Open invitation

With innovative avenues to draw customers in that expand far beyond gardening, Ashcombe Farm and Greenhouses is building a community by offering experiences and activities for all ages.

 

From a stop on the road to a retail and community hub, Ashcombe Farm and Greenhouses has come a long way in the past 60 years. Constantly evolving and changing with customer demands, the central Pennsylvania garden center has expanded from a farm stand to a family-friendly activity hot spot, complete with a bakery, gourmet food shop, café, boutique, kids’ summer camp and plenty of events and classes.

“There’s something for everybody, even if you’re not a gardener,” says Kerri Laudig, owner and gift shop and plant manager. “It’s more of a destination where you can come and spend the day, see a lot of different things and experience a lot of things, all in one place.”

Produce to plants

Ashcombe originally got its start in the 1950s, selling fruits and vegetables by the roadside. It grew into a small farm market, and then diversified into growing greenhouse plants as a way to keep the business busy year-round and avoid seasonal layoffs in the 1970s.

“And then from here, we went to trying different things,” says Glenn Gross, founder. “At one point, we were trying to be all things to all men, and it didn’t work.”

So Ashcombe dropped its nursery and perennial stock, focusing instead on annuals. Once the greenhouse plants became the real money-maker for the company, Gross shifted to selling plants instead of produce.

“We were fortunate because those were the years when people were looking for plants,” Gross says. The demand for plants was so high that even surrounding service stations were selling them. “It was just kind of a boom and people wanted things that were really simple like [tradescantia] and so forth.”

As the years went on, Ashcombe got inspiration from industry publications and travels to Florida and California, as well as conversations with European garden centers. Armed with information from their talks and travels, Ashcombe expanded into gifts, food and other departments.

Ashcombe Farm and Greenhouses has developed loyal customers who have been stopping by since its founding in 1962. And while the average customer has traditionally been the typical IGC demographic — women 40 to 65 in the middle to upper class — that has started to change.

“We’re starting to see that demographic go a little bit younger into the 30s with new families, couples and parents with young kids looking for something to do in the area,” says Cassie Flynn, marketing manager.

Meet the Ashcombe team (left to right): Kerri Laudig, owner and gift shop and plant manager; Jim Damschroder, owner, HR manager and accountant; and Cassie Flynn, marketing director.

Navigating the new normal

Like most garden centers, Ashcombe experienced a steep spike in sales in 2020 and 2021. When COVID first hit and customers went into lockdown, the IGC took a chance, launching an online shop and starting curbside pickup, both of which it still offers today. At the height of the pandemic, demand was so high that Ashcombe had to cap its orders at 25 deliveries and 25 pickups a day while still managing in-store traffic and a diminished staff.

“We were humming, and we still had people coming in the door of course,” says Jim Damschroder, owner, accountant and HR manager. “But that was definitely a challenge. We didn’t have the infrastructure ready for that and people didn’t have the mindset for that.”

In 2021, online orders started to wane as customers returned to in-person shopping. And this year, like many IGCs, Ashcombe is beginning to see some pullback in purchasing this year. “We’re adjusting and trying to figure out what the new norm is going forward,” Damschroder says. “I think everybody’s trying to figure that out.”

 

A balancing act

Thankfully, Ashcombe has a strong staff to help them through the changing retail landscape. Many of the garden center’s employees have been with the company since they were just kids, including company president and general manager Deb Shearer, who got her start at 12 years old.

But things haven’t always been easy. The team has had to pull together through its share of hardships over the years, including two fires. The most recent one in 1989 completely destroyed the retail store, but employees rallied to go the extra mile, and continued operating out of tents in the parking lot until the garden center was rebuilt.

The company encourages individuality and agency, which Gross thinks has helped them keep some of their staff for 20 years or more.

“One of the things we’ve done is allow people to do pretty much what they wanted to do. No one stood over them and said, ‘This is your next job,’” Gross says. Instead, Gross would post a list of jobs to the wall and let employees choose which tasks they wanted to complete.

“I’d say, ‘You pick ‘em, but I want them all done by the end of the day.’ And they like that because they could select the ones they wanted, but they had to be finished,” he continues. “I think giving people the opportunity to be their own boss helped keep so many people on. It’s because they enjoy what they’re doing.”

Not only does the company value individual agency, Ashcombe strives to respect work-life balance, even during the busy spring and holiday seasons. No matter what, Laudig says the company wants employees to take time for family, something she’s especially sensitive to with two little kids of her own at home. And while everyone is expected to work hard, Laudig says management expects employees to have a life outside of work.

“We’ve all really rallied around everybody’s personal and family time. So many of us, as we’re getting older, have some challenges in our life and have had to take some time off. And Ashcombe has always been very supportive of that and filled in as necessary,” Laudig says.

The staff at Ashcombe believes in experiential marketing. Whether it's through their traveling plant bus, Fern, or through classes for kids and adults, they've carved out a local niche in brand awareness.

Hitting the road

Inspired by food trucks that take their offerings on the go, Ashcombe decided to devise a way to take plants out of the retail store to customers both old and new. So in 2019, the company bought a small former school bus, gutted it and painted it with a bright floral motif. The plan was to visit community events, schools and nursing homes. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, the bus, aptly named Fern, found a new purpose as a delivery bus.

Fern hit the road last year, heading to those festivals, retirement communities and corporate events. And next year, it’s heading to a local garden show. Since the bus is so small, Ashcombe creates a little pop-up stand outside of the bus to make room for more merchandise from spring through fall.

“It definitely has a lot of eye appeal and people love the bus. They think it’s fantastic,” Laudig says. “It looks great; it’s so cute. It’s very unique in the area. We can fit a lot on it, and we’re excited to grow that avenue and see what else we can do with it.”

The bus also serves as a mobile classroom, visiting summer camps and hosting planter workshops. Staff even offer repotting services and answer questions when they’re out and about.

Even more than an educational tool, Fern is a unique marketing tool as it travels around town. Ashcombe took the bus to a local pumpkin festival for two days and found attendees who had never heard of them. And, of course, they had visitors they knew, who were excited to see the company’s new avenue for community outreach.

“Experiential marketing is one of the best ways to grow brand awareness in the local area,” Flynn says.

For customers who want seasonal selections, Ashcombe launched a plant subscription club three years ago after Laudig saw how popular unboxing videos on TikTok and YouTube were getting. From March through December, club members receive three or more plants a month. The selections are seasonal, starting with early vegetables, pansies and houseplants in the spring and ending with cyclamen, Christmas cactus and paperwhites in December.

Each plant comes with a care sheet as well as informational flyers about upcoming events and promotions. “So I use it for marketing, and to give them the information they need,” Laudig says. “And then they send me pictures of how big their plants got, or if they have questions, they have my direct email where they can talk to me about the plants they’re getting.”

Ashcombe delivers within a 10-mile radius, or customers have the option to pick up their surprises at the store. So far, the club has maxed out at 25 members at a time, with several members participating all three years so far. “Sometimes people have to opt out throughout the year or they just run out of room,” Laudig says with a laugh.

Something for everyone

As soon as COVID concerns died down last year, the Ashcombe team jumped back into events headfirst, expanding and diversifying their festivals, workshops and classes. In April, the garden center was able to host its annual Easter egg hunt, “and since then we’ve just been constantly building and adding more classes and more events, or changing events,” Flynn says.

Ashcombe added an Oktoberfest celebration this year to coincide with its fall harvest festival, complete with German food fresh from the on-site café, a beer truck and local vendors. They also expanded the annual Kids Country Christmas event to include a light show and hayride along with DIY ornaments, the traditional pictures with Santa and Mrs. Claus and other photo ops.

Outside of seasonal events, Ashcombe offers kids’ crafts and educational workshops for adults. The most popular classes tend to be about planting or flower arranging, wreath- or bow-making, and crafting fairy gardens and terrariums, Flynn says. During the busy season, the IGC can host up to 15 events in a single month.

The goal is to create brand awareness and build a reputation as an activity hub. For the kids, Ashcombe hosts a biweekly story time, complete with juice and cookies. “People will just come because it’s something to do on a Friday when school is closed or something like that,” Flynn says.

 

Ashcombe also revived its summer camp, offering week-long sessions for kids 4 to 9 years old in June and August. The instructor, Bobbi Miller, is a retired schoolteacher, who plans themes for each day. For example, during the Wiggly Worms day, kids learned why worms are shaped the way they are and why they’re good for the garden before heading out to the garden to look for examples.Kids also spend part of each day planting something in the IGC's children’s garden. The camp was so popular this year that Ashcombe is thinking about splitting it up into two week-long sessions — one for kids 4 to 7 and another for 7- to 9-year-olds.

“We find that older kids were really interested in being out in our production facilities and learning about the plants, whereas the younger kids were interested in just getting dirty and planting and doing crafts and things like that,” Flynn says.

It all comes back to that experiential marketing, just like Fern, the traveling plant bus. One of the goals is to draw foot traffic into the store, but it’s also about converting exposure to ticket sales.

 
 

“I always think about who’s coming to the class. Are they going to buy something before or after the class or a big event? I also think about how many people I can physically get in the store,” Flynn says.

In the coming years, Ashcombe is also looking at expanding into private events like birthday parties and bridal showers as well as corporate events. The company has recently delved into corporate team-building activities and is working to build partnerships with local businesses.

“Networking with local businesses is really something that we’ve tried to do more — either incorporate them in our menu or incorporate them in our events, reaching out in the community and featuring them and having them feature us,” Laudig says. “I think there’s a lot of potential there, and we could all use a boost from our neighbors. We’ve been here for 60 years but some people still don’t know we’re here. So trying to get the word out through other avenues is always a great thing to work towards.”

December 2022
Explore the December 2022 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find you next story to read.

Share This Content