Chesterton Tribune

Chesterton Feed and Garden Center: 30 years and growing

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Chesterton Feed and Garden Center has been serving the Duneland community for more than 80 years, but this year in particular is one of celebration: The store is celebrating its 30th anniversary under the ownership of the Roth family.

Chuck Roth said the success of his business is due to a mix of factors -- the individual attention given to customers, a commitment to the community, products that can’t be found in the big boxes, and even the quaintness of being located off the beaten track.

The store, considerably expanded from is earlier days, has the standbys that it has had for years : Seeds and bulbs and planting gear, feeds and specialty dog and cat food. But the store certainly has its own niche products as well, with a greatly expanded gift shop located in a greenhouse and a premier offering of outdoor water garden products, which Roth began at a time when water gardening was “almost unheard of.”

Formerly on Grant Avenue, the store opened at its current location on Locust Street in 1960, when it was owned by the Pliske family, who grew the business from a largely farm supply store to a garden center with a sporting goods section. LaVerne Burchfield took over the store in 1965.

Chuck’s relationship with the store goes way back. His family lived nearby and he remembers going to the store to get chicken and horse feed, as well as popsicles. His first job was also at the store -- shoveling manure. He began working at the store when he was 13. Then, in 1980, he and his father, Charles M. Roth, bought the business, and Chuck was named the store manager.

In those early years, Roth said the store had bedding flats with sand beds, where customers could purchase cabbage, broccoli and other starts by grabbing the plants out of the sand. Similarly, perennials were bare root, with feed store staff pulling up the plants and wrapping them in newspaper on demand.

There was also a time when the store grew a thousand or so mums, with employees hoeing and weeding the plots and digging up the plants when a sale was made.

Such methods may have been quaint but they were time consuming, required enormous space and manpower, and didn’t lend themselves to large quantities. “We couldn’t keep up with that now,” he said.

But the individual touch is definitely still there.

Roth said the store is very selective about its growers and suppliers, and carefully searches for those that provide high quality products with the desirable varieties like the kind the store would grow on its own.

One big change over the years is in feeds. The store once carried an array of horse, chicken, rabbit and cow feeds, but as Chesterton became more urbanized, the store adapted and cut back.

The downturn in the steel industry in the 1980s did see a resurgence in chicken and rabbit feeds as more and more people returned to raising their own food.

The store has also seen downturns in local gardening interests. Roth laments how practically a whole generation seemed to miss out on the joys of home gardening. But the more recent green movement has rekindled that interest, and the store is seeing a resurgence in gardening, particularly from those in the 40’s or so age range, many of whom have never gardened before.

The store prides itself on a friendly and helpful staff who make a point of helping people with their gardening needs. A case in point: Just before this interview began, Roth was poring through his catalogues assisting a customer on the phone who was having a problem with a pump in his water garden.

Roth said the business maintains a family atmosphere with strong customer-staff rapport.

He holds regular staff meetings and provides his employees with ongoing training so that they can share their knowledge with customers.

Many customers say they get gardening advice and information from Chesterton Feed that they can’t get any place else. “We hear that feedback all the time,” Roth said.

The store frequently sees new gardeners with extremely ambitious plans. “We tell them, ‘cut it in half,’” Roth said.

The store is also starting to see a move toward container gardening, particularly among apartment dwellers.

The store hasn’t stayed stagnant and has always tried new things. Before the store expanded, the rear of the store was a weed patch.

“We thought it would be cool to have a victory garden,” Roth said. The store turned over a 25 by 50 foot section, and offered plots to different gardeners. The project was a success, almost becoming like a competition among the participating gardeners.

The victory gardens, however, ended when the store needed the back property for one of its expansions.

Another change at the store over the years has been the selection of garden gifts.

About 15 years ago, Roth said garden gifts and decorations became vogue, but the items were hard to display. The store built a greenhouse in the front and turned the space into the gift shop, giving customers a unique atmosphere in which to shop.

Roth credits the previous owners, Laverne Burchfield and the Pliskes, for instilling in him a sense of community connection while running a business. “That stayed with me. That’s who I learned from. I had good teachers.” he said.

The store annually holds a Customer Appreciation Day, which has evolved into a small festival. “It’s a fun day for us,” Roth said, noting that the day combines store sales and specials as well as the involvement of local non-profit groups, such as greyhound rescue groups, the Taltree Arboretum, and the Indiana Dunes national and state parks.

Roth notes that the customers benefit by being exposed to the groups, and the groups benefit by being able to reach out to more people.

Looking ahead, Roth said the store will continue to evolve, adapting to the changing community and the public’s gardening interests.

He said he feels lucky to be in business in an industry that he enjoys. “There’s a feel-good feeling to our industry,” he notes. “We like to have success stories.”


Posted 4/12/2010