Christmas came early for Vickie and Marc Roth and the employees at Cottage Garden Farm on Highway 54 in Waupaca as their new 9,000-square-foot building welcomed customers for the first time on Nov. 1. The building is packed with Christmas gifts, ornaments, clothing and decorations for the season.
Actually, Christmas happens year-round at this shop. The other three seasons, the retail space has one section dedicated to Christmas all the time, while the rest of the store changes for spring, summer and fall, but from Nov. 1 to Dec. 23, it’s all Christmas, co-owner Vickie Roth said.
The gift and home décor business developed from humble beginnings about 25 years ago. In 1991, Marc was laid off as an airline pilot in Chicago after his employer went out of business. His wife had an antiques business in Batavia, Illinois, and he started making birdhouses and going to craft shows with her. “I like to say I started the birdhouse revolution,” he said. His designs became more elaborate as time went on, and while the average price of the houses was about $40, he sold some for $50 or $60. He said he sold one custom-made double house for $550 at a Texas show.
“I would design them in front of people, and I could add touches that they wanted,” he said. “It might be a church steeple or a dormer, for example.” Eventually, he gave up flying and job hunting in the airline industry and the couple devoted themselves to Vickie’s business.
They saw a newspaper ad for an old mill in Waupaca and came up to see it. On the way, they saw a farm for sale on Highway 54. Vickie said she fell in love with it and knew “this was it.” There were three buildings: a barn, a granary and a farmhouse. The Roths sold their house in Illinois and the Cottage Garden Farm was born in Wisconsin. The barn became a workshop for Marc and the other small building — about 16 by 20-feet — became a gift store. In about 2000, their son, who is a builder, connected the barn to the shop to add retail space.
By the mid-1990s, Marc said, the birdhouse market folded and the couple looked to expand their offerings in the area of gifts, garden and home décor. “One day a guy showed up with reindeer – real ones,” he said.
“I said I needed them, “ Vickie said. “We bought the reindeer and opened a Christmas store; the reindeer became our mascot. It was a big pull and it put us on the map.”
The reindeer turned out to be a challenge, however. Because their immune systems had developed to help them live in a different ecosystem than Wisconsin’s, the animals only lived a short time. About 12 years ago, they gave up the live animals and turned their attention to television advertising to attract customers. “My dad wrote a song for us and we wrote the lyrics,” Marc said. They self-produced it and the catchy tune caught on quickly.
“We believe you have to give customers a reason to come back,” he said as he explained their business philosophy. “You have to give them a reason to buy your products.” They work diligently to build a loyal customer base and to keep expanding that base. They credit good employees (they have 10) with helping to build that effort.
A few years ago, they realized they had outgrown their space and needed a bigger, safer space to accommodate their growing sales. Beginning in April, the 9,000-square-foot metal building went up. Under the direction of retail manager Esper Janke, who says she “is always up for a challenge,” the business moved into its new home by Nov. 1. The barn continues to be a workshop, where Marc and Kelly Baehman, the master blade bender and bearing technician, make handcrafted, colorful wind spinners. The former retail space is used for storage, but items around the outside of it and the yard are for sale. This includes items for garden décor and Marc’s wind art. Their motto, they said, is “Prepare to be Amazed!”
Vickie concentrates on the decorating and buying, visiting trade shows around the country to stock up on merchandise. “I use the time after Christmas to visit the shows and build up our merchandise for the rest of the year,” she said.
She has divided the retail space into vignettes to display the merchandise and give people ideas about decorating their own homes. The gift boutique features clothing and accessories, jewelry, artwork, decorations and stuffed animals. “Each section has a story to tell,” said Vickie, who has been decorating since she was 19 years old. The first section is Scandinavian, for example. Then there is the white room and the silver room.
“We have a lot of nature-related items,” she said
The wind art, named Dancing Dahlia Spinners, turn on as little as 3 to 4 mph wind. The inspiration for them came from Marc’s passion for aviation. They rotate just like an airplane propeller.
The clientele, which once was fed primarily by tourism, is changing, Marc said. “In our reindeer days we had more RVs and people from out of state stopping by. They would be here to visit the Chain O’ Lakes and stop here. RVs would stop and dogs would jump out. Now, 10 years later, not so much.”
“July,” he said, “is our peak with the out-ofstaters, but we have a lot of loyal Wisconsinites, though we have not done any studies on this.” He said it is just the way tourism has changed over the years. Today, people have so many more choices on how to spend their money.
The Roths’ goal, he said, is “to preserve our heritage. That’s why we are keeping the other buildings and only selling outside of them. We have grown and our new building doubles the size of our retail sales space.”
In addition, taking a cue from their younger employees, they have sped up their business by turning to technology. Marc said he can do most of their financial and payroll work with just his cell phone, and while he is not a fan of all this technology, he enjoys getting business done faster so he has more time to concentrate on his craft and interacting with customers.
The business is open seven days a week except for major holidays.