West London garden centre The Palace Gardener is now run by Bypass Nurseries, which took over the former Fulham Palace Garden Centre previously owned by the Church Commissioners. Fulham Palace Garden Centre has been empty since 2014 after the Prince's Trust charity closed it down. After controversial attempts to lease the centre to Pets at Home came to nothing, the site lay empty for more than two years before reopening in March under new owners.
The Fulham Palace site near the banks of the River Thames was formerly run by the Fairbridge Garden & Arts Society, formed in 1993 to raise funds for Fairbridge, the parent charity, and to promote the Fulham Palace Garden Centre, which Fairbridge set up to help train disadvantaged young people. In April 2011, Fairbridge merged with The Prince's Trust. The centre had operated in a purpose-built building since March 1985, reaching a turnover of some £900,000 a year.
The Prince's Trust sold it to the Church Commissioners for £1.275m in May 2016, saying that the site "wasn't financially viable". At the time of closing, The Prince's Trust said it was because it "is not a core part of the trust's operations and, with this in mind, we are looking at leasing the site as this will be the best way to raise funds in support of more young people".
The trust bought two-thirds of the lease for Fulham Palace Garden Centre from the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham for more than £500,000 in 2013. The 0.5-acre premises comprise a garden centre, office, workshops and significant external space.
Bypass Nurseries is best known for The Chelsea Gardener. The Fenwick family founded the company in East Anglia in 1939. It also runs Phoenix Rose Home & Gardens in north London and is based at Capel St Mary in Suffolk.
The Palace Gardener has a new Glasshouse Cafe that serves "fresh, simple, quality dishes" throughout the day from homemade granola to "freshly made focaccia sandwiches and healthy salads, chef specials and a great kids' menu". There will be outside seating in the summer.
The centre has also capitalised on the trend for indoor gardening in its new layout. Its official launch was scheduled for yesterday (27 April). Horticulture Week spoke to manager Jorge Rodriguez:
How has it been since opening?
We only opened in March and it has been busy. To set up the centre was a lot of work and now we have opened the locals tell us they are happy to come back. People already know about us so there is less stress now and the staff know what they're doing. It's been a challenge but we're happy so far. I hope the weather stays as it has been in early April and we have a good season.
What are your sales targets?
We don't know yet. Targets are new for us. We're making them up as we go along. The target is based on the potential the place has. It will be the next step to work that out. We'll see how it goes and what the potential is.
How many staff do you have?
We have 15 at least to make sure we can rotate and have enough people.
How is the cafe doing?
The cafe is new and it's a great addition. People come first thing in the morning and stay longer and then make some purchases. It is run as a concession as The Glasshouse Cafe by the Massarellas, who are a family company who have already been working with our group, Bypass Nurseries, in our other garden centres.
What does Bypass Nurseries own?
Chelsea Gardener is our flagship and we also have Phoenix Rose in Enfield in north London and another centre outside London.
What is your target audience?
The locals, of course. Before we opened we ran a survey and had a large amount of responses. The locals were very keen to have another garden centre open here. I believe before we took over there was a controversial plan for the land to go to a different kind of business but the locals raised a petition because they wanted a garden centre here. They have really welcomed us and have been very supportive and we have received a huge amount of information from them, which has been very useful. There's a huge community around here and we want to spread the word and make sure the rest of London knows about us, including across the river as well. We have no car parking so people walk to us.
What is your background?
I was at Chelsea Gardener a few years ago for four years as outdoor manager and then at the RHS as London shows manager before they convinced me to come back.
Who are your buyers?
Because we have just opened I am purchasing all the outdoor plants, shrubs, bedding and herbs until we develop the team properly and we set up a few positions. We're testing customers and our own staff to see how we can build the team better.
We use the head buyer from Chelsea Gardener to purchase gifts and indoor products, taking the set-up that Chelsea Gardener already has. That helps us a lot to set up the new business and once we see how it has gone we might introduce new suppliers. We don't have the same range as Chelsea Gardener. Chelsea Gardener has been there for 30 years and has a huge reputation and a good team, so it makes sense to do it this way and then hopefully develop slightly differently.
How are indoor plants doing?
We don't have as much space as we would love. The main shop is not huge but the area we have is working really well and again we're looking at what customers buy. Cacti and succulents are so fashionable and we're also doing a lot of foliage and big leaves. They're doing really well. We try each week to get different orchids and flowering plants too.
What plant suppliers do you use?
We use Europlants for the big stuff from Italy and Evergreen, an amazing supplier who supplies really quickly and has a huge variety. We also buy from Holland through Europlants and have David Austin Roses and English bedding and herbs. We also buy from Arnott & Mason and Quality Plants in New Covent Garden Market where we have relationships already and now have reliable good-quality plants.
Expert comment: a natural fit for new owners
Neville Stein Managing director, Ovation business consultancy
"Fulham Palace is a natural fit for the new owners. If you look at what they have been doing with Chelsea Gardener, they have made it a successful boutique-style garden centre and set standards in that area.
"Having a cafe makes absolute sense because in London there is a huge culture of drinking coffee and going out for breakfast and brunch, and an insatiable demand for that kind of cafe, so having one at Fulham Palace hits that market for brunches and breakfasts at weekends.
"Having a cafe that is surrounded by plants gives it an extra element of relaxation and a connection with nature that you simply do not get at Starbucks or Costa.
"Houseplants are a big growth area, particularly when as sold as indoor decor and part of a lifestyle. But there are so many other benefits too, such as connecting with nature and purifying the air, that we could sell better."