by Enrico Villamaino
As the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll on businesses of every stripe, entrepreneurs in the horticultural world are making every effort to keep both their employees and customers safe while continuing to serve their communities and keep their businesses afloat.
“It’s been very challenging,” said Dino Jacavone, owner and operator of Jacavone Garden Center in Johnston, RI. “We haven’t had anything quite like this before. We’re trying everything we can to keep going through some difficult times.”
Founded by Dino’s parents as a farm, greenhouse and feed store in 1965, Jacovone’s was acquired by Dino and his wife Connie in 2007. Their children, Isabella and Dino Jr., also work for the business around their studies at Lehigh University and Northeastern University, respectively.
As a vendor of vegetable plants and fruit trees, Jacovone’s was deemed an essential business by Rhode Island. Dino is grateful this allowed them to remain open for business. He realized early on, however, that open for business did not mean business as usual.
“We knew right around March 26,” Dino explained, “that this was going to be something major, and we’d have to change up how and what we do.”
The garden center altered its floor plan to better allow for social distancing. “We’ve been placing our displays and benches farther apart – at least eight feet apart. And we’ve also been setting up duplicate displays, so that customers can more easily have access to our better selling products.” Dino admitted these measures, while necessary, have greatly cut into the amount of floor space they can utilize. “It’s really slowed things down in here,” he said.
Not only is the speed of commerce down, but so are revenues. Dino lamented, “Easter sales were down 60% compared to last year.” He said many of the Easter plants Jacavone’s normally sells are not grown in house, so to compensate for the predicted decrease in sales, he scaled back on his orders for outside plants for resale and focused more on the perennials grown in house and already in stock.
Another change in Jacavone’s business is with online sales. “Our online sales are up at least 90%,” he said. “People are glad they can place their orders that way. We deliver about 20% of those orders. The rest come here for curbside pickups.”
Dino is happy to point out that Jacavone’s did not have to lay off any of their 12 employees. He has gone all out to ensure the safety of his workers. “Of course we supply them with masks and gloves. We also meet up every morning, take everyone’s temperature, ask how they’re feeling, how their families are doing.” Not wanting his employees to have to expose themselves any more than is absolutely necessary, he implemented a new program. “Most of our employees have small children, and we don’t want them to take any risks we can help keep them from having to take,” he said. “My cousin owns Al-Jacs Potatoes & Produce in Providence. We’ve been buying up groceries in bulk, having them delivered here and then distributing them to our people on site. It’s one less thing they have to worry about.”
Dino credits Facebook with helping Jacavone’s stay in contact with its customers. “We get 80 calls a day asking if we’re still open. But so many more people are reaching out through our Facebook page. We post updates throughout the day.”
Looking ahead, Dino knows these changes will be a factor for some time. “We’re concerned with the possibility of a second wave of the virus hitting us in the fall,” he said. He noted that Jacavone’s sales are about 80% retail and 20% wholesale, but a very large portion of that wholesale business is to landscapers who are already cancelling some of their autumn orders. In response, Jacavone’s is already cutting back on their autumn plantings.
Dino sighed, “This thing is going to affect our whole year.”