Ten years ago, long before one of the most severe droughts of California’s history hit the state, Roger’s Gardens was thinking about how to make gardening more sustainable. The company recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its California Friendly Garden contest, which recognizes and rewards beautiful gardens designed with non-thirsty plants. California Friendly Garden is more than a contest, though. It’s a philosophy, and Roger’s offer multiple resources, including blogs, videos and design ideas to help their customers achieve water-wise outdoor retreats. Ron Vanderhoff, general manager and vice president, discussed the program, as well as other initiatives for the company this year, which include reducing inventory to improve the customer experience and their year-old restaurant, The Farmhouse, led by Chef Rich Mead, who is credited for being a champion of the farm-to-table movement since before it was a household term.
Q: I know California always has to prepare for the next drought and be water conscious, but did the severe drought of the past five years bring more interest or perhaps more urgency, and has that changed since the severe drought ended in April?
A: In California, drought cycles are almost like economic cycles. We are going to have one every several years, we just don’t know exactly when or how severe. When we do, there is a reset and then a gradual return to normalcy — sort of. However, with each recurring drought cycle the return is always to a slightly new normal. During this past five year drought, the most severe in the past 150 years, the new normal has moved more than usual. Lawns and flower beds are noticeably less prevalent and the mix of low-water perennials, shrubs and trees being sold is continuing to grow.
Q: Can you tell me about the origins of the California Friendly Garden program and resources? I also noticed it was a registered trademark.
A: Over a decade ago, Roger’s Gardens could already see a shift building toward lower water/lower resource approaches to gardening. We were not necessarily in a drought cycle at the time, but we knew one was inevitable; they always are in California. Additionally, Roger’s Gardens has an important reputation of being on the leading edge of gardening evolution. We pride ourselves on being a trend spotter, not a trend follower. I think it is the nature of being a successful specialty retailer and of remaining relevant that we stay a bit in front of these changes. In a few cases, we may even be able to pioneer them. Being on-trend is part of our brand and our success in the marketplace, whether with organics, edible gardening, seminars and workshops, home consulting, or in this case, California Friendly.
So, we convened a group of regional experts, which included water districts, non-profit groups, university experts, governmental agencies and industry leaders. We all had a common objective: to get the attention of the gardening community and provide leadership, especially in the area of landscape water use. The California Friendly program was launched, with the flagship being the California Friendly Garden Contest.
Q: When selecting leadership for the restaurant, was the hope that Chef Rich Mead would attract some of his loyal followers from Sage, and is it meaningful to have one of the leading, originating farm-to-table chefs at the helm of a restaurant in a business that focuses on sustainability and growing your own food?
A: Yes. Before Rich, we spoke to other high-profile restaurateurs. Much of our success at Roger’s Gardens is because of our core beliefs and vision. One of those beliefs is that Roger’s Gardens is a part of the community. We’re not corporate America; we know our shoppers, we interact with our community and therefore we tailor our business to their lifestyle. We wanted a restaurant and a partner that shared this same vision; especially one who was a part of our community. And we wanted a partner who believed as deeply as we do in healthy living, freshness, local sourcing, an appreciation of the seasons and a sense of “place.” Much like gardens, we wanted a restaurant that celebrated California. Much like we believed in California Friendly gardening, Rich Mead believed in farm-to-table, local produce and following the seasons before it was trendy. For Rich, this belief wasn’t the result of a marketing program or just words framed on a wall, they were as fundamental to him as they were to us. The synergy was obvious.
Q: What is the relationship between the restaurant and the garden center? Does The Farmhouse lease the space?
A: The Farmhouse is both a lease and partnership relationship.
Q: How long had Roger’s considered a restaurant, and why was 2016 the right time?
A: For many years, our shoppers have suggested that we have some version of food service, so it has been on our minds for a long time. However, during the past decade or so, food and dining decisions have become a central part of our shoppers’ lifestyles and how they plan their days. We believe that Roger’s Gardens is foremost a lifestyle business, not a gardening business. Beautiful gardens are a part of this lifestyle, but not the entirety. Beautiful gardens, outdoor entertaining, holiday decorating, interactive learning and experiences, and now great farm-to-table food are all a part of this lifestyle. Experiences are central to modern retailing.
Q: Have you noticed crossover between the restaurant and garden center yet?
A: We share customers, and having these customers move and shop seamlessly from one experience to the other is our goal. We are still learning how to create this synergy. We have found that the lunch visitors to the restaurant behave differently than the dinner visitors, different types of items appeal to restaurant visitors and that the sizes of the products are critical to whether restaurant patrons will pick them up and buy them. We are also discovering what the right price points are, how they carry items to their car and more. Great food and a great customer experience is the first goal of a successful restaurant. We are already beginning to work collaboratively on seminars and workshops, private events, charity functions and wedding receptions. The restaurant has far surpassed our expectations.
Q: The industry has long recognized your sophisticated, stylish merchandising; I recently read an article from a 1995 issue of Garden Center magazine with tips from your store. Where do you get your inspiration?
A: Thank you for the compliment. How does any company sustain style and fashion leadership? We are an organization of incredibly passionate and talented people. But more important is that Roger’s Gardens has both an organizational structure and a company culture that gives creativity and style the highest priority. Eric Cortina has been our creative director for many years and keeps on the mark. Not only is he our style manager, but he is one of the most senior members of our leadership team. Most organizations settle for a merchandising style either as a result of a mid-level merchandising manager or more often as a reflection of the owners’ taste. At Roger’s Gardens, style, fashion and merchandising are empowered and operate at the highest levels in the company.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge this year, and how did you overcome it?
A: Early in the year we were reminded that we are not always easy to shop. We are a highly merchandised and assorted retailer. From one visit to the next, merchandise comes and goes and it often changes location. We can also be visually overwhelming, with too much to absorb and too many choices. We know that our sales floor can be simultaneously beautiful, but also intimidating. A complex, highly merchandised and assorted sales floor is also labor intensive and difficult to sustain. One of our strategic objectives this spring was to reduce our assortment and present larger blocks of products — the biggest of these we call “Big Bets.” This was a cultural change and it required multiple approaches. We developed a Merchandising Guide with six requirements of all merchandised spaces. We put numbers to our SKU count, set targets and reported on them monthly. We reorganized our visual merchandising team. Finally, we initiated a regular merchandising walk, specifically to address these objectives. We like the changes. Q: What are your requirements for merchandised spaces? A: The purpose of our merchandised areas is to sell products — period. It is not to beautify the store, inspire people or get lots of positive comments from customers. All of those might happen at times, but they are not what drives our merchandising. It is about selling merchandise. Four of our requirements of all of our merchandised spaces are: A lead item; plenty of inventory; easy to shop; and products associated by use.
Q: What has been your biggest success?
A: Other than the restaurant, our biggest successes might be from the sales growth we are seeing in several emerging categories of merchandise. Gourmet food items continue to grow significantly. Indoor plants and garden-patio décor are also seeing large sales gains. One of our greatest accomplishments is the sales and profit gains we are seeing in our patio furniture business. After sales declined during the past few years and [we were in] a shrinking market, we introduced a “Roger’s Collection” of mid-priced furniture. These are exclusive designs, imported in full containers and are only sold as complete sets. The results have been very positive.