It's been many years since Chuck Hafner walked into a greenhouse to ask the price on petunias out front, only to find out those plants were marigolds. Still “very hands-on” at 68 years old, he has seen the business grow from a garage-sized farm stand to a Top 100 destination. Through it all, dedication to the basics and his farm market background have served Chuck Hafner well.
Building on truck farm beginnings
Many garden centers laid farm market roots aside, only to pick them up in recent years as the demand for local food has grown. But produce has always been part of Chuck Hafner’s plan. His family’s legacy of growing and selling fruits and vegetables reaches back to 1922 and the truck farm business of his father and uncle. The precursor of today’s state-of-the-art facility got its start in 1968 as a summer farm stand during Chuck’s college years.
Expansion into flowers and nursery stock came in 1975. “The first time I ever handled anything but produce was 10 arborvitae, which sold in a day,” Chuck recalls. “I said, ‘This looks like a pretty good deal!’” However, produce has remained a focus. “Our roots were in produce, and we did a huge business. In the late ’80s, we were retailing over a million dollars in produce over a period of about five months,” he says.
Until the late 1990s, all the produce was Hafner-grown. But as plant sales grew, Upstate acreage shifted to Christmas trees, which offered more flexibility than strawberries or corn. More than 8,000 Hafner Christmas trees went out last year. “On our busiest Saturday, we sold over a thousand trees,” Chuck says. That equals one tree — displayed, selected, recut, shaken, baled and loaded — every 43 seconds.
With improved offerings at grocery stores and seasonal markets, annual produce sales have dropped to $623,000, but a few hundred people per day still buy produce during the five-month-long homegrown season. “Almost everyone goes out with something in addition to produce,” Chuck says. “But our niche is green goods — living plants. They make up about $5.5 million out of the $9.5 million in sales.”
Sticking with strong basics and good value
Hafner believes success rests on giving people a good value, but he emphasizes that value doesn’t equate to price. “I believe the value is not only determined by the price of the product, but it is the service that you give, the facility, the quality of the product. The price is only one part of it,” he says.
In 2008, Hafner’s moved into a new 65,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art retail garden center and 75,000-square-foot growing facility. Beforehand, Chuck’s wife and co-owner, Linda, and his son and general manager, Jess, traveled extensively, visiting U.S. and European garden centers, refining their vision and incorporating the best features for their business, products and location. “This allowed us to start with a clean slate and build the type of facility we wanted,” Chuck says.
Despite a challenging local economy, the IGC continues to thrive. “Our business has grown every year for more than 45 years. We haven’t had a down year,” Chuck says. “Our strength is that we stick to the basics. We try to get all our basics right before we do any of what I call window dressing.”
Employees concentrate on service, merchandising, product care, cleanliness, signage and customer experience. “We’re competing for people’s free time for recreation. So, we need to keep it interesting and make it a great experience to come here,” Chuck says.
The IGC closes during January and February so that personnel and the facility can reboot. A core staff of 15 stay on for an interior overhaul, tearing down Christmas displays and doing a top-to-bottom cleaning — from lights to floors, including shelving — in preparation for reopening the first week in March.
Growing and merchandising from a produce perspective
The IGC grows product they can’t easily buy or keep in sufficient, timely supply, including hanging baskets, flats, vegetables, mums and poinsettias. Additional product is contract-grown or purchased, but Jess Hafner stresses quality is always first and foremost.
“We go to great lengths to ensure our product is prime and consistent, and healthy when it leaves here. We invest in our staff to do that,” Jess says. Trained growers maintain the retail green goods, and staff continually work to ensure displays hold their best product.
When product is brought in, the same attention to detail applies. “We don’t buy any product sight unseen,” Jess says. “We have buyers on the road, and we make sure we continue to grow it on our lot.” In the month of May, at the height of the season, the IGC has a buyer on the road five to six days a week visiting greenhouses, with two to three trucks following and hauling product back.
Merchandising capitalizes on produce know-how and impulse sales. “When you’re displaying produce, you have to have a very nice display,” Chuck says. “If you have 200 peppers, the six smallest ones are going to sit there. With our flowers, we’re continually grading.” As customers pick the best product, the good — “just not quite as nice” — is pulled before it starts to deteriorate and placed in reduced-price stations. “Those carts never stay full. This allows us to keep a high level of quality in our greenhouse, and it comes from our produce background,” Chuck says.
Planning for the future while staying focused
When traveling and envisioning the 2008 facility, Jess Hafner was influenced by the cafes and mini-shopping-mall settings of European garden centers. Portions of the new facility were designated for complementary businesses, and an ice cream store and a concept eatery based on nutritious, healthy, fast food now fill those spots. Customers browse the businesses and the IGC without going outside. A greenhouse seating area, complete with a landscaped water feature, has capitalized on the connection and opened the door to more opportunities.
This past November, the IGC partnered with the eatery and six local yoga studios for an event. “We provided the space and environment, and the studios volunteered their time. Over 200 people attended,” Jess says. This October, the nursery will co-host a community farm-to-table dinner featuring a string quartet and a still-to-be-decided charitable tie.
Future plans include more events, but that doesn’t mean a change in priorities. “We’re doing quite a bit on that, but our focus is still the basics,” Chuck says. “If we keep our basics right, we can branch out into this other stuff, and it just adds to the whole customer experience.”
Jess agrees. “We’re creating an off-season destination, keeping people interested, searching for the next generation of customers and becoming more community-based,” he says. “But like my dad said, all this is only possible if we keep strong with the basics that have made us successful. That’s always the No. 1 focus.”