Growing the business created by her mother in 1984, Samantha L. Widrick, 39, has focused on cultivating good, quality jobs at Zehr’s Flowers and Landscaping in New Bremen. The COVID-19 pandemic that has pruned far too many businesses in many sectors has acted as a quick-grow fertilizer in the gardening world. Zehr’s gross sales came in at about $3 million for 2020, a significant jump for which Mrs. Widrick largely gives credit to a pandemic-driven surge in dedicated gardeners.
NNYB: Where are you originally from and where did the business start?
WIDRICK: I was originally from Carthage. My Mom had (the business) in Carthage and when I took it over, I moved it to the VanAmber Road (in Castorland) near me.
NNYB: When did you get involved with the family business?
WIDRICK: It legally went into my name in 2003, but I was raised and grew up in the business. I watered plants, waited on customers, carrying plants out for customers. We would go out and do landscaping. At the time we did (landscaping for) the McDonalds and Burger King in Watertown and the McDonalds in Carthage.
NNYB: Did you always know you would take over the business?
WIDRICK: Not really. There was a time when I wanted nothing to do with it, but then, yes, I graduated and got married and I worked at Kraft Foods for a couple of years. I realized I did not want to do mill work. I liked my ‘outside’ job.
NNYB: You and your mom kind of reversed tracks, it seems.
WIDRICK: Yes. She helped out (with the business at first) but then she took a full-time position at Kraft. That was a family thing as well. My grandmother had worked there for years. So did a couple of my aunts and my Mom and then I did, but just for a couple of years, though.
NNYB: Do you have children that will take over the business from you when it’s time?
WIDRICK: Yes. I have nine children (aged 4 months to 15 years.) I have seven daughters and ... our third daughter likes to grow the product and our oldest daughter likes to sell the product, so it’s a perfect fit.
NNYB: Did you have brothers or sisters who were also interested in the business?
WIDRICK: Yes, I have twin brothers. Both of them helped out when I first took it over. They are four years younger than me. They would come and help me carry in at night or would help me with sales and answering the phones. My brother Brent and I started the residential landscaping ... we would do smaller landscape jobs. We had a lot of fun. They ended up starting their own construction crew, so then I lost their help.
NNYB: Since you took on Zehr’s in 2003, what are some of the changes you’ve made to the business model and how was your vision for the business different from your mom’s?
WIDRICK: I think my main goal was to tackle a need I saw in the community. I saw a lack of jobs — good paying, family jobs — that are going to be here for a while. So that was my main goal. To create them and stemming off from that, I got involved with seeking out how to work for the government and how to get certified to do state work and commercial work. I went to a “match making” event at JCC. I interviewed 17 different times with different prime contractors in the state. That really shot us off in a good direction to allow us to expand in the commercial field, which was a goal. Going back to creating good jobs in the county, the state work is very high-paying and it creates good paying jobs and so I expanded that area starting in about 2007, inquiring more about the prime contractors in the state, seeking them out and creating relationships with them. That was one area that I expanded quite a bit. Of course, (there has also been) building in the retail division of the business. I wanted to expand more in that area ... to create jobs and pull people in from other counties and to create a full-service garden center and obviously, to provide for the horticulture needs in the north country, like with high-quality plant material, gardening needs, soils and bulk mulch. Just a couple of years ago we built a new facility, so now we can offer a wider variety of plant material – trees, shrubs, soils, the bulk mulch – just a lot bigger variety and we can be more competitive on pricing because we’ve been able to grow more of our own (plants.) We grow more product because now that we have the room to sell it because we can carry more. Now we are growing our products here instead of bringing it in and having laborers in other states or in a different part of the state grow that for us. That’s created a lot of jobs, too.
NNYB: How many people do you employ?
NNYB: How does it break down? In which areas do they work?
WIDRICK: Everybody is really intermingled. Commercial would probably take up the most laborers in the summer, but then those same laborers can be used in the nursery, so they all kind of float around. I do have certain estimators that mainly do estimates and office workers that stay in the office, but even the estimators do commercial and help out. It’s a big team.
NNYB: Are some of these seasonal employees?
WIDRICK: Yes. There are six year-round and the rest are seasonal.
NNYB: Is there any pathway you can see to turn seasonal employees into year-round so they are fully employed?
WIDRICK: Yes, we are working on that. That comes along with growing our own product. Our greenhouse growing is coming along, slow but sure.
NNYB: You built a new, larger store in Castorland in 2018. How has that impacted your business?
WIDRICK: I think the whole dynamic of it has changed. We’ve worked hard on creating a destination. Our customers want to travel because they want to come out (here.) Before it was just a little roadside stand that wasn’t really an attraction. I think it’s fun for the local community to have a garden center like this and I think it’s fun for folks traveling from outside the area to come in, see Lewis County, and just to come to a cool destination here to shop.
NNYB: Overall, how have things changed in the landscaping and horticulture industry?
WIDRICK: With COVID last year, the industry has changed a lot. A lot of folks are gardening again and trying to grow their own food. Last year we saw huge increases in vegetable sales and we’ve seen a lot of people who have never been into gardening now getting into gardening. With people being home more, there was even a lot of extra tree, perennial and shrub sales. People were really into being home and making their place look nice by adding landscaping themselves. That was fun to see.
NNYB: Did the commercial sector take a hit with COVID?
WIDRICK: It did not. We work for a lot of prime contractors in the state so we were still hooked-in with a lot of companies that were finishing bridges and we work for the Department of Transportation so there was still a lot of road work going on that ... need hydro seeding or finish work, like installing trees and shrubs; so that stayed steady. The only thing it did affect was straw application. The governor (Andrew Cuomo) chose not to do a temporary straw; anything that was basically not 100% essential was taken out. So it did affect us a little bit, but (business) also increased in other areas.
NNYB: So overall, has business been the same, better or worse since COVID-19 struck?
WIDRICK: It’s been better for us. Something good came out of something bad, so that’s good.
NNYB: Over the past 19 years as the owner and having been involved with the business your whole life, what have you seen in year-over-year trends in landscaping and plant sales and are the two generally correlated?
WIDRICK: Yes, we do see that correlation. We have been through years where it’s a struggle as far as making ends meet because the numbers are down and the sales are down. I think with COVID, it’s turning things around for the green industry because people are getting into gardening and I think it’s a trend that’s going to continue. As far as what I could see, people really enjoy their new, I’d call it a hobby, with gardening. They really enjoy seeing the fruits of labor at the end of the season, from the feedback that I got from my customers. As far as commercial and residential landscaping, there’s always going to be do-it-yourselfers but there’s also the clientele that can’t do it themselves that hire us. I think that’s generally pretty much the same. A lot of elderly will call, they can’t maintain their property anymore and they need help mulching their beds or trimming and just regular maintenance. Or a new homeowner would like a fresh landscape. I think that’s always going to be steady. About 10 years ago we did see a big decline in that, though, when the economy was in recession, but that was the only big dip I’ve seen in the residential. I think it’s going to be pretty steady from here on out unless something crazy happens, which it can as we’re seeing now with COVID.
NNYB: You said you’re growing more of your own products. Where else do you source your trees or plants?
WIDRICK: Basically, all of our flowers, perennials and shrubs we’re growing on our own now. We’re still working on our tree nursery. That’s taken a bit longer because ... the trees take up a lot of land so we’re slowly purchasing more land and planting more plots. Generally, we try to source our trees that we buy from Ohio and New York because of their hardiness. We don’t want to venture down south too far because you run into issues shipping them up here and then they’re not hardy enough. Our main goal in the future is to grow all of our own product.
NNYB: Has the type of plants and gardening people do changed over the years?
WIDRICK: I have seen a big trend with residential landscaping. The main thing I get told is, “I want maintenance-free landscaping. I want super easy so I don’t have much to do with it.” It’s an easy-gardening trend. Even with clients that come to the shop here, they’re looking for easier items. I think it comes from the fact that people are busy. They don’t want to spend a lot of time manicuring; they just want to enjoy it.
NNYB: Are there any trends or certain things that are unique to the north country?
WIDRICK: Just hearty plant material because the winters up here are harsh on the trees and shrubs.
NNYB: Is there anything that you wish people would stop requesting because you know they are likely to have “buyer’s remorse”?
WIDRICK: The one thing I get a lot of requests for is the Japanese Maple. It has a beautiful burgundy leaf with pointy, lace-like edges. I get a lot of requests for them, but those do not do well over the winter here. I will order them for customers; I obviously don’t grow them, but I tell people they won’t survive the winter up here. But people will keep them in pots and put them out in the summer and bring them in for the winter and spend a lot of time on them and that’s a good way to do it, I guess. But I wouldn’t stock them because of the risk.
NNYB: Where does the “flower” bit come in? Do you do floral work?
WIDRICK: We really don’t do florals. We get labeled that a lot, but we don’t do any cut plants or arrangements. We have potted flower plants. My Mom named it Zehr’s Flowers and Shrubs so I just kept the “flowers” and changed it to “landscaping.”
NNYB: There are many people who are hoping to transition their businesses to the next generation. What advice can you give business owners heading in this direction?
WIDRICK: I took a course through Farm Credit East and I learned a lot about transitioning a business to the second or third or fourth generation. It was a really good course. The main thing it taught me was don’t hang on to the business so long that the next generation has lost interest in it or feel like you don’t trust them in the business. It taught me to let go quickly, let go easily and reassure the next generation that they’ve got this and they can do it. Get excited about what they’re going to do with it even though it’s going to be different, even though it’s going to be uncomfortable or kind of gut-wrenching to see the change happen. Just let it be and support them. That’s the main thing I took from the class and I added a little bit there, too.
NNYB: Did you have any formal training or education?
WIDRICK: I took a night class at JCC for business and accounting and the Match Maker through the Small Business Association and JCC. Another good asset has been Farm Credit East. They’re geared more toward agricultural businesses and they have helped. They do seminars with different things to teach you management skills.
NNYB: In hindsight, is there anything you would do differently over the past nearly 20 years knowing what you know now?
WIDRICK: I know there are probably thousands of little things, but I can’t think of one specifically. I learned a lot with working alongside of my Mom. One thing that does come to mind, when I first started out with commercial and I was doing a lot of the bidding, I had a representative from a company that I was bidding through and I did not take her advice on how to do the bid process correctly. I lost the bid on that job. It kind of crushed me. I just didn’t even want to do the commercial any more. It took me a couple of years to get back on my feet after I had an opportunity front of me and I made a mistake, so I didn’t get to fulfill that opportunity.
NNYB: What’s your vision for the future of your business? You mentioned your tree nurseries, but what else?
WIDRICK: The main goal is to maintain and then to switch over, hopefully gracefully, to the next generation. And then with the nursery expansion, that’s the next 20 years, so I’m all set.
NNYB: Are you ever tempted to expand the business and open branches in other places?
WIDRICK: It was attractive to me, but at this point it is not. I really enjoy having a business in Lewis County and I enjoy employing people in Lewis County. I was very attracted to the Albany area at one point because of the commercial side of the business. But we’re pretty settled here now ... and the areas where I was attracted to open a second or third retail store, we are attracting those people by creating a destination here, so we’re still drawing the folks from Alex Bay or Watertown, Cape Vincent area; we have some Gouverneur people. That was a goal to hit some further-out areas and we’ve been able to do that right from here by creating a destination.
NNYB: Is the socio-economic reality in the north country a challenge for Zehr’s?
WIDRICK: I’m sure that plays a role in it, yes, but with expanding outside of the county, it has helped. But also, if people enjoy something. People spend money, even if they don’t have it, and gardening is a fun thing to do and it’s economical because you can eat what you grow. We are in an area that is more suppressed financially, but you still see folks spending their money freely in this area because of their love of gardening or because they can reap the benefits in the fall.