Life is Blossoming in This Secret Garden
Don’t let the fact that this couple has been together for over 20 years fool you, this vibrant duo started their journey together very young. By the tender ages of 21 and 22, Tom and Stefani Heffner were married with two boys to raise. The usual struggle to bring up children and meet financial obligations arose, and in the midst of it, an opportunity to pursue their shared passion presented itself. “Tom worked for a uniform company as a delivery driver and eventually became a manager, enabling me to be a stay-at-home mom. We didn’t really have common ground. I am a homebody who likes to watch “I Love Lucy.” My husband is a social butterfly. What we do really well together though, is grow things. Just as we nurture our boys and become thrilled as we see them thrive, we also pour ourselves into plants–every kind of green variety!”
Stefani did pursue a career as a full-time working mom, working in public health for three years with two of them being in the Teen Pregnancy Program. The entire time, she felt torn between doing a good job at work and being present for her boys. She wanted a job where she could set her own hours. When she presented the idea to Tom, they decided investing in their own business would be smart, but they wanted it to also be fun. They chose to buy a photo booth that they could rent out for weddings and parties. Says Stefani, “I quickly learned that I was past the party scene. After the first couple of gigs, I found that dealing with drunken people was not fun. I started spending more time with my mom, digging into the soil of her beloved garden.”
As much as toiling in the dirt with her mom lifted her spirits, Stefani was struck by feelings of failure over the demise of the photo booth business. She began dabbling with making gift arrangements. They became pretty good sellers at local bazaars. “I would include candy and toys and my table would sell out in minutes. Many people would ask for my phone number. I started adding plants into the mix. Soon I was traveling to farmers’ markets all over the Bay Area. From that, I was asked to do landscaping jobs and succulent gardens. The business grew organically,” says Stefani.
“I would include candy and toys and my table would sell out in minutes.”
Solely handling the shopping, marketing, and arrangements for her side hustle was becoming overwhelming. Last year, Tom joined her in the business of sourcing plants and presenting them to the crowds that flocked to their eagerly awaited plant sales hosted at their home. Tom also had a deep love for plants, fostered by his grandmother, Alice. Along with a passion for the product, Tom has a knack for knowing what it takes to make their newly formed venture profitable. His acumen in business is what Stefani declares to be the catalyst for their rapid growth. “Tom showed me that our gift basket profit margins weren’t great, but that selling plants would sustain us. I went to work building up a social media following that would have hundreds of people every weekend standing in line to buy plants from us. In a matter of months, our sales went from plants being displayed on one 6-foot table, to 16 tables, and then 20 tables. Having learned so much about plants from my mom, I would be the one guiding customers in their buying, describing the plant characteristics, and offering education with each purchase.
Together, our strengths really complement each other. My husband is the brain behind the business. He does all the online sales and financials, while I design, advertise, and collaborate with customers. Our boys pitch in and are learning the business along side us. We have made this a viable and rewarding family business.”
In January 2020, their 16-year-old son, Nate, went to his mom complaining about an earache. Tom was driving for Uber during the “cold season” since their plant business was still young. A rapid deterioration happened soon after, causing Nate to go from gasping for air to hallucinating and finally, passing out. Stefani had been on the phone with her brother who is a doctor, and they were speculating Nate had an ear infection when her boy collapsed. “Tom and I felt so bad. We hadn’t seen the signs. Nate was wearing baggy clothes and would never appear outside of his bedroom without them. We learned he weighed just 80 pounds and the reason he slipped into a coma was that he was suffering from ketoacidosis and had probably been diabetic for many months. We were told he could have suffered irreparable damage and that his outcome may be bleak. Then he awoke from his coma on the second day, said he could hear me crying the whole time, and that he was going to be fine. Since then, he has really owned this disease. He suffers from Type 1, so he checks his levels religiously three to four times a day and administers his own shots.”
In February 2020, Tom put his expanding business plan into play, creating an Etsy page for their plant business, www.sgdsucculents.com. The online presence blew up and Stefani had to quickly convert their garage into a shipping room. From February to March, their Etsy shop placed in the top 1% of sellers on the shopping site, hitting a robust total of completing over 5,000 sales. At the same time, the Heffners were bouncing between doing the online shop, hosting sales at their home, and co-op selling at locations such as the Pink Door and Three Nunns Farm. “As many as 200 people were attending our plant sales by this point. It had become a lucrative, thriving business. Then, in March 2020, we received a letter from the city that we had to stop holding sales at our home,” says Stefani, “You know it’s funny, because I had told my neighbors I always wanted to use my home décor and design skills and incorporate them into a plant shop. I guess this was a push to go in that direction.”
“I was scared, but we went to see the space anyway. There was a lot of parking available, which we liked.”
The letter from the city spurred the Heffners into looking for a storefront. They considered a small spot in the downtown area; however, windows are crucial for their business and that location didn’t have good light. Stefani became nervous and was even considering going back to her public health job, when her mother’s encouraging words gave her confidence, she said to Stefani, “People are devoted to you and you have weathered every storm you have gone through. You always come out the other side.”
Just the right spot, with all the perfect amenities, popped into their lap when they met Laura Fletcher while selling at the Pink Door one day. Laura introduced herself and they began talking. Laura managed the Sunset Plaza on Brentwood Boulevard and shared with the Heffners that there was a space available there, and it used to be a florist shop. They were intrigued, but when they learned the space was quite large, they didn’t feel ready for such an undertaking. “I was scared, but we went to see the space anyway. There was a lot of parking available, which we liked. We both immediately felt this was the place for us. We secured the space and started trekking the Central Coast in search of interesting plants and succulents to bring into our store. While in pursuit of exotic plants, I’d say our marriage became reconnected. We were able to share all the joys that collecting beautiful specimens can bring, and we created a space we can be proud of in which to display them.”
Just as they were ready to open their doors to the public in November, Stefani got a phone call. “Tom and I were sitting on the bed discussing the final touches of the opening. My mother had recently relocated to St. Augustine, Florida, and she called. That’s when I learned my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Tom immediately booked a flight for me to go be by her side. I felt so guilty leaving at such a crucial point in our business, but I had to be there for her. She’s on her second chemo treatment and has lost all of her hair. She won’t even let my dad see her without her hair, but I think she looks beautiful. I even offered to shave my own head in solidarity with her and she said, ‘Mijita, why do you want to do that, you are about to open a store?’ She’s often the one cheering me on when I know I should be doing that for her. It’s been hard. I almost gave up. Because of our popularity, we spend about six to eight hours a day online answering messages. On top of staging the store, shopping, and caring for the plants, we are at a point where we need additional help.”
Plant stores are at an all time high point in popularity. The Heffners have scouted every store across the Bay Area. “The closest store in nature to ours would be Terrain in Walnut Creek, it also incorporates home décor with plants. Our goal is to always incorporate plants that are currently most popular with social media influencers. Right now, Aroids, Anthuriums and Hoyas Plants are all the rage, but demand literally changes weekly.” The Heffners have proven to be adept at keeping up with the market and remain fiercely competitive in getting product on their shelves.
Although their store isn’t quite styled to the point they want it to be, the positive reinforcement from shoppers has been a huge motivator to push forward.
“Our three-year plan includes opening a farm and nursery in the rural area of Brentwood, allowing us to cultivate our own plants,” says Stefani. Ultimately, she gives credit for the shop coming alive to her mother, Olga Moscoso. “My mother inspired me to grow this business with my husband. The reason our shop has its name is because of the little seeds of love that were planted in me while working in her garden. There was a plaque that read ‘Secret Garden.’ All of my design ideas grew from that spot and led to a thriving business my family now tends to, Secret Garden Designs.”
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Photos By Melissa Van Ruiten