Deep Roots

March 2018 View more

The Wannemaker family members not only work together, but literally grow together. For more than 50 years their home and garden center has been a Downers Grove landmark, selling everything from plants to patio furniture, while offering home-grown expertise in spades.

Wannemaker’s first put down roots in 1967, when William Wannemaker bought Tollgate Nursery, a small nursery and gift shop on Ogden Avenue close to I-355 and I-88. Prior to that he was an Air Force tail gunner for B-17 and B-29 bombers in World War II. After the war he worked as a well digger with his father, learning the importance of hard work.

The current 45,000-square-foot building was erected in 1971. Over the years neighboring parcels of property have been added to create five acres of total land.

With the help of his sons Jim and Bob, Wannemaker grew the business into a place where customers could buy everything for their gardens, including lumber for building projects. By the mid-’90s the company stopped selling lumber and hardware to concentrate on home and garden goods.

Family affair
Jim and Bob ran the business together until Bob retired six years ago. Although Jim still owns it, he has placed the daily running of the family store into the hands of his son and two of his daughters.

Kelly handles administration and inventory, Joe (pictured above) manages grills, patio and seasonal, and Jennifer oversees the greenhouse, nursery and garden. Their sister Kristen recently left the business to pursue other ventures.

“When people ask me how long I’ve worked here, I tell them since I was eight years old,” laughs Joe, who now has a one-year-old daughter of his own. “We were always here causing trouble. Me and my sisters used to work here part-time. That’s the fun part of a family business.”

Moving forward
Over the years Wannemaker’s has made subtle changes to keep up with trends. Although they describe their client base as “traditional,” there is a growing interest among younger homeowners.

“We are trying to encourage younger people moving out to the suburbs,” Joe says. “We run gardening classes and even have a kids’ club on Wednesday evenings, where children can plant things here and watch them grow.”

The company employs 25 full-time staff members year-round, and in the busy months that number grows up to 100. This month the store is hosting its annual garden show, where more than 40 vendors will talk to customers directly, offering a variety of seminars on gardening topics.

Relationships first
“One of the things that differentiates us from the big-box stores is our customer service,” Wannemaker says. “We tend to go deeper into things than [they do]. We have more varieties of plants, which are always fresh. Everything is grown locally in Illinois or Michigan. Plus, our staff has much greater knowledge than some other stores.”

Customers come from far and wide—some from Chicago, others from Lake Geneva, Morris, Illinois or even Northern Indiana. The spring season, which runs from March through July, is their busiest, but that sales volume is closely followed by Christmas.

“We are a one-stop shop for all your outdoor needs,” Wannemaker says. “We also have a huge range of upscale gifts for any time of year. People come here for the experience. They know they will receive a smile at the door and get to see some unique stuff, whether they are here to buy or just to wander.”