It started out as a part-time college job in the 1980s, but Michael Hurley worked hard and eventually found himself the owner of Sunnyside Gardens in Southwest Minneapolis. It was humble beginnings, but it soon became part of who he was.
“I grew up in the area and worked at this garden center as a summer job during college,” said Hurley, now a father of four. “It kind of developed from there and I just fell in love with the business and the industry.’
“In the early years, it was doing whatever was asked,” said Hurley. “It was just general labor for a garden center. I was loading cars for customers, unloading trucks, taking care of the plants. Then, it evolved into where it was a little bit of management and I was directing other laborers. That role evolved into buying plants and managing inventory.”
Fast forward to the year 2000, which found Hurley working as a manager in retail for a different business altogether, longing to go back to where it all began.
That’s when he was touched by the hand of fate. The previous owner was selling the garden center, but wanted it to remain a garden center. Hurley knew he was the perfect fit.
“I had a great opportunity,” he said. “It was already my passion. It was what I was good at, and I didn’t have any other career path that I was focused on. I was focused on this though, and this was my hope. And when the opportunity came - it was exciting, and I definitely wasn’t going to let it pass.”
While his heart and soul were already there, Hurley went about putting his own fingerprint on the business.
The first major step was to add landscaping (tree planting, patios, walkways, retaining walls, etc.) as a service, complete with a landscape designer on staff.
Hurley recalls, “We worked on the layout of the store a little bit, but in 2000 we were still on old-fashioned cash registers. Shortly thereafter, we went to a point of sale system. So, a lot of the major change was product selection, store layout, and technology.”
For two decades, it was pretty much clear sailing and an upward climb for the business. But, then the pandemic hit.
“It was tough on people,” said Hurley. “It was tough on people. The customers wanted to be here. They wanted to come in to shop and they wanted to be outside in their yards. Staff-wise, it was difficult. We had very few employees on site because we were concerned about possible exposures. But, everybody did a great job, worked hard, and tried to be respectful of the company. In turn, we tried to make sure the staff was comfortable.”
While offering the highest level of customer service possible has always been part of the business model, that had to be refined.
“We didn’t want to expose people or make people feel uncomfortable,” he said. “We tried to monitor the number of people in certain in areas. Luckily, most of the store is outside. We also made the cashier lanes wider to give everybody more space.”
While most businesses don’t look forward to closing down for a bit, Hurley felt the annual post-holiday closure was best for everyone involved.
“It was kind of a relief,” he said. “There was a Covid spike after Thanksgiving and the holidays, and people were getting less and less comfortable at that point. With the volume and seasonality of our business, it was good to let everyone just stay home and be safe.”
While Covid conditions were a bit safer on the landscaping side, precautions had to be taken there as well.
“If a two-person crew or a three-person crew took a truck, they wore masks and we were sanitizing the trucks,” said Hurley. “We were just trying to follow the safety measures and keep everybody comfortable and safe. They don’t have as many interactions, though, so that was less affected.”
It’s sometimes said that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and Hurley sees the business that he has made his life’s passion coming back strong.
“Moving forward, we are going to continue to enhance the customer experience in the garden center,” he said. “We are excited to expand and decorate our outdoor living spaces.’
“We’re also going to see what the summer and fall of this year and the spring of 2022 bring. It’s a little bit of a waiting game on how we approach or tackle the future.”
Hurley is sensing optimism from customers, many of whom are the company’s best advocates through their word-of-mouth and positive reviews on social media.
“People are pretty positive on their outdoor living spaces, plants, and their landscaping right now,” he said. “They have been for a while and we expect that to continue. Interests could shift a little bit, but I would imagine that most people will be looking to have more gatherings at their houses in the near future.”
While there are other changes that could be made, Hurley would rather take it slow.
“There are always services you can add, but gardening and landscaping is our main focus right now,” he says. “We have great sales staff, designers and field staff, so we are continuing to broaden and build awareness around that. Our goal is to provide quality work and a quality experience for the customer so they have an end-product that they are thrilled with.”
More at www.sunnyside-gardens.com. (612) 926-2654. Located at 3723 W 44th St in Minneapolis.