When Bob and Cheri Hooper left Idaho in 1973 with their two small children, they moved to the Flathead Valley and purchased Pierce Nursery on Montana Highway 35 in Evergreen where they learned the industry and sold flowers to the wives of farmers and ranchers.
The family-run business eventually became Hooper’s Garden Center and, after the original structure was torn down and replaced to accommodate the growth, the nursery relocated and moved about two miles up the road on 16 acres. In six months, Bob and Cheri built the garden center, two greenhouses and planted a tree yard, and officially reopened at the new facility in March of 1999.
Now, after almost 50 years in business, the Hoopers have handed over the keys to the 16 greenhouses full of geraniums, pansies and petunias to Phil Aitken, who says he’s honored to continue their legacy.
“In that time period, we have gone through a couple thousand employees – we know their mothers, their grandmothers, their great grandmothers, and we have generations of people that have shopped with us,” Cheri said. “Bob and I will be 75 in June, and we decided it’s time to retire.”
The Hoopers first put the garden center up for sale 12 years ago and, while there were many interested potential buyers, Bob and Cheri wanted to make sure it was the right person. They hoped their successor would uphold the business that they had poured their hearts into over the last five decades.
“We hoped that whoever bought the building and business would honor our name, because there’s blood, sweat and tears in this place,” Cheri said.
Aitken, his wife Kim, and his sister-in-law Leah Morrison are now partners in the company, and they don’t plan to change the garden center. Aside from renting a space in the retail area to Sunlife Health Foods, which is owned and operated by Debbie Stevens who recently relocated to Hooper’s, the facility will stay mostly the same, Aitken said.
“As the new owners, we don’t plan to change anything that the Hoopers have done here,” Aitken said. “We just plan to keep the operation going and my hope is to keep up their level of excellence to the product and customer service and to improve wherever we can.”
In the early days of Hooper’s, Bob and Cheri did everything manually – hand-transplanting flowers and sowing seeds.
Cheri says before they bought equipment, they manually filled a record of 17 plant flats in one day. Now, the nursery’s flat-filling machines can fill 100 flats per hour.
“Before we got the flat filler, we used to spend half the day doing nothing but filling pots with soil so we could stick plants in them,” Bob said. “Now, we have two people in the morning that spend two hours to fill almost an entire week’s worth of pots. That really sped up part of it.”
Additionally, a separate machine can transplant about 22,000 young plants called plugs in a single day.
While the majority of Hooper’s inventory is ornamental flowers, the nursery also sells vegetable seeds, starts and fruit plants. During economic downturns and recessions, Bob says demand for edible plants usually spikes about 10% to 15% while ornamentals see a decrease in sales.
This year, Bob suspects the vegetables will be emptied out early in the season as threats of an economic recession loom.
“Vegetable sales ramp up because people feel that they need to start growing their own food,” Bob said. “If we hit a recession, all people want to buy is fruit trees and they won’t mess with ornamentals.”
During most years, Bob says hanging baskets are in high demand and their staff arranges thousands of planter baskets throughout the season, many of which wind up at high-end homes around the Flathead Valley.
When the Hoopers first started in the 1970s, they said most of their customers were farmers and ranchers who planted flowers in garden beds. But in the last few decades, Bob says gardening has evolved into a new generation of containerized plants, which has changed their inventory.
Every spring, the Hoopers hire their seasonal staff for the season, typically employing a full crew of 45 people, ranging from college students on their summer break to retirees. While each season generally has a rotating crew, General Manager Michael Connolly has worked at Hooper’s for 33 years.
For nearly five decades, Bob has worked seven days per week from March through July, and he and Cheri are ready to retire, with plans to use the camper trailer that they’ve only used twice in five years.
“I haven’t been spring fishing here in 50 years,” Bob said. “I’m going to do some fishing.”
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