Life in America’s fastest growing city is demanding, but Red Barn Garden Center offers a peaceful alternative to Austin’s fast pace. We spoke with owner Emelie McDaniel about the challenges and focus that landed Red Barn in our Top 100.
Q: How has Austin’s growth impacted business?
A: One challenge is we’ve had to move a couple of times. Over the years, we operated on leased properties that became so lucrative, the owners sold. Every time we moved or neighborhoods changed, the whole customer base and what we sold changed.
In the last three years, we were surrounded by empty nesters in established homes and sold mostly color. Now those empty nesters are downsizing. The homes are being bought by young Millennial-type families who want to do new things. It’s so refreshing to see young children back again.
Q: What sets you apart from your competitors?
A: My mission was to establish a local nursery with two driving goals. The first was to reconnect people to nature and growing things. Austin is very tech-oriented. People go from their air-conditioned house to their air-conditioned car to their air-conditioned office. They never spend time outdoors or connect with nature in any way.
The second was to provide a decent place for people to work and contribute to that goal of reconnecting people with nature. I hoped for a place of work where we have a sense of family for each other. I tried to create Red Barn in a different manner. I’m blessed to have a staff that takes my mission to heart. They are absolutely my biggest asset.
Q: What plants or programs are most successful for you?
A: We try our best to carry native and adapted plants to help people succeed in their gardening attempts. We have such drought issues. We’re members of the Grow Green program, a cooperative effort between water conservation, the city and various agencies. We participate in that program in a big way. We do our best to provide environmentally sustainable plants.
The other area is edibles. I have people very involved in the edible movement and helping people grow food. We sell an amazing amount of 4-inch veggies and herbs. We also have edibles in every department. Anything in the nursery that bears anything edible, we include in our edible selection. We include things like pineapple guava, which people don't necessarily think of, or loquat. People get excited by nontraditional things.
Q: What’s ahead for Red Barn?
A: I think there is a business model change for independents in the future. The model has been [to be] everything to everybody. I believe the future perhaps is smaller stores with a narrower focus. Narrow the focus, lower the size, and up the service.
We have a new generation of gardeners. They’re not DIYers. They want things done for them. I’m working toward more easy-to-grow adapted and native material. Also, edibles and raised beds, square-foot gardening and containers. So much of Austin is becoming high rises.
Q: What advice do you have for other garden centers?
A: You need to have a passion for the industry – not just for plants. Focus on your customers and try your best to meet their needs. And when you find good people, do your best to hold onto them, so you have quality people to back you up. I would not be the success I am if I had not had the staff that I do.