Cultivating Their Dream

  • PJ and Nikki, owners
  • Nicky's Garden Center, train
  • Nicky's Garden Center, atrium
  • Nicky's Garden Center
  • Nicky's Garden Center, door
  • Nicky's Garden Center, house
  • Nicky's Garden Center, coffee shop
  • Hillwood Farms Coffee
  • Hillwood Farms Coffee
  • Hillwood Farms Coffee
  • Hillwood Farms Coffee, David, manager
  • Hillwood Farms Coffee, homemade goodies

I trekked to Nicky’s Garden Center on my bike during a visit to Wheeling, WV, to check out the coffee shop based on an Instagram referral. The bright and exotic outdoor patio lured me in. I relaxed and took a seat, sipping on a full-bodied oatmeal latte made by David, their creative concoctions barista, and eating a deeeeelicious homemade lemon biscotti. Two gracious people came over to say hi! I quickly learned they were PJ and Nikki Lenz, the owners. We got to talking, and the next thing I knew, I had a blog story!

To avoid any possible confusion before you read on, Nicky’s Garden Center, a mom-and-pop business, was originally located in Martins Ferry, Ohio. The fact that one of the owner’s names is Nikki is a wild coincidence. That’s why you’ll notice different spellings of the name Nicky and Nikki from here on.

Q: Which came first, the coffee shop, or the garden center?
The garden center. We have owned Nicky’s Garden Center for 25 years. Many people stopped by when we opened Nicky’s Garden Center in Wheeling and said, we used to drive by here all of the time! This place just drew me in! They couldn’t wait to come here after we purchased it because it had never been open to the public. People love the property; it’s a peaceful place.

Visitors of Oglebay also have our garden center on their list of things to do. People from Cleveland and Cincinnati come to Nicky’s during Thanksgiving, and on their drive back home, they’ll stop here to buy a Christmas tree. It’s a cool tradition! 

Q: What appealed to you most about the property?
PJ: The house. It sat vacant for about 20 years, but the previous owners took great care of it.

Nikki: A lot of people wanted to buy the property. We wrote a letter of intent to Mr. Lash, the owner. When he received our letter, he died the next day, as if he knew he could go in peace, and the property would be in good hands. Other buyers wanted to tear the house down and put up condos or other things. Mr. Lash didn’t want that. He searched us out based on the personal letter we sent him.

Q: The interior of the historic home is very charming. What are some of the unique interior features?
PJ: The exposed brick, the curved glass windows, the original hardwood floors. A fireplace in every room. All of the interior walls on the first and second floors are brick. 

Q: What made you both quit your traditional jobs to start a new business venture?
PJ: I was 30, and Nikki was 26. We both had good corporate jobs, but we had to drive over an hour each way in opposite directions. Growing up, I guess you could have called me a city farmer. My dad purchased vacant lots throughout the city. My dad and I put up fences, tilled ground, and planted vegetable gardens. My duties were to get up in the mornings, ride my bike to each of our gardens, weed, and water them before I was allowed to play. I started doing this when I was about 8 or 9 years old. My dad usually worked five days a week, 10-12 hours every day. He would visit the gardens on the weekends to harvest. I started working for the original Nicky’s in 8th grade selling Christmas trees, then in the spring, I sold flowers and sheared Christmas trees on their tree farm in Indiana, Pa.

When I was a kid, I always thought it would be neat to own a garden center. I almost bought the business when I was 18, but things just didn’t work out. Twelve years later, Nikki and I were landscaping at our new home when I went to Nicky’s to purchase plants. As I was leaving, the owner asked me if I was still interested in buying the garden center? I said, no. I told Nikki that night, and much to my surprise, she said I think we should look at it, and here we are 25 years later! 

As business owners, if we make a mistake, we own it, we have to. We learned it from our dads. My dad was a shipping dock foreman and Nikki’s dad was a coal miner. Working hard is in our DNA. The only time the work gets to us is if we have to miss something of our kids’.   

Q: What is your favorite part about owning a coffee shop and garden center?
PJ: My wife and I both love coffee and flowers, but most of all, we like to provide people with a beautiful place to come — the kind of place Nikki and I ourselves want to visit. 

Q: What is your biggest challenge as owners?
PJ: I would have to say competing with the big box stores. 

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?
PJ: At first, we were very worried and short-staffed. Easter was a complete loss, but when April hit, wow, business busted loose! There are more than 19 million new gardeners this year, and it was one of our best springs ever! 

COVID helped us. We usually hire three or more people for the spring season, but we couldn’t bring them back this year. Nikki and I had to do a lot of things ourselves, so we have seen more than we did before. We were like ah, no wonder why this or that was happening! Why didn’t they tell us this takes so long? Or whatever else. It helped to open our eyes. We’ve had the best season ever with fewer hours. Other stores in the area were closing earlier too, so it didn’t hurt us to change our hours.

Nikki: We’re open Monday thru Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. because those are the hours we can handle ourselves. We used to be open until 7 p.m. This is a physical job. I wish I knew how many miles we log a day, back and forth, — loading, caring for plants, watering. We will have days off when the season gets slower, but since March, we have worked every day.  

Q: You have a son and a daughter; do you hope that one or both of them will take over your business one day? 
Nikki: This was our dream, not our kids’. Each of them has aspirations of their own for the future. They need jobs and enjoy working here as much as a 15 and an 18-year-old enjoy working. If we retire someday, we’ll need to find a nice young couple to take over the business.

Q: What plans do you have for your business?
PJ: We want to focus on hosting more events and, as always, bring more unique plants into our inventory. We do pre-orders for customers in January/February that they love. They come in, bring us their pots, and say do whatever I’ll be back to pick them up. We’ll work on their pots when we do ours, and when the customers return in May, their pots are full, beautiful, and ready!   

Nikki: I like having control over what we grow because I design a lot of the pots. I choose in June what we’re going to grow next spring. By having control, I know what inventory we have, and when I work on the designs I can easily go and pull things. Also, I know the quality of the inventory because we grew the greenery ourselves.

Q: Do you hold any special events?
PJ: Yes, we host school field trips in the fall that have grown in popularity. We do a whole program with apple pressing, hayrides, and a pumpkin patch. We have an old cider press and a corn shucker from the 1800s. We try to make it educational and fun for kids in preschool through third grade. But it doesn’t generate a lot of revenue. We do it more for the community than for profit. 

Nikki: We also do events like “Plant and Sips.” I’ll create a floral design, people sign up for the event, and we host it after hours. I’ll lead them in the design; they can bring wine. We provide appetizers, and they can buy anything they want from the coffee shop. We usually do one workshop a month. For example, the Monday before Thanksgiving, I’ll lead a fresh centerpiece arrangement class. We try to offer things that are useful, fun, and yield pretty results. We’ve found that people feel good about themselves when they leave our workshops, which is great!

PJ: Workshops are becoming more and more popular at garden centers. We try to educate our consumers, so when they come back, they know more about what they like, Etc. I communicate regularly with other independent garden centers about business. If retail sales are down, I’ll ask them questions like, “Hey guys, I’m thinking about wholesaling this year. What do you think?  We’ve got all of these greenhouses.” They respond, “you’re still doing the same amount of work, and you’re selling your plants for less money. Figure out how to get rid of those plants in a worthwhile way.” If we have a particular variety of plants that didn’t sell well or an abundance of pots, we’ll come up with a workshop to incorporate them. So we’re using up our existing resources. 

Q: Who makes up your customer base?
PJ: Most of my avid gardeners are dying off, and there’s a big disconnect in generations. I asked my nephew in his late 20s; how do we get people your age interested in what we do? He said, “you need to provide for the community, offer community service, and that will catch on. People will be more responsive.” We always try to stay current — that’s how the idea for the field trips came about.

This is our 5th/6th year hosting field trips. Last year, we were booked every single day from mid-September to mid-October. We only do one a day because each tour takes about three hours and we don’t have a big staff. We came up with a drink for the kids called the Cupcake; it’s non-caffeine, and we make it in any flavor they want with a swirl of whip cream and sprinkles on top. The kids love it and ask their parents to bring them back here to get the drink. 

Over the years, people have come here with their kids and said, “Hi, Jenny said we had to come here and buy her mom flowers for Mother’s Day” (based on her field trip experience). High schoolers who remember us from their field trip as kids also return to buy things for their parents. The garden center business is personal. We are here every day of our lives, and connecting with our customers is important to us. 

Nothing about this business is instant gratification like some other businesses. We plant seeds; they sprout, grow. It takes time to cultivate them. We do it with our plants and our customers. 

Nikki: We nurture relationships. People return season after season. When I see them, I’ll ask, hey; I remember you got lavender. How did that work out for you? 

Q: Did you come into the business with a patience mentality, or has the business taught you patience?
Nikki: The business taught us patience. There’s a magnet that says, “Grow, damn it!” Sometimes, when I’m watering my stuff like the Gerber Daisies, for instance, and I can see buds, I’ll say, “Grow, damn it! I want to get you up and out to retail. I want to get you a new home. 

Q: How has the gardening business changed over the years?
PJ: When I started working at the original Nicky’s over 40 years ago, you had Beckett’s, Iannettis, all of these small independent garden centers. There were a few large garden centers, but they were only open in the summer. Now, you have big box stores and grocery stores. Easter used to be dominant for us. We would have quality Lilies, Azaleas, Etc. Quality was essential; it still is to us. Nowadays, you have places like grocery stores throwing inventory that is so-so quality in the front. People go there to buy their Easter dinner, and instead of coming to us for flowers, they’re buying from where they already are. 

Also, it’s hard to find people in this area that have a background in plants. People see the finished product and say they’d love to work here, but they don’t realize all of the hard work that goes into it. Everywhere you look, there’s work to be done. Even inside the gift shop and coffee shop. It’s a small business, so you have to be a jack of all trades. 

When we first got into this business, Nikki didn’t know what an annual or a perennial was. Her background is in customer service — she’s the queen of customer service. Now, Nikki is a gardening expert. We’ve participated in training and classes throughout the years. We poured ourselves into the job. Nikki read a lot of garden center books by Dr. Michael Dirr, a professor of horticulture. His books are like bibles to gardeners. We’ve met him and gone to his classes. When we started, you couldn’t Google for information like you can today. Out of all of the local garden centers, we’re one of the last ones standing. We’re surviving season-to-season by the grace of God.

Q: What are some challenges you face?
PJ: Garden centers are perceived as more expensive when that’s not necessarily true. Some things we sell are higher priced because of the brand, size, etc. It’s like comparing a Mercedes to a Chevette. We’ll have people come here or call us and ask about a tree they bought from somewhere else because they couldn’t get help from that place, so they turn to real garden experts like us. 

Also, there’s a generational gap in gardening. Many of our customers from back in the day who are now in their 70s and older are passing away or no longer gardening, and they knew flowers well. Then you have people like us in our 40s and 50s who know some, and younger people who don’t know anything about gardening because they weren’t exposed to it. That became more apparent during COVID this year. 

Right now, things are great; we just went through one of our best seasons ever. I’m about loyalty, and I think that mentality is starting to come back now with “shop local,” but there’s a challenge with instant gratification. If we don’t have something people are looking for many times, people don’t want to wait. 

PJ & Nikki: The biggest challenge is balancing our kids’ activities with our work schedule. We take turns to try and not miss their games and other life events. When we started, we didn’t have kids, and we put every dollar we made into the business. We were working 7-days a week, 12 hours per day. That hasn’t changed much. We would stay at work all night, eat dinner, and keep working. Then we had kids, and that’s a whole other circumstance. We tried to cut back to a 40-hour workweek. I’m sure some things slipped through the cracks. 

Q: What’s the most popular item in your garden center, and why?
PJ: Tree-wise, it’s weeping cherries, dogwoods, redbuds; those are always good staples. Magnolias are also popular. People like ones that bloom in the spring and provide pops of color. Often, people don’t know what they want. They see a color, a texture, something from a magazine, or online. 

Nikki: My motto is to give them what they need, not what they ask for, because they want what they want, but it may not be what they need. If someone has a shady yard and they ask for a specific plant, I’ll say I have that plant, but it’s not the best choice for where you want to put it, and this is why. I offer suggestions for things that are better suited for their intended area. We want our customers to be successful. Gardening is fun if you’re successful at it. To be successful, you need to know what you’re planting and what works in different types of spaces. I ask customers questions like — What are you trying to accomplish? What area do you want to fill? Then, I’ll offer suggestions. Everyone is open-minded with the expert input we offer them. 

Q: Why did you choose a door for your business logo?
Nikki: The front door because it represents the historic home, which has drawn people’s attention for years. We get asked by people all the time, can we bring our kid(s) here, take a senior class photo, etc. at the front door? They offer to pay. I say come and enjoy it; you don’t have to pay. I decorate the door for different seasons. I also plant different flowers throughout the year in our signature black urn. When the hydrangeas in the front of the house bloom, it’s beautiful, and that’s when people usually start calling with photo requests. I’m honored, and it’s a blessing to offer this space to our community.  

Q: What made you include a coffee shop as part of your business?
PJ: The majority of our garden business is April through June, but we’re open all-year-round. We used to close in January/February, but since we brought the coffee shop on, we’ve stayed open all year. David, manager and barista, has done an excellent job promoting our coffee shop on social media. We’re not in a busy area, so I think staying open and promoting the business helps keep us on people’s minds. The big coffee chains nearby kill us because of their convenient locations, but I think people would rather come here. We offer quality, organic, locally roasted beans, and every option of milk available — coconut, oat, soy, almond, which is hard to do for a small coffee shop because we don’t go through large quantities of all these kinds of milk like the chains. We have nice seating areas. We try to provide people with quality coffee in a pleasant environment — a place that we would want to hang out at ourselves when we are off work. 

We hope the coffee shop will flourish even more. In the fall, we use fresh pumpkin puree instead of syrup in our lattes and chai, and people love it. They start asking for the drink in August! We do the same in winter using actual eggnog in our drinks. We also make fresh homemade baked goods daily. Kids love our chocolate chip cookies, and our lemon biscotti always sell out fast!

Q: What is your outlook on the future of your business?
PJ: As much as I am upset that we lost our big Easter business this year because of COVID, people were going through much worse, which puts it all in perspective. Our bills may be high — we’re weather dependent, economy dependent — but we’re outside, and Nikki and I love what we do. I enjoy the people and talking with them. I get asked, “what are you going to do after you retire? Are you going to sell your business?” It’s almost impossible to sell a garden center unless you have someone who is REALLY interested in gardening. You have to be passionate about gardening and willing to do a lot of hard work. Hopefully, by the time we have to retire, we don’t want to retire, we’ll be in our 90s. 

Nikki: We’ll be in a nursing home together. We’ll probably be on the maintenance team at the nursing home!

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