March 8, 2022 - 1338 Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA
GP - Sales Associate
Robyn Osteroff - Value-Added Enterprise Manager
Darrie Ganzhorn - Executive Director
March 8, 2022
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After my afternoon visit to Natural Bridge Farm, I dropped by The Homeless Garden Project store in downtown Santa Cruz. What an impressive location for a farm and local-sourced product outlet in the center of their shopping district! The setting sun lit up the whole storefront which consisted of full length glass walls with a rustic, lumber-framed interior. The scent of lavender, which came from bunches of it hanging from the ceiling, invited me to walk in.
Store Location and Decor
“Hello!” I said to the man at the counter. “How may I help you?” he answered. I shared my interest in this business model - a value-added enterprise to complement the work the trainees were doing at the farm. Luckily, the store had no customers there, so he could give me a tour and explain how this works. GP has been a sales associate now for a few years. He started at the store in Capitola and has kept learning and growing ever since.
When I asked about how they found this location, GP explained that this was actually their third location. Location truly does make a difference. Their business has picked up dramatically in the last two years - especially online due to COVID. “A gamble was taken to invest in a three-year lease at this spot, and it has been well worth it.” he said.
“People love the scent of lavender. This store smells good. It also looks good with the entire front glass showcase. The light colors are upbeat, the design is simple, and the track lighting highlights the products. That, combined with the watercolor paintings and the local-vendor products, makes the store an appealing place to visit. Robyn Ostroff, Value-Added Enterprise Manager, is the brains behind this operation. She knows all about branding and marketing local products.”
Local Product Offering
The Homeless Garden Project store’s number one selling produce is the local handmade soap. Lavender scent and other scents are added to this handmade bar which is neatly labeled and wrapped. Each bar sells for $9. HGP works with local vendors on a 50% deal of gross sales. That 50% goes toward the program. Vendors determine the price. Out of the many stock keeping units (SKUs) sold, only a handful of items aren’t local. Those that aren’t have been chosen to support other environmental or socially responsible small companies. The number of SKUs goes up to about a hundred during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday. Wreaths are sold for the highest price. These wreaths made of wheat straw are decorated with dried flowers, herbs from the farm, and often ribbons and other foraged items like seashells and evergreen branches.
GP added, “Of course, we have our other flagship products that we’ve sold since our store’s beginning: hand-dipped candles specially packaged and decorated with dried flowers and strawberry jam. They have been a dependable, consistent offering that is beloved by the community.” Our salves are also a popular item. They contain the essential oils of several different herbs. I continued to observe the shelves. Among cooking and eating products were four herb mixes and 4 backing mixes (pancakes, shortbread, biscuits and seasonings). “We’ve got soy candles and beeswax candles all made within six blocks of our store!” GP exclaimed.
New items are brought in each week to keep our customers coming back. They feel great about buying something realizing that their support may have helped keep someone off the street tonight. They also learn about farm events and our CSA of fresh, organic produce. I noted that each time a customer completed a purchase, that GP commented, “Thanks for helping us do what we do!”
The Workshop behind the Scenes
Robyn Ostroff, Value-Added Enterprise Manager, shared, “Over 40 different products in our workshop are entirely made by the trainees! In the workshop, we have one full time staff member besides me: our workshop production associate – Brenda who is a graduate from our job training program. In the store, we have two part time sales associates – GP and Mona.” These products include baking mixes, seasoning mixes, and wreaths. The rest of the products are packed into smaller containers and branded Homeless Garden Project. The workshop started out as an idea in someone’s garage to keep the trainees employed for the full year even when the farm isn’t producing. Workshop hours are offered all year round, just fewer during the growing season. The workshop becomes the primary place of employment for our trainees October through February.
The workshop provides a unique job training experience for the trainees. They can add to their resumes that they have worked in packaging and marketing. They get to use their hands to make artistic packages for candles that have beautiful arrangements of dried flowers tied around the bundle. “These little flowers on our packaging like candles and soaps have become a signature item.” GP said.
Robyn is responsible for both the workshop, two retail stores, online sales, and product development. After several years of managing the value-add business, they are able to hire one full-time workshop manager who is assisted with two part time by workshop or store managers. These three work closely with the trainees in the workshop to store, process, and package the products. “In the workshop we have one full time staff member besides me: our workshop production associate – Brenda who is a graduate from our job training program. In the store, we have two part time sales associates – GP and Mona.” Robyn added.
Enabling Community to Play a Role
When asked, “What keeps your customers coming?” Robyn remarked, “Customers really value buying a product that has at least one ingredient from the farm. So many shoppers feel like the shopping at The Homeless Garden Project store is a direct, practical way to support The Homeless Garden Project and those facing homelessness to get off the streets and live connected yet independent lives. This store empowers the community to help with the confidence that their dollar is really doing something for their benefit. Paying a little more for a bar of soap or a herb mix makes them feel good that they are playing a key role to solve homelessness. It’s a practical way for the customer to feel good about themselves.”
To the question, “What benefits do you see in the lives of the individuals who work at the workshop?” Robyn responded, “The value-add enterprise component of our trainee’s work experience provides job skills development which is not available on the farm. The farm, workshop, and store experience complement each other. Working on the farm can be intense, exhausting outdoor work. Trainees are usually more spread out, yet they get to interact with the Earth and the plants. Tasks in our workshop are done together, often in the same room. We enjoy a closer association. At the store, they get to interact with the public. They begin to understand the needs of our customers and what it takes to run a business.”
A Link to Farm and Local Vendors
Local partner vendors provide The Homeless Garden Project Store a variety of products that attract more people into their store. Some furnish entire departments of items that the trainees could not make to the same standard of quality. I noted the funny cloth figures, the children's story book, and the Moo Poo made out of goat droppings. Their soap has a layer of finely crushed walnut shells to make it distinctive.
The store is a great link to the farm. Store attendants refer customers to the online Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares available to buy seasonal fresh-farm produce. The customers pick up their orders at the farm. It’s a great way for them to come out and see what’s going on from week to week. Often they find out about community activities and end up volunteering at the farm.
Challenges of Operating a Store and Workshop
While the store provides a great funding stream for The Homeless Garden Project, it takes a lot to manage it. “The details of running this business can become quite challenging.” Robyn commented. With our expanded list of products, inventory needs to be managed to ensure there is enough of each farm-sourced ingredient. If the farm supply is insufficient, we have to draw on secondary sources. That required alternate labels. All this means that we have to be very adaptable to the circumstance.
Darrie Ganzhorn, Executive Director, readily admits that without the volunteers to support the Homeless Garden Project, they could not succeed in what they are doing. Omar Guzman, Volunteer Coordinator, spends most of his time ensuring that each volunteer has a positive experience. Robyn commented, “30-years of nonprofit in our community has allowed us to build so many connections. Those connections facilitate recruiting volunteers with a variety of great skill sets. We enjoy a lot of great community volunteers at the store, especially at the holiday season. There’s a sense of fun as people work and converse together in the workshop and store. People really enjoy giving back in a meaningful way.”
Volunteers sign up online for either a farm, a workshop or an office experience. The farm requires by far the largest number of volunteers. For example, this year’s Martin Luther King Day for service, they recruited 130 volunteers to help prepare the farm for the new season. Omar added, “Our next big community service event will be on March 31st -Cesar Chavez Day. I find that our community is eager to help. On those big days, we call all staff in to coordinate the volunteers at the farm. Our goal is to never turn anyone away. Ella, our farm manager, helps guide me on how to plan their work.”
Those who volunteer for the office often engage in web design, spreadsheets, data entry, or applying their special marketing skills. Omar shared, “Volunteering is at the heart of creating community. It’s amazing to see how the trainee’s interaction with volunteers in the workshop increases their confidence.”
A Creative Outlet
When asked what kind of personal impact this work has, Robyn commented, “Work at the workshop is a reprieve from the farm. People really thrive with work that allows for a creative outlet. Making wreaths and decorating candles are fun. I feel that energy when we are all together in the same room interacting.”
Author: Farmer Karl