Silver Lining: Urban Roots branches out as Uptowners find relief in gardening

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Urban Roots Garden Center

This is the second Silver Lining, an Uptown Messenger series on locally owned small businesses that are thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like other New Orleans businesses considered essential, the Urban Roots Garden Center did not have to close down during the COVID-19 lockdown. It was considered to provide essential services because they sell edibles and fruiting plants. Also, like other businesses in Uptown Messenger’s “Silver Linings” series, this one does not rely on the tourist trade or out-of-town visitors.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Urban Roots offered a new service: curbside pick-up. It was a very popular service for a few months, and it went well after they worked out the kinks.

It started with email orders, and when that got too complicated, they pivoted to phone orders. The number of pickup tables kept growing. When the Phase 1 restrictions were lifted or loosened, they noticed curbside customers would get out of their cars and shop when picking up their purchases. That seemed like a good point to end curbside.

Soon after the shutdown began, Urban Roots saw a dramatic increase in customers. The owners guess that their business nearly doubled. “We were unprepared for how busy we became. We actually hired a few new employees to handle the influx of customers — in person and by phone,” co-owner Tom Wolfe said.

So the business did not need to apply to the Paycheck Protection Program, as it remained open and staffed throughout the citywide shutdown. They lost a few employees who were not comfortable working with the public, and each individual decision was respected.

“Everyone has to look out for his or her own best interest. Honestly, with unemployment so high, we had no problems recruiting new employees,” said co-owner Matt Frost. “We kept all our personnel on the job, and they never missed a paycheck. We were happy to have been able to do that.”

Why the dramatic surge in business? “We think several factors created the increase in business. We believe there were a lot of people wanting to get into gardening, but had not had the time to get started,” Wolfe said. “Quarantine gave them the chance to finally get going.”

Also, people became more aware of where their food came from and realized that even on a small scale, they could gain some control over what they ate. “Edible gardening was our top sales category for several months,” Wolfe said.

With people spending more time at home and wanting to make their outdoor spaces nicer, the landscaping side of the business escalated as well. “Lastly, house plants not only make your house look nicer, they are great for air quality. These are what we believe created the increased interests in our products,” Wolfe concluded.

As for the state or city protocols in the time of the pandemic, Urban Roots received an official notice and operating guidelines via email from the Louisiana’s Department Agriculture and Forestry confirming that garden centers were considered essential services and would not be required to close down. Before receiving that authorization, rumors were rampant about what places had to close or were allowed to stay open, creating a lot of uncertainty.

There were also weekly city health inspections. This gave the owners the opportunity to ask questions and confirm they were doing their part to comply and keep things safe.

In these times, more people are planting gardens or re-doing existing ones. Gardening is a safe, outdoor activity that can give a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. People gain the benefits of producing some of their own food and having a backyard retreat to escape the doom and gloom on the news.

And with more people working from home, they have more time to devote to potting and tending plants. It becomes a family activity that everyone can participate in and have fun doing.

“The one sentence that struck us the most from the state’s email regarding our essential services status was that along with everything else, we provided ‘good mental health activities,’” Wolfe and Frost wrote in an email.

In 2012, the Urban Roots Garden Center took over the space at 2375 Tchoupitoulas St. that ARS Building Supply had occupied. Wolfe, a landscape architect, had worked at a garden center through college and always thought it was the best job he ever had. After he re-located to New Orleans, the opportunity to open Urban Roots presented itself.

He “roped” Frost, a teacher at the time, into joining the business in 2015. Together their complementary skills grew the business by listening to customers and looking for opportunities to expand products and the customer base. Frost uses social media to keep everyone informed on the latest and greatest happenings. “We are amazed at how far we have come from those early days,” the two wrote. “Who knows where the future will take us?”

Benny the goat at Urban Roots (via Facebook)

Urban Roots customers are all familiar with the farm and domestic animals that populate the place. The animals came about early, with the rescue of two rabbits right after Easter 2012. “Lionel” and “Bunny Foo” became – and continue to be — wildly popular. The collection grew from there.

They saw it as a way to set them apart from the other Garden Centers, while taking in animals in need. The menagerie includes goats, sheep, Jackson the pig, chickens, ducks and geese. Also scattered about are turtles and tortoises, lots of cats — and Elvis the Prairie dog. They all have names and are all beloved friends of Urban Roots.

In addition to the “pandemic surge,” the existing client base has been steady. The usual transition period from summer to fall plant material creates a gap in what plants are available. Early fall is typically a slower time of year for plant sales, and that normal slowdown occurred this year too.

However, Christmas is a big part – about one-third — of the Urban Roots’ annual sales, and this year it has only added to the increased business. The pandemic has not had a negative effect on the 2020 holiday sales, and in fact the garden center is busier than usual. Wolfe and Frost attribute this to people being hungry for any happy distractions that families can do together.

And now there is a lot more room to spread out and stay socially distant. They were able to add 2,500 square feet to the existing footprint. Ironically, Urban Roots was able to grow because of the pandemic. The Urban Roots’ landlords were planning to use the area next to the garden center for event rentals.

“When COVID restrictions ended large gatherings, they offered the space to us and we took it over in May. We were bursting at the seams and needed more space. It worked out for all of us,” Frost said.

Of this whole experience, Frost and Wolfe said “we have the best customers in the world. The kindness and support they showed us was incredible. Everyone did their part in meeting all the protocols put in place for us to remain open. They were very patient and respectful to our staff and each other. For eight hours each day, life felt almost normal.”

Urban Roots Garden Center
2375 Tchoupitoulas St.

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