Finding Passion In Portland

If you ever go to the Farwest Show in Portland, Ore., be sure to take some side trips in the area before and after the show. In the three days I was out there, I visited three growers, two retailers, two breeders and took in some fun and funky tourist attractions. Here are the highlights of places that really stood out with distinct niches that set themselves apart from all competitors:

Voodoo Doughnuts – Doughnuts have been around forever, make us fat and have been commoditized by chains, but this place dares to be different as the edgy mad scientist laboratory for doughnuts. Toppings include Captain Crunch and Fruit Loops Cereal, bacon strips on maple icing, M&M’s, bubble gum, even lemonade, Tang and iced tea granules. The signature Voodoo Doll doughnut is a screaming, chocolate iced monster/person with a tiny pretzel stake in its heart. Saturday night, there was a line of at least 30 people waiting to order doughnuts. The place is open 24/7. What could we do in our industry to generate this kind of interest and excitement?

Swan Island Dahlias–This breeder-producer of dahlia bulbs in Canby knows how to draw a crowd with its annual dahlia festival over two weekends. The public can see more than 350 varieties in 16 types and five bloom-size classes and order them by the tuber. Tubers range in price from $3.95 to $24.95. Forty acres are in bloom August through September. One attraction was a gallery of cut dahlias in showy floral displays by variety in what was underground stables. Each attendee received a booklet and a pencil to mark the varieties they are interested in. What a great way to rally around a single genus, just like Lilytopia at Longwood Gardens earlier this year.

Al’s Garden Centers  – This regional garden center chain owned and operated by the Bigej family is synonymous with gardening in the Portland metro area. This was my second visit to the Sherwood location and I was impressed to see the wide assortment of fresh, beautiful plant material at the end of August. From showy baskets out front to informative, inspirational displays inside, owner Jack Bigej says there’s no question it’s all about color. “Show ’em a dream, sell them a promise. It really works,” he says.

Pistils Nursery – This urban nursery on Portland’s bohemian Mississippi Avenue is the antithesis of garden centers that cater to suburbanites. It’s a throwback to the green plant shops of the 1970s, while also incorporating urban farming and landscaping for small spaces. They even sell chickens! Saturday evening hipsters of all ages were strolling through. One young man sought help creating his own terrarium. This is  a place where people get hooked one plant at a time, whether it’s a staghorn fern hung as a chandelier or a fig tree for your patio.

Terra Nova Nurseries – It was the green plant boom in the 1970s that got Dan Heims and Ken Brown of Terra Nova Nurseries hooked on plants. While Heims ran a landscaping business for 20 years, Brown was a microbiologist. They have revolutionized perennials by breeding traits with landscapers in mind–showier colors, longer bloom seasons, less maintenance, tidier habits and disease resistance. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting their gardens. Since 1992, Terra Nova has introduced more than 600 new plants that are being propagated in tissue culture labs all over the world. Heims’ goal is to surpass his idol, Luther Burbank, and introduce 801 plants.

Daring to be different and creating a loyal following just may be the ticket to ride out recessions. What makes your business unique? What can you rally around, share and celebrate that will be memorable for your customers? Pick up a torch and carry it.

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