-night promotion in February, for example, Avid Gardener partnered with a local craft studio to allow couples to decorate a wooden cutting board — with their family name or other design — and then work with Laing to learn how to assemble a charcuterie plate.
Laing admits that adding the food portion of her business was initially daunting, since she had to take out a loan to invest in inventory and purchase a refrigerator unit.
“It was almost like opening another store within a store,” she says.
Still, the effort has been worth it in helping her establish a new revenue stream and broader customer base.
“You end up building relationships with people who come in, which leads to real friendships,” she says.