From humble beginnings in an oversized garage to the regional retail powerhouse it is today, Petitti Garden Centers has seen explosive growth since it got its start in 1971. Ranking No. 2 on Garden Center magazine’s Top 100 list, the nine-store regional chain is celebrating 50 years of learning, growing, renovating, educating and changing the way Ohioans garden.
What started as a small landscape company evolved over the years from pop-up shops in grocery parking lots to state-of-the-art, European-inspired garden centers, acres of growing space both indoors and out, and a reputation for quality.
“It’s been a lot of work and it hasn’t happened by accident,” says Petitti Garden Centers founder and owner Angelo Petitti. “It’s a big milestone for us, for the family, for all the employees and the whole organization.”
50 years in the making
Angelo may come from a family of farmers but he didn’t get his first landscaping experience until he came to the U.S. At just 16 years old, he emigrated from a small town in Southeast Italy in 1963 and moved in with his uncle, who was an avid gardener. When the uncle had a stroke, Angelo went to work in his yard and got his first taste of landscaping.
Around the same time, Angelo was working as a busboy at a high-end nightclub and one of the waitresses there become his salesperson as he did some landscaping jobs for customers.
From those customers, he went on to found Petitti Landscape Company in 1966 and spent the next four years building his clientele. When he and his brother Domenico bought a location in Oakwood Village for their landscape business in 1969, passers-by started asking if they could buy the plant material the brothers would set out for their landscape jobs. Landscaping would remain the dominant source of income for the company until 1988, but the retail idea was planted.
Back in the ‘80s, Angelo bought all of his plant material, and would have to order the year before and collect his plant material by April 15. “So every year when it came to April 15, you either took it or you lost it,” he says, noting that inventory in the ‘80s was extremely tight, just like it is now.
“Back then the business was quite different,” Angelo says. “We didn’t have quite the array of varieties and all of the basket and container world was kind of minimum compared to what it is today.”
So Angelo would take the material and deal with the Cleveland area’s unpredictable spring weather.
“It seems like financially, it never really benefitted the company to where you would maximize the profits off of that,” he says. “That’s where the idea of starting to grow our own really came from.”
In 1989, Angelo started working on the nursery side of the horticulture world. One year later, the company had its own plant material to sell out of the renovated Oakwood headquarters. “It was a rough start,” Angelo says. “I knew nothing about growing. I was not a grower, so it was a bumpy start.”
In 1991, Angelo hired a grower and started to build the company its propagation house. By 1994, the business was seeing the financial benefits of growing its own material and never looked back. “So growing definitely opened up our eyes so say this is really the key that really built the business side,” he says.
Going all-in on the greenhouse investment, Angelo built brand new greenhouses at the Oakwood location in 1993, and just two years later, he was out of growing space in the 5-acre site. So when a close friend, John van Wingerden, founder of Green Circle Growers in northern Ohio, decided to get rid of one of his facilities, Angelo snatched it up and with John’s help, grew the greenhouse side of the business to where it is now, Angelo says.
“When we took this over, we were way over our heads,” AJ says. “I mean we went from the kiddie pool to the big boy pool real quick.”
But today, the grower-retailer produces enough plant material to stock all nine of its stores without buying in any green goods.
Growing more plants, capturing more business
While it was a huge jump to dive headfirst into the greenhouse business, Angelo says that risk is what got Petitti to where it is today, giving the company the tools and the volume of plant material it needed to be financially stable.
But growing their own meant they had to find a way to sell it all.
“We could grow so much and we really had to figure out how to market this product, so every year we would come up with different ideas,” he says.
And that’s when Petitti really started to push the envelope on the Northeast Ohio growing season. In the ‘90s, sales in Ohio tended to end around June 1, but Petitti started to extend the season and grow plants for the summer months. Angelo says it took customers about three years to get accustomed to the extended gardening season.
“That was kind of the culture and that’s what customers were trained to do. They were trained that when June 1st came or Memorial Day was done, the season was over,” Angelo says. “So when we started growing for the month of June and then July and August, it got us to the next level. We were growing annuals, but we really expanded the varieties, the selection, the quality — and we came up with new programs every year. And the same thing with perennials.”
Since Petitti Garden Centers doesn’t do any wholesale sales, the company had to find ways to move everything it grew or eat the cost. So they found unique pots, hanging baskets, containers and customized programs that worked for their unique retail situation. And today, the IGC is famous for its hanging baskets.
“It gave us this huge advantage over everybody else and the biggest difference today is when you come in here and you look around, the variety is endless,” Angelo says. “That’s how strong our brand is — when you go to Petitti’s, your biggest problem is trying to figure out what to buy because there’s so much there to choose from.”
And while the huge selection can be a challenge for the consumer faced with so many options, it’s that unique variety that keeps customers coming back. “It’s really that the selection is so different than any place else,” Angelo says, noting that the stores have also evolved over the years to become lifestyle centers with furniture, food, clothing, gifts and more.
But the real driving financial engine is the Casa Verde greenhouses and farms that stock the IGCs and give them the funds to keep each store state-of-the-art, he says. “We really take a lot of pride in keeping everything up to the highest level. But the financial means that really come from the growing.”
From greenhouse to garden center
Petitti Garden Centers and its affiliated growing operation Casa Verde Growers has spent years streamlining the greenhouse to garden center process to eliminate the potential for logistical mistakes.
Before plants even leave the Casa Verde greenhouses or nursery fields, their information is loaded into the Petitti point-of-sale system so that they’re priced and ready to go. Then they’re off to the stores, pre-priced, with their exact location noted.
That streamlined process is part of the reason Petitti doesn’t order any of its plant material from other suppliers. The individual stores order what they need and the process is seamless. That’s particularly important since Casa Verde can ship 15 to 20 semitrucks a day to the stores during the spring season.
“The amount of labor that saves us and the readiness for retail is perfect. When you get the material there, it’s ready to be sold,” Angelo says. “You don’t have to go through a process before you get it onto the floor. We don’t have to order anything. Everything is sort of ordered on the internet automatically so there’s no phone calls, no salespeople, there’s nobody we have to call. So everything is set up for us to handle in our own way. It just happens automatically.”
The detailed POS and management system also ensures that the stores never run out of supply.
When COVID first hit the U.S. last year, Petitti was lucky enough to remain open, but the online store became more important, as it did for many in the industry. The big difference Petitti Garden Centers has seen is the amount of pre-visit browsing shoppers are doing online.
“They’re going to the site and you can kind of see when we’ve got sales or promos, if there’s a spike in a different category,” AJ says. “And we can back that up with web analytics.”
The site took about eight months to put together because thankfully, the company had already put years of work into its tag program and had information ready and available to upload. They were able to copy and paste the information onto the website, along with their huge cache of photos, some from their on-staff photographer and some dating back to earlier days when Angelo’s wife and AJ’s mother Maria took the store photos.
“We’ve got huge photo banks, I mean, thousands of SKUs. And so a lot of that content that is really the hardest part to generate, we already had generated. And so that’s how we were able to take that and just plug it right in,” AJ says.
“In any business, you always have to play the long game. It’s never been the short game. You just keep investing and investing and investing,” Angelo adds. “And the time will come that you reap these benefits.”
The marketing team really took control of the site and took it to the next level, increasing digital marketing and e-commerce, which creates a great package and experience for customers, AJ says, but the majority of their efforts are focused on bringing customers into the stores. So while customers can see the price points and the inventory, not everything is available online.
And the information available on the site goes far above and beyond the average online store. The graphics team brands everything with Petitti photos from their on-staff photographer, and each plant description is tailored specifically for the Northeast Ohio gardener.
“It takes all of these pieces in order to make it work, and make it work well,” Angelo says. “And it takes a while to get to that point. It’s not something that happens overnight. And you have to have the financial capabilities to support that. One thing that we have done and will also do is be heavy on the marketing side. We will spend way more than the industry, even when we were doing $30-35 million a year, we were still spending a very high percentage on marketing.”
Marketing through education
Along with robust online information, Petitti Garden Centers provides several other avenues for gardeners to learn, get inspired and be successful in their own gardens. From Angelo’s radio show that’s 40 years in the running to the Gardening with Angelo seasonal magazine, to community outreach, local news spots and more, the Petitti name is well known throughout Northeast Ohio.
“We really focus very heavily on the community and very heavily on the education side. We always believe that in order for you to build the brand, you need the community and you need the marketing and you need to back it up with the product,” Angelo says. “You can market all you want, but in the end, the product has to back that up.”
Investing in education is important in-store as well. The company revised its entire tag program so that each plant is labeled with information specific to the Northeast Ohio area, but the process took years to collect all of the pertinent information.
“When you look at a nursery tag, it’s so general, they’ll give you a height of 2 to 8 feet. Well, is it 2 or is it 8?” Angelo says.
So Noelle Akin, director of education, customized all of the information for Petitti’s clientele. “It was really confusing for the customer,” Angelo says. “So we invested in that and that’s the kind of investment we’ve made for years over and over. The bottom line is we want our customers to be successful.”
Despite supply chain issues that are plaguing many IGCs and a competitive labor market, Petitti Garden Centers is poised for another great year of sales, building on the big success of last year’s surge in garden interest.
“We did a really good job of getting ahead of things, working with our suppliers, getting that product lined up so that we had it when we needed it this spring and going through summer,” he says, noting that Petitti buyers saw trends coming early. “So I think we’re really well-positioned not only to go through spring and have a strong season but continue to be strong through summer. Because the demand is there.”
On the supply side, Petitti is seeing cost increases and slower timelines than usual, so buyers have had to be “really on top of it,” AJ says. At the regional garden center, they’re thinking six to 12 months in advance. This year, the IGC is ordering new stock before they’ve even put merchandise for 2021 out on the floor.
“And there’s a lot of risk with that,” AJ says. “But if you don’t do that, I don’t think you’re going to get the product.”
The next 50 years
From its humble beginnings to the nine state-of-the-art locations it has today, Petitti Garden Centers is in a constant state of growth. “The building has never stopped,” AJ says. “I don’t think there’s been a year that we have not built. One way or another, it’s different levels and different areas or new equipment but there’s always something going on.”
With AJ ready to lead the company into the next 50 years, the management might change but the values will remain the same — great plants, great service and eyes on the future. AJ says he’s going to honor the same core values they always have. And, of course, they’ll be looking at the business every day and finding ways to improve and grow.
“It all starts from the foundation and the foundation is set on: just be focused on the business to get better and better and do things the right way every day,” Angelo says. “So if you do things right, if you do the right thing every day, chances are that people are just going to keep coming to the store.”