Amid construction barrels, a garden business blooms

ShopTalk Video: American Beauty Garden Center

Pete Freedman of American Beauty Garden Center demonstrates the store's emphasis on customer service and do-it-yourself gardening. Video by Celeste Smith
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Pete Freedman of American Beauty Garden Center demonstrates the store's emphasis on customer service and do-it-yourself gardening. Video by Celeste Smith

Being smack-dab in the middle of the East Independence Boulevard construction zone hasn’t been easy for many small businesses, and some of them have moved away or closed amid years of ongoing road work.

Then there’s American Beauty Garden Center, an established local organic gardening supplies store, which moved right into the orange-barrel belt this summer.

And the owners couldn’t be happier about it.

“Fantastic,” is how co-owner Pete Freedman describes the airy 7,000-square-foot space, with wide aisles inside and a sign out front set off with the store’s green thumb logo. The business relocated from Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood to Lanier Plaza, located at 4400 E. Independence Boulevard. More than 70,000 vehicles pass by daily, more than double the traffic compared to the former space, according to Freedman.

As developers buy land in Plaza Midwood and Charlotte’s other close-in neighborhoods to build condos and apartments, small businesses face pressure to relocate or close.

Freedman and co-owner Alan Corder decided to move. To Independence. For them, it’s working.

“For our eighth year of business, to move and uproot our business was pretty frightening,” Freedman says, but “it’s translating to new customers.”

Nitty-gritty gardening

What helps, Freedman says, is being a destination business known for personalized customer service, and creating a space where people want to linger. During a recent lunch hour, Freedman recognized a browsing customer: “He’s skipping work again,” he says to his wife and office manager, Mindy Barker.

Earlier, Freedman spent time with home gardener and store regular Sinh Tran, who was checking out some of the indoor gardening water and lighting systems. Tran pulled out his phone to show photos of one of his plants; Freedman complimented him on how healthy it looks.

“We have a very loyal clientele,” Freedman says. “It’s just worked out great for us.”

The owners spent $60,000 to convert the former Indian Spice Bazaar space, which had been vacant for three years. Upgrades include new LED lighting in the ceiling, and a clean room in the back to grow mushrooms and create starter kits which they sell in sterilized jars and bags.

In the front, Dwarf peas and Evening Sun sunflowers flourish under indoor gardening lighting systems. Seeds, bags of soils and components for making organic fertilizer line shelves and aisles. Some customers provide vegetables for local farmers markets and restaurants, Barker says.

Their goal is for customers to be independent food producers who operate efficient, organic gardens. Barker describes the business focus this way: “All of the gritty and none of the pretty.”

Growing a gardening business

Freedman, who is 43, traces his love of gardening back to his time at Hickory Grove Elementary, where teachers taught student how to sprout peas.

His background is in technology, as well as working in retail at small businesses. While working at a hydroponics store on Monroe Road, he met Corder, in the film industry, who did a time lapse video of plants forming roots. They worked on a business plan for a year before launching American Beauty Garden Center in 2007.

Around the same time, a national salmonella outbreak linked to fresh produce purchased at grocers launched a home growers movement that continued through the recession. “Everyone wanted to do it themselves. They couldn’t afford to go out and live large. We taught them how to do it themselves.”

For our eighth year of business, to move and uproot our business was pretty frightening...(but) it’s translating to new customers.

Pete Freedman, American Beauty Garden Center

It all made for steady business at the Plaza Midwood store - “but people didn’t want to deal with the parking,” which was about 14 spaces, Freedman says. There’s plenty of parking at Lanier Plaza, which shares space with other businesses including Las Margaritas Mexican Restaurant, Leslie’s Pool Supplies and the bakery Panaderia Odalis.

At least three signs mark entrances to the plaza, which are surrounded by orange-and-white construction barricades, barrels and poles. Other businesses along this stretch have struggled as road work converting Independence to a freeway between uptown and Interstate 485 curtails their business.

The garden center, however, has a 10-year lease, Freedman says. “We’re not going anywhere.”