Family Tree Nursery takes a unique approach to revitalize their Nieman Road garden center

New artwork and displays add to store’s visual appeal.
– Photos by Jonah Nelson

Have you ever watched “Restaurant Impossible” starring Chef Robert Irvine on the Food Network? If you’ve never seen the show, Chef Irvine “rescues” a struggling restaurant by giving it a total makeover; from the menu to the staff to a remodel of the restaurant interior, giving the business a new beginning, including a grand reopening.

Family Tree Nursery owner Eric Nelson had never seen “Restaurant Impossible,” nor had his business partner and General Manager Mark Titzman. Ironically, one night in August 2011, they each (separately), flipped on the Food Network channel and viewed the show. Call it fate, destiny or a fluke, this television program would end up being a catalyst for change in their retail history.

Nelson and Titzman came to work the next day and each expressed how seeing a declining restaurant was like looking in the mirror. They concluded they’d been talking the talk but weren’t walking the walk. Family Tree was inspired to forge a new vision and focus and to fight for the future of their business.

What actions have you taken to stay in business?

Family Tree Nursery owns and operates three retail locations. Their accountant told them to sell their Nieman Road store. Their banker was unimpressed with its profits. After their “Restaurant Impossible” epiphany, Nelson and Titzman looked at their store with a fresh set of eyes and saw a dated store and wondered, “What are we waiting for? Are we going to wait until we’re out of business?”


Owner: Eric Nelson

Location: 7036 Nieman Road, Shawnee, Kansas

Date Founded: 1981

Annual Sales (approx.): 
$2 million

Best Selling Department:

Square Footage: 
5 acres with
9000 ft2 garden center

30,000 ft2 greenhouse
40,000 ft2 nursery

Did You Know? 
Family Tree has three stores total and one growing facility which produces annuals, hanging baskets, poinsettias, mums and perennial crops.

Management didn’t waste any time, and in October 2011, they decided to close the store in January to remodel. Nelson said they knew much effort was going to be needed to renew, reinvest, re-energize and re-launch with a different look and feel which meant a lot of time, money and creativity. A store makeover included no guarantee of a return on their investment, so it was a make or break it moment.

As luck would have it architect Robert McLaughlin was in between jobs and working in their nursery area. He took the lead in helping Family Tree navigate through a total modernization of the store, which included new lighting, plant displays made from excess greenhouse supplies, killer interior shelving units and more.

But a new look is only half of the equation; you have to also provide a memorable shopping experience. Mother Nature smiled down brightly upon Family Tree in March with sun and temps in the 70’s for a grand reopening which went above and beyond their expectations; they essentially sold out of their spring nursery stock order. This set the tone for impressing existing customers and potentially reaching new customers who would want to come back for more.

Having a store with a “pretty face” is nice, but it was only one piece of the puzzle; it’s what on the inside that counts. Management understood that their new future meant running the business more effectively and efficiently and that combination would be the primary solution. “Using the POS system in order to manage inventory with great efficiency is key in today’s marketplace”, says Nelson.

How do you get feedback from employees and customers?

Family Tree values employee feedback, and as such they commit to a corporate retreat once a year each January. Nelson says they actually shut down all their locations for one day. The day is loaded with speakers and various issues of popular concern.

Additionally, they have weekly meetings with store managers, which are followed by weekly meetings at each retail location with the entire store staff to discuss current problems and goals. Nelson says the greatest and most timely feedback comes from daily communication and observations while on the job.

From Family Tree’s perspective, customers vote with their feet and wallets. They prefer not to involve their customers on the business side. To them, empty shelves and well-attended events say everything. Eric says they study national retailers and other garden centers for better retailing.

What has been the best business advice you’ve ever received?

Nelson said he lives by the following philosophies: As a grower: “Always anticipate the problems” and “Know thy plants.”

As a retailer: “You can’t sell apples off an empty cart.” Make sure your cart is always loaded with the best and freshest inventory. The 80/20 rule means more today than ever.

As a man: “Find the eternal in everything you do.”

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced over the last year, and how did you handle it?

Nelson says the biggest challenge is watching what is happening to our economy and country. He says the second biggest challenge is believing in the garden center business and the hard work that is necessary to survive and was forced to re-examine his mission, vision, and philosophy. His conclusion was, “I love what we do. I love the product we represent and still feel there is room for improvement and as such I am willing to change and give it a try one more time.”

Originally published January 17, 2013  Garden Center Magazine Logo


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