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Generational Business: Vanderwees Garden Gallery is a centre for all seasons

Popular garden centre began as delivery service in 1960

Vanderwees Garden Gallery has been a fixture in Thunder Bay for over 60 years, but few know its humble beginnings. Today, it is well known as a garden centre in the summer and for its Christmas displays in winter. But Joe and Laura Vanderwees started their greenhouse business on Mapleward Road near the corner of Dawson Road as a relatively simple delivery business selling perennials and vegetables back in 1960.

Joe came by greenhouses naturally. His father and grandfather grew tomatoes and peppers in their greenhouse in the small village of Loosduinen, part of The Hague, Netherlands. The family settled in Port Arthur, Ont.,(now Thunder Bay after amalgamation) in 1952. Laura’s family had been in Canada longer and moved to the Port Arthur area from Winnipeg. They married in 1954.

Joe, a natural entrepreneur, sold eggs door to door through his uncle’s business (which still sells eggs in Thunder Bay today), and owned a shop that sold goods imported from the Netherlands. Eventually, they found property on the edge of town to open a few small greenhouses, growing and delivering annuals for bedding plants. Joe is equally known in Thunder Bay as a long-time city councillor.

Things started to change at Vanderwees Greenhouses when their son John joined the business in the late 1970s. He showed that same entrepreneurial spirit.

“We really built the business together,” John said. “When I joined them, it was pretty small – just a few greenhouses. Today, we have 250,000 square feet of greenhouse space.”

For the most part, Vanderwees supplies the same types of plants today such as annuals and starter vegetables. Christmas poinsettias are another big seller at the greenhouse. Aside from its onsite retail business, the company also sells to commercial customers in Northern Ontario from Wawa to Dryden, and down to the U.S. Vanderwees joined a group of other greenhouses to increase their buying power. Eventually, Vanderwees changed to the current Garden Gallery group – and changed the company name.

That’s in part because “greenhouse” doesn’t even begin to cover the scope of the business today. Vanderwees features a boutique, a gourmet foods section, homemade fudge, and a gift shop. They also operate a small Animal Farm – a big hit with generations of kids in Thunder Bay – and a mini-putt.

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Christmas is an important time of year. Although they’ve had to scale back the number of in-person events during COVID, Vanderwees was identified as the largest Christmasland display in Ontario. They were also in the process of expanding their warehouse space and adding a Funland for kids when the pandemic hit.

Perhaps the biggest game-changer for the garden centre was the addition of Tulips Café, which opened after Vanderwees’ 2005 renovation. Tulips has helped make Vanderwees a destination spot in Thunder Bay. Shoppers can make an afternoon of it, enjoying delicious meals like homemade soups and its famous Reuben beneath a huge and colourful Dutch cityscape mural.

“We moved into all homemade soups using vegetables from our gardens, and that’s still what we do today. That’s how the café became extremely popular (especially in the summer),” John said.

Those vegetables include leeks, potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes. The café uses locally sourced ingredients for things it can’t produce, including bread from Thunder Bay’s Five Star Bakery.

John said that all these changes have contributed to the business’ longevity.

“Being diversified and having a place to come to, to relax – it’s a good outing. It’s a family business that families can come to. Pre-COVID, we had the best Santa. We don’t go halfway on anything. When we do something, we want to make sure it’s done right,” he said.

“I think the other thing is that we change things up. That’s one of the challenges of a smaller market. When you’re in a larger market, you can run longer with a program. Here, you have to continually reinvent yourself.”

Reinvention may also be inevitable when it comes to passing along this family-owned business. John’s two children both became psychotherapists and moved away to southern Ontario, so it likely won’t go to the next generation. However, although it may be a cliché to say, the staff at Vanderwees really has become a family. For example, the greenhouse manager has been with the company for 38 years, starting at Vanderwees when he was a teenager.

John didn’t say exactly what the plan would be for passing along the business. But that’s still in the future, he said.

“Later on, something will happen. The team here is really what makes it anyway. (Succession planning) isn’t on my radar at the moment.”

This article is one in a series focused on the rich histories, journeys and long-term successes of generational businesses in Northern Ontario.