Pandemic boosts sales for Virginia internet-only retail grower

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by Rebecca Jackson

To many retailers, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven a business killer. But for Briscoe White, owner of Richmond, VA-based internet herb grower the Growers Exchange, the disease that closed down thousands of entrepreneurs has proven a blessing in disguise.

As customers fled the marketplace for the comparative safety of home, White’s 35-year-old business flourished. People are gardening like their parents and grandparents before them, many returning to home gardens rather than grocery stores for sustenance.

“Do-it-yourselfers increased our business in 2020 by 20%,” said White, scion of a tidewater Virginia farm family born and raised in the region. Culinary and medicinal herbs grown in his greenhouse are sold on the internet are shipped all over the U.S. California herb enthusiasts are some of his biggest customers, said White, father of three grown children. His wife, Kenan, “retired” from the nursery business last year to run the family’s Sandy Field Farm in Charles City County outside Richmond.

“It’s crazy,” said White. “Spring is upon us, and we’re looking at a very busy spring.”

The business sells plants online only, grown in a 15,500-square-foot, fully automated greenhouse. It has an open interior, rather than a series of Quonset hut structures White had at his original nursery.

The Growers Exchange shipped 150,000 plants last spring and an additional 75,000 plants in autumn. Plans call for a 20% boost in the number of plants during this spring’s growing season. The company that started as a small garden shop in 1985 in Richmond’s historic Carytown neighborhood is on track to generate between $1.5 million and $2 million in sales this year, up from about $1 million in revenue in 2019.

Eucalyptus, a plant native to Australia now naturalized to California, is the most popular herb White sells. It’s noted for its rich fragrance and has medicinal properties too. Steamed in hot water, eucalyptus clears sinuses clogged by colds and allergies. “We have ring of them in the shower,” where they impart a soothing steam and fragrance, White said.

Another herb revered for its fragrance, patchouli, also is a big seller, and lavender has stayed at the top of customers’ lists for many years.

“We grow a lot of lavender,” said White, city born and raised. He’s the only one in his family that entered horticulture. “It’s phenomenal.”

In spring, customers want culinary herbs, with parsley a top choice for the kitchen garden.

Selling herbs was not part of the business plan when the Whites opened the Growers Exchange. They planned to operate a small plant shop selling flowering annuals and perennials, along with nursery supplies, cut flowers, decorative pots and books. At first, plants were supplied by other greenhouses. But a year after opening the store, White constructed a small greenhouse on the family farm, expanding that in 1989. In the early years, the shop sold a lot of geraniums and a few herbs. They also started a wholesale business in the early 1990s, selling flowering plants to Richmond supermarkets. The Whites operated their store for 20 years, finally closing it in 2005 due to competition from big box retailers.

Initially, the couple did not intend to go totally online. In 2008, the first year the business sold only herbs online to retail customers, it shipped 10,000 to 12,000 plants. Herbs, which have boomed in popularity during the last 30 years, are not a frivolous plant, but important to health as well as good taste. “We’re growing something that’s important as a food crop,” said White.

The company had a very basic website in the beginning – more of an online catalog, it could not handle transactions. But the business changed dramatically in 2008. That’s the year the Growers Exchange website was born, selling herbs direct to consumers. Using a new website platform, they started getting more and more hits. In the first year as an online retailer, they generated around $250,000 in revenue. By 2016, having outgrown their initial location, the Growers Exchange found property in White Oak Technology Park, their current location in Henrico County, and constructed a new facility with a distribution center and a mega-greenhouse.

“Our [earlier] buildings were 15- to 20-years-old and designed to grow potted plants,” recalled White. “They’re now in flats with 18 plants, growing on heated floors.”

Finished plants destined for transport load onto a conveyor belt, which transports them to waiting trucks. A passive fan system continuously spirals air in a figure-8 pattern inside the greenhouses, helping prevent the growth of mold.

“We also use Rootshield Plus added to our soil, which adds bacteria that destroys fungus,” said White. “We have a totally biological pest control system, releasing beneficial bugs every two weeks. Everything is exact. We know everything there is to know about each plant. It’s a complete reversal of the way I started out.”

The technology park, located just 10 minutes from a major post office distribution center, is an ideal location, according to White. Not only are they close to a convenient shipping facility, “in winter, we get plowed all the time,” he said. They have enough room on the property to about double in size, which they plan to do in 2022.

The Growers Exchange includes operations manager Jessica Smith and horticulture manager Shannon Convery, plus around 15 temporary workers during peak seasons. The spring shipping season runs until June 30.

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