Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What's in a Name

Wholesale vs Retail

Among the many varied tasks I was assigned during my first year working for the Brown Bulb Ranch was covering our logo on shipping boxes.  All our boxes had, reasonably enough, our logo.   We had spray paint that was exactly the color of new cardboard and I would turn our logo boxes into generic boxes. 

This puzzled me at the time.  Wouldn’t we want the recipient of the boxes to know where the begonias came from?   I was informed that, no we did not. 

You see, our customer was a wholesale buyer who sold to the person to whom we were shipping, and our customer (the wholesaler) did not want the recipient to know where the begonias came from.  In that way the wholesaler (our customer) insured that his customer (the recipient) would have to come back to him if he wanted more of those wonderful begonias, he wouldn’t know where else to go.

These days what is called “Branding” is a big deal.  It’s such a big deal that people will pay more for a particular Brand even if there is no inherent value other than the name. T-shirts, shoes, whatever. A maker of tablet computers, for example, is able to demand four times what other tablets sell for because of their brand name. 

But that was not the original purpose of a Brand. Branding is supposed to be an assurance of quality, a “Name”, a reputation you could count on.

Because we considered ourselves to be wholesale and not retail, we were happy to support whomever was selling our product by making them seem like the Big Deal, the Producer, the Great Garden Provider, the Brand Name.    White Flower Farm had our Lace begonias on the cover of their catalog one year (wish I could find it, it’s just here somewhere) where inside we were called “Our California Grower”.  Being anonymous was a customer service.

But, hey!  They sold our begonias; as did Jackson and Perkins, David’s and Royston, Burpie and dozens of others, both high-end, middle of the road and Michigan Bulb.   We were stealth samurai begonia growers.  Egoless and free of the hordes of tourist that were clogging up the greenhouses of Vetterle and Antonelli with their picnics, weddings, and endless photographs.

Vetterle and Reinelt's "Cathedral of Begonias" Photographer Unknown

I used to live in Capitola, on the Old Ranch, and I would walk down to the Begonia Festival every September wearing my Brown Bulb Ranch hat.  Nobody knew who we were.  All the floats in the Nautical Parade are covered with begonias that we provided and nobody knew (these days the organizers are much better at giving us credit than they did then). 

If I mentioned to someone that I grew begonias for a living they would remark “You must work for Antonelli’s” 

“No, I work for Brown’s.”

 Blank look.  Followed by “Who?”

Capitola Begonia Festival 1959. 

Capitola begonia festival Floats2012 Photographer unknown
Capitola Begonia festival float 2012 Photographer unknown

Garden catalogs have pretty much gone away.  We are still a wholesale provider but most of our product goes to the professional grower, not the home gardener.  The professional grower is serviced by a “plant broker”.   The broker is now our customer.  Begonias don’t work very well for industrialized greenhouse operations.  Callas do. Where does that leave our begonia business? 

Needing to modernize you say?

Well, we are trying.  A few years ago we registered a brand name; The Amerihybrid® Begonia (ask for it by name! Accept no subsitute! Tell ‘em Andy sent you!)

Now, you have to admit that our begonia strategy was not without merit.  Of the four families that grew begonias around Capitola, we are the only ones still in business and still growing begonias (even if it is only 30% of what we grew in our heyday.)

Modernize.  These days that means the internet, right. 

There are things you can buy and things you can’t.  Reputation is not something you can buy.  Names however, you sometimes can.  

Antonelli Brothers produced about 3 acres of begonias, I know, I grew them.  We had about 30 acres.  Antonelli Brothers’ annual begonia sales revenue in the year before they closed was about the same as ours for the same year.  I don’t know about you, but that says something to me about the margins inherent in retail versus wholesale.  

Antonelli’s was a three generation family business.  When they were in Capitolia, the tour busses pulled up to their place during the bloom season. A visit to the beach at Capitolia-by-the-Sea was not complete without a visit to the famous Antonelli Begonia Gardens.  They were a Name.

Antonelli's 2009 Catalog.  The last one.

Golden State Bulb Growers now owns all of Antonelli’s begonia mother stock, we own what seed they had on hand when they decided to throw in the towel and some seed we have collected since.  We are, for all intents and purposes, Antonelli Begonias for the 21st century. 

Maybe that should be our retail brand.  What do you old time (no insult intended) begonia growers think?  Does the name “Antonelli Begonias” still have any cachet?  And if so, should we exploit it?

Retail is supposed to be customer centric.  That’s why retail gets the big markup, to pay for sales and customer support staff.  Wholesale is production centric, we rely on wholesale buyers and brokers to be our sales team and our customer support, that’s why they get to clip the ticket.  Golden State Bulb Growers is a very experienced production grower.  Servicing retail customers is not something we have much experience with… yet.  There is a lot of inertia around here and it is going to take a while to change.  But change is in the air.

Geez this sales stuff baffles me.   I’m gonna go make a few female begonia flowers pregnant. 


Antonelli Begonia Gardens in the 60s.  Photographer Unknown

Antonelli Begonia Gardens Capitola California.  Photographer Unknown



  1. A pleasure to read, Andy. Start-to-finish, fine job.

  2. Thanks Bill,
    I hear you are entering another color season. We hope to share it with you (I'll bring whisky)