“Welcome to the Cottage Garden Farm for home décor, we are open every day, west on 54.” If that jingle sounds familiar to you, it proves that money well-spent on advertising can be a game changer for a business.
Marcus and Vickie Roth are the owners of Cottage Garden Farm in Waupaca and also the singers of the catchy tune. They credit that longrunning campaign with making their business what is today.
When Cottage Garden Farm opened 25 years ago, it was just Marcus and Vickie doing something they had a passion for after Marcus lost his job.
“Vickie had a small business where she bought and sold antiques and I lost my job as a pilot when Midway Airlines went bankrupt,” Marcus said. “So, I started building birdhouses for Vickie’s business in Illinois, but we were in a city and weren’t zoned for a business, so we knew we had to get out of the city.”
“We found an ad in the Chicago Tribune for an old mill for sale in Waupaca,” Vickie said. “We had no idea where Waupaca was, so we jumped in the car and we came on Highway 54 and this farm was for sale. We said, ‘This is it.’ There was only the old granary, a big barn and the house that we now live in.”
Their business started as a one-room shop in the granary and since that time has expanded to include the entire granary and the barn, which were connected to each other 20 years ago. The barn is a year-round Christmas store and the granary changes merchandise with the seasons.
In the early 1990s, with the popularity of the birdhouses, the couple traveled all over the United States to sell their wares at large art shows, so the retail shop was only open periodically.
However, within a few years, foreign companies started copying Marcus’ designs and mass producing knock offs of his work. People were less willing to pay the price for original art, so eventually he stopped producing birdhouses.
The couple shifted their focus and made it through some lean times to build up Cottage Garden Farm.
Now, they sell “everything,” and their shop and the surrounding yard is filled with interesting and unique merchandise.
“Outdoor garden is probably our No. 1 (best seller),” Vickie said. “Then, we have a big clothing boutique, jewelry, scarves, giftware, home décor, pictures, mirrors, lamps, candles and birds.”
What put them on the years ago was acquiring mascots for their business. “We have reindeer here,” Marcus said It all happened by chance when a man, who was pulling a trailer with two reindeer in it, stopped at the farm to let the animals out to graze.
Vickie remembered saying, “I need a Christmas shop and I need those reindeer.” They ended up buying the reindeer from the man and kept them outside near the shop and people would stop by to see them. Marcus gave talks on them to their visitors and customers.
While the reindeer compelled people to stop at the Cottage Garden Barn, the Roths came to the realization that it wasn’t in the best interest of the animals to keep them in an environment that was too warm for them.
“We replaced the reindeer with TV ads,” said Marcus. “TV doesn’t work unless you give people a reason to come back. Being out in the woods, this is a destination. We have the architecture here and the buildings — it’s an experience. People come out here to get away and we have affordable prices and Vickie is quite a decorator. She sets our displays and she teaches our employees how to do displays.”
Vickie sets trends by how she decorates their shop, noted Marcus. Her displays are meant to inspire people to decorate and show them how to group things together.
“I set everything up in a vignette,” she explained. I know exactly what to buy at market. We get sales reps that come to us and they say there’s nowhere like this anywhere in the country.”
According to Marcus and Vickie, the biggest asset of Cottage Garden Barn is their employees. “Our employees work so hard,” said Vickie. Esper Janke is their full-time manager and the employee count fluctuates, with the highest number of people on staff during their peak seasons of summer and Christmastime.
Their establishment draws in a wide range of customers from throughout the state, including area residents, people vacationing on the Chain of Lakes, those who own second homes close by, and folks brought in by the busload as part of tour groups.
“We have a destination here. You can’t get this feeling when you walk into a (big box store) or buy online. We’re trying to give people an experience by coming here,” said Vickie. “We have more quality merchandise because we have a niche market where the quality is better — the art’s better because we hand pick it. Big box stores have to mass produce all over the world so it’s all cookie cutter,” added Marcus.
Cottage Garden Barn has grown substantially through the years and Marcus expects even bigger growth in the next year with the corporate tax rates going down. Making money is one thing but making a difference in people’s lives is really what it’s all about, he noted.
“We’ve had several people who have had cancer and they want to feel good about themselves and they come visit us. It’s so gratifying — we work so hard and it’s such an experience for them that they want to come to us. What’s really sad is when they only have a couple of weeks to live and they want to come here and shop one last time before they die. We cry when that happens. We know our customers. We’re honored that they want to see us before they die.”