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Cover Story
Finding Serenity In Success
| Ellen C. Wells
>> Published Date: 8/28/2013
When it comes down to it, you don’t know what life has planned for you until it happens. Matt Smith, the Red Fox/Young Retailer Award winner for 2013, can attest to that. Nothing in his background as a kid growing up on the north side of Buffalo, New York, would point to him establishing and operating a garden center, let alone a Japanese-themed garden center with an attached Japanese restaurant. His laser beam focus on
creating a successful niche retail business—businesses, actually—belies the fact that this 27-year-old was drifting from one career to the next until just a few years ago.

After high school Matt admittedly “did terribly” in college. “I just didn’t know where I wanted to go as far as a career,” he says. He took a year off, working at several different jobs in the meantime. One job in a doctor’s office left him realizing that he “wasn’t great with people,” Matt says, so he figured working with plants might be better. He then started taking horticulture courses once he was back at school. “I immediately fell in love with horticulture,” says Matt. “Something clicked and I said, ‘This is it—I really like this.’”

Finding his passion for horticulture was the first step. The next was to learn all he could while at Niagara County Community College. “It was a whole different drive for me in school the second time around,” Matt says. Knowing now what life planned for him—the garden center business—gave him the focus to absorb as much as he could from the classroom and from internships. One of his classroom instructors turned out to be none other than Green Profit’s 2011 Young Retailer Award winner Brian Goldbach. “Everyone [in class] was taking the notes he was displaying, but I was jotting down the numbers he was showing, suppliers’ names, and so on,” Matt says. “Brian’s a great guy and I learned a lot from him. If I run across any situations, I can still call him and ask.” 

On Their Way
Matt jumped head first into the garden center business, but not without bringing some family along for the ride. Brother Josh Smith and his wife Satomi, a native of Japan, had lived in her home country for several years while Josh was earning a Ph.D. in Cultural Sociology from Osaka University. The Japanese aesthetic and culture were familiar to Josh and his wife, and their love for all things Japanese was quickly picked up by Matt. Having a cultural theme as a foundation for their new retail business would give them a niche that would appeal to customers and set them apart from other garden centers. The trio opened Serene Gardens on the affluent island of Grand Island in April 2011, with Josh and Satomi as owners and Matt as manager of the garden center and landscape divisions.

Like anything in life and business, nothing ever goes as planned. Their Japanese-themed café and garden center morphed into something much different. “We were just going to do teas and coffees, and then we added appetizers, then we added full meals, then we added alcohol—so [the café] completely went in a different direction,” Matt says.

The landscape design element of the business hasn’t gone as planned, either. “We had ideas of grandeur,” Matt admits. “The first few jobs were weeding and spring clean-up. It’s slow going but we are headed in the direction we had planned.” They are slowly bringing on qualified landscape professionals who can install Matt and Josh’s landscape designs. “We’re not really ready or willing at this point to completely designate someone to be the landscape manager,” Matt says. With their specialization in Japanese design, Matt wants the designs coming from Serene Gardens to represent their unique style. “Even if it’s not a Japanese garden that we design, we want it to be something creative and something that you don’t get at other places,” he points out.

Location: Grand Island, New York, population 20,000
Year established: 2011
Size: Gift shop and garden center—1,000 sq.ft.; nursery—1,500 sq.ft.; café—900 sq.ft.
Employees: 8 full-time, 7 part-time and seasonal
Specialize in: Japanese culture and aesthetic

Dual Personalities
Many garden centers have added a food service element to their offerings in recent years. And they all would likely have the same basic conclusion of the addition—that it ain’t easy. Serene Gardens may be a little different in that the business began with both garden and food elements, but Matt, Josh and Satomi can attest that doesn’t make the dual directions any easier. Luckily, Satomi comes from a restaurant family background and could bring that experience to the table in running the restaurant side of the business, “like a well-oiled machine,” Matt says. Not only does she run the restaurant, she also runs the kitchen as head chef.

Running the garden center and restaurant side by side—quite literally—has its challenges. There’s the consideration of what products (pesticides, chemicals, mulch) go where (nowhere near the restaurant entrance!). There’s the scheduling of deliveries (trees, for instance) to arrive at appropriate times (nowhere around lunch or dinner times!). And you don’t necessarily want some staff (dirty landscapers just back from a job, for instance) having access to the dining and kitchen facilities. Matt says they pay particular attention to the constant cleanliness of both the restaurant and the garden center so that “you don’t see the things you don’t want to see” as a customer at either side of the business.

The garden center and restaurant do have a common entrance and exit through the gift shop. Don’t think the common entry wasn’t planned to bring in crossover customers. “This way, the customer gets a really good idea of what we’re doing,” Matt says. They have even brought the design office—once in the way back—all the way up to the front of the building so folks entering can see them working with landscape clients and design plans. There are also some folks who will come in for tea then shop the nursery, or come in for plants and sit for a light lunch. And after dinner, the restaurant’s beer and sake have been known to loosen purse strings as happy diners exit through the array of unique Asian-inspired gifts.

The restaurant-garden center combo can be a challenge when it comes to staff, who often help out on both sides when it’s slow. “It’s interesting to train people who are only interested in serving how to water plants, and vice versa,” Matt says. Last year’s approach to staff training worked well. They dedicated a late-winter day to the process, with Satomi training new staff and refreshing veterans on the restaurant procedures. Matt does the same with the garden center and landscape staff. Then they’ll bring the two together to go over everything. “That’s when the employees get it, when they understand this is more than your run-of-the-mill restaurant or garden center,” Matt says.

Matt admits he’s had some difficulty hiring on the garden center side of things. It’s been hard to find folks who know about plants. “We’ve been really careful about who we select,” Matt says. “We’ve had some mis-hires, but we’ve corrected those quickly and moved ahead.” On the flipside, he’s found a few employees originally hired as wait staff who’ve been very open to learning the horticultural aspect of the business. Serene Gardens has also brought on several military veterans who have turned out to be some of his best employees, thanks to their discipline and quick learning skills.

Leisurely Competition
Serene Gardens’ pool of local competitors is more than just the mom-and-pop nursery down the street. Sure, Home Depot is a mile away, but Matt considers that to be more of a McDonald’s atmosphere compared to his upscale burger place, to use an analogy. There’s an Ace Hardware nearby, too, and they pose more of a threat, influencing to a small degree the tools and amendments he offers. Plus, Ace has been in town for more than 20 years compared to his two. What Matt considers his competition to be is anyone competing for leisure dollars—from the Buffalo Bills to the local Japanese restaurants to the nearby yoga studio.

Instead of battling head to head, Matt seeks ways to partner with or tie-in to events or sales other area businesses are conducting. For example, he has catered some events for the yoga studio, and the studio has held a few classes on the garden center’s back patio. He hopes to work with a local florist on some weddings, and is always keeping his ear to the ground for other opportunities. His philosophy is he’d rather be friends than enemies.

Learning All Along
Matt is the first to admit he has a lot to learn on the road to success with Serene Gardens, and he takes advantage of every grower meeting and industry event he attends. “I know that I do need help and I have no problem asking for it and learning from others, because they wouldn’t be around in this industry for 50 years if they were doing something terribly wrong.” He’s also learning to work with and ask for help from family. Mom and Dad both love to help when they have time, and even Grandma stops by to check in and have a cup of tea. And of course, none of it would be possible without brother Josh and his wife Satomi.

One of the very first things Matt learned, though, is what he wants out of this industry: “I don’t want to just pay the bills; I want to be happy, have a piece of land, and have something to pass down to future generations,” Matt says. He’s realistic about it all, the business, the family, and the life of a small business owner. He knows he’s been incredibly lucky, but also that he’s worked hard for his success and has much-needed support. “We’re young and we’re just starting out, but I think we’ll be around a long time,” he says. “That’s the vibe I get from people—that they wish us well.”  GP

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