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Monday, May 27, 2024

Roger’s Gardens Grows a ‘Happy Place’

It is springtime at Corona del Mar’s Roger’s Gardens, one of Southern California’s most iconic gardening businesses.

President and majority owner Gavin Herbert Jr., accompanied by his loyal labradoodle Mr. Rogers, points out the roses, the 200 varieties of tomatoes and “California friendly gardening” with plants that are drought tolerant.

“They reduce water use by 20% to 40%,” Herbert Jr. said during a recent tour of his facility.

“That’s the big push now. You can still have a beautiful garden that uses a lot less water.

“The biggest challenge we have as a business is to continue to grow and keep changing and not get caught up in the old loop, and continue to be relevant.”

That challenge includes a strategy to “own Orange County” for shipping plants online, and to promote plants that are “not thirsty” and can thrive during droughts such as the current one.

And it’s continuing its long-time tradition as a family business, for which the Herberts won a Business Journal Family-Owned Business Award in 2013; this week’s Special Report highlights over 40 successful family businesses in Orange County (see page 23).

“One of the great joys is that it’s a family business,” Herbert Jr. told the Business Journal.

“Dad’s across the hall. My stepmother, Ninetta, has tremendous taste. She guides us to the right vendors and right products. My son Gavin S. Herbert (the sixth) works the e-commerce side.”

Gardening Passion

Roger McKinnon, namesake of the business, in 1965 opened the original garden center in Costa Mesa.

Gardening was a passion for Herbert’s father, Gavin Herbert Sr., who every season would plan a project like an artist would a canvas, the son said.

Herbert Sr. “got to know Roger, because he was Roger’s biggest customer. Every weekend my father would go in and spend $1,000 and Roger thought, ‘I better get to know this guy.’ They became lifelong friends.”

Herbert Sr. became such a fan that he bought the gardening center in 1970, moving it to its current location in Corona del Mar, on the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and San Joaquin Hills Road near Fashion Island.

They bought the 5-acre property from the  Irvine Co.

Disneyland Ties

In the early years, the focus was on color bowls and the creation of original products, like signature hanging baskets and seasonal color containers.

“My dad built a gardening center that he’d like to shop at.”

It became the most famous such facility in Southern California, what Gardening magazine once called “The Disneyland of gardening centers.”

In fact, Disneyland’s Original Bandstand gazebo is now at the center’s Farmhouse restaurant. The center was so well received that it was the permanent host of “The Victory Garden” television show in the 1980s.

Throughout the years, Herbert Sr. developed friendships with some of Orange County’s political elite and local celebrities, such as former President Richard Nixon and John Wayne. A flagpole with an American flag was dedicated in 1976 by Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California.

At that time of the Roger’s Gardens purchase, Herbert Sr. was also building Allergan, which had yet to introduce its best-known product, Botox, to remove wrinkles.

While now retired from Allergan, the 90-year-old Herbert Sr. still involves himself in businesses like Irvine’s Techimmune LLC, which is researching a potential universal coronavirus vaccine, and San Clemente-based Regenesis, which makes soil remediation products.

The elder Herbert also holds the namesake of the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute at the University of California, Irvine.

“My dad is a serial entrepreneur,”  Herbert Jr. said.

Fertilizer Salesman

Herbert Jr. started his own business selling fertilizers to giants such as The Home Depot Inc. and Walmart Inc. After selling the fertilizer business in the mid-1990s, he decided to buy out his father and became majority owner of Roger’s Gardens.

In 2005, Roger’s Gardens committed to only selling organic gardening solutions. Other significant categories that have grown over the years include gourmet foods, collectible and artisan collections, outdoor furnishings, holiday fresh floral arrangements, women’s accessories and children’s gift giving.

“We’ve become a huge influencer in lifestyles,” Herbert Jr. said.

“The words people use is ‘this is their happy place.’ This is where people feel safe. It’s timeless. Parents bring their children, and their children bring their children.”

Restaurant Raves

In 2016, Roger’s Gardens added the Farmhouse, a sustainable open-air restaurant that promotes seasonally inspired and locally sourced foods.

“The restaurant has been a game changer because far more people eat than garden—it’s been very additive,” Herbert Jr. said, pointing out the restaurant was ranked in the Top 10 on OpenTable for outdoor ambiance and providing farm-to-table food.

Among the suppliers of organic vegetables is none other than Herbert Sr., who grows green beans at the famed estate he owns in San Clemente. Casa Pacifica previously served as Nixon’s Western White House.

It’s not the only cross-pollination of business interests for Herbert Sr.; he told the Business Journal earlier this year that one key product for Regenesis was developed to help treat root rot for plants at Roger’s Gardens.

Even during the pandemic, the restaurant’s been able to thrive.

“Who knew having an outdoor restaurant during COVID would turn out to be such a good deal?” Herbert Jr. said.

“What happened during COVID is that America got 25 million new gardeners. Part of it is growing their own food, herbs and vegetables and citrus.”

Largest on 5 Acres

The Farmhouse’s success has caused the center’s parking lot to become jammed year-round, whereas before congestion usually was reserved for its busiest time of the year, the fourth quarter when about 250,000 visit to see Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas events.

The center is working on a parking plan, according to Herbert Jr.

His staff is already planning themes for Halloween, which this year will feature Tim Burton and “a happy version of the Day of the Dead.”

“Some of those visuals are so cool that they’ll go viral.”

The company has grown to 170 employees, including 50 at its restaurant.

In his industry, a garden center would typically do north of $20 million on 50 acres, he said.

By contrast, the 5 acres in CdM generates north of $30 million annually, he said.

“For sure, we’re the largest garden center in America on 5 acres.”

Roger’s Gardens has an online strategy that focuses on shipping plant products throughout Southern California.

“For e-commerce, we’re going to own Orange County. We are the garden authority for Southern California.

“It is hard for China to come in and take away this business. You cannot import plants. They all must come from California growers.” 

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Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan has been a journalist for 40 years. He spent a decade in Latin America covering wars, narcotic traffickers, earthquakes, and business. His resume includes 15 years at Bloomberg News where his headlines and articles sometimes moved the market caps of companies he covered by hundreds of millions of dollars. His articles have been published worldwide, including the New York Times and the Washington Post; he's appeared on CNN, CBC, BBC, and Bloomberg TV. He was awarded a Kiplinger Fellowship at The Ohio State University.

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