A Brooklyn Nursery Finds New Life in LockdownCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | How Natty Garden pivoted in the wake of COVID-19.Published: July 14, 2020
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
When I moved to Brooklyn last year, one of the first local businesses I shopped at was Natty Garden. Standing on a quiet corner at the northern boundary of Prospect Heights, the nursery effervesces life: vines sprawl out of their baskets, fragrant blooms line the sidewalk, and reggae pours out from the doors. Though the physical shop closed at the beginning of the lockdown, it quickly reopened once the city expanded the definition of essential businesses. Keep reading for my conversation with Joel MahFood, founder of Natty Garden, about his journey to opening a plant shop, the moment COVID-19 became real for him, and how he’s pivoted the business — while remaining admirably calm — in lockdown.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
You’re from Jamaica; what brought you to New York?
I frequented New York as a child. My mom used to work here and send money home. And we were fortunate enough for her to send us plane tickets [to visit New York] in the summer breaks. A year after high school, [my mom] was like, "What are you going to do with your life?" My sister went to Queens College, then NYU, and I was motivated to follow in her footsteps. I never made it to NYU, but those steps brought me to New York.
What inspired you to open Natty Garden?
I was a musician trying to sell CDs in New York on the subway. It inspired me to [think], "There's so many people out there. How can I reach them doing my own thing?" After the music career ended, I felt like I needed to open a store where I could still reach people the way I was when we were in the subway and they were passing by on their way to work. That was my ultimate goal.
A friend of mine worked on Washington Avenue and he was telling me, "There's a lot for rent, and you've been saying you want to open a business…” So, I rented a lot and tried parking cars and that didn't work. We only got three cars, so I couldn't pay the rent. I tried a flea market. That did not work. While we were doing the flea market I was like, "Why don't I make the place nice with some plants?” Then people started buying the plants. I wasn’t thinking about making a plant store. It was about making [the space] look nice. In Jamaica, that's how we do it. We have plants in the yard, plants in the house.
Let's talk about the pandemic. Were you prepared for the lockdown?
I watch a lot of news, Al Jazeera and BBC, so I saw all this going on since December. I was wearing masks before they asked people to wear masks. In January, I was telling my employees, "Hey, there's a virus in China” and I warned them, "Don't be so touchy, keep your distance.” I remember the day Kobe passed, I was asking people, "Did you hear about the news in China?" Before the lockdown, I told two of my employees, one who is older and one who had cancer, "You can't be so close to the customers and you may have to take some time off if this thing gets worse." And it did get worse, unfortunately. Across the street is Washington Bagel. The owner passed away from COVID. That’s when COVID became real. It could have been anybody on the corner. It could have been me.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Yeah, it hit close to home.
What happened to your staff?
My entire staff stopped working. And then we had a problem where we had all these plants and somebody had to go in to take care of them. [My staff] started volunteering to go in and water, and people would knock on the door [to the shop] and we were like, "We can't." We were scared to take in customers. So we thought, How about we put this online?
How did online sales go?
It kind of didn’t work, [not because] people weren’t buying it. It just didn't feel organic. It felt like Amazon. I don't want to say it wasn't successful... It was successful. We're at 890-something orders right now, so I'm glad I got into it. COVID caused us to start doing the website, and I'm going to continue to do it until we perfect it. I want to bring life to it.
When did you reopen the physical store?
We were closed for a week, and then we got word that we are an essential business if we sell herbs and soil. Going to the supermarkets was not cutting it, and people were having to plant their own food. I already had seeds, soil, vegetables, and herbs. So we opened the doors. It was just a few hours a day. We didn't get into appointments because it wasn't as busy, so we were able to service one or two people at a distance.
How did you pay your employees when you were closed?
Some were still making money by coming in to water the plants and doing the online business. And those who could get unemployment got it.
I imagine you took a major cut in sales. Did you apply for any grants?
I’m used to the down time. To be honest, this could have been a snowstorm. [It happens every] March, when we have snow and it's cold. Sometimes we don’t even sell a plant. So, I wasn’t financially stressed. When the loan stuff was going out, I told my accountant I didn't need it. I don’t like that kind of government involvement, I can survive on my own. I've been in it for 12 years.
How has your role in the neighborhood evolved over the last few months?
We were the only plant store that stayed open. There was Home Depot, but we were the only mom and pop. Then, with George Floyd, people were like, "Oh, and you’re black-owned!” It was funny, people started seeing the business.
Do you think the uptick in people growing their own food will stick around after the pandemic subsides?
People forget. [At the height of the lockdown,] we had to sustain ourselves, we had to think about the end of times and growing our own food. But from what people are buying, I can already tell they are forgetting. I would have loved to see growing your own food catch on, on a serious level, but that's just not happening. But we'll promote it to the very end.
How to help:
Until next time,