Wenke Greenhouses

Blooming with pride in Kalamazoo
Written by: 
Aimee St. James
Produced by: 
Elizabeth Towne

Wenke Greenhouses prides itself in knowing plants and customers alike. As one of the top greenhouses in the United States, the Michigan-based company has solidified its standing through quality of both production and service.

“Our business is built on partnerships with our customers, which involves listening to their needs and always looking for ways to improve,” says Lisa Ambrosio, current owner of Wenke Greenhouses.

Wenke Greenhouses was founded 1942 by Chris and Ann Wenke in Kalamazoo, Michigan. At the time, Kalamazoo had made a name for itself as the celery capital of the United States.

The Wenkes started with 10 acres of land, five rented, to support the family of six. Growing celery wasn’t easy business, as better growing conditions in California and Florida slowly leeched Kalamazoo’s market. The Wenkes noticed, and slowly began making the transition from celery farming to flower greenhouses.

By 1975, the floral business was starting to blossom. Chris and Ann’s son, Lorence, then purchased Wenke from his parents. Dennis Wenke, Lorence’s brother, joined him a few years later.

Lorence grew up in the business, but had developed a passion for politics, as well. Lorence served as county commissioner and even Michigan State Representative for a total of 11 years. His interest in serving his community melded with the family business, building Wenke Greenhouses into a customer-driven operation well-respected by the community.

Growing strong

“We have a great deal of respect for the quality of others in our industry,” Lisa says. “We each have our own strengths. Yes, they are competitors, but we all improve as a result.”

While such a confident viewpoint might sound rare in a competitive sales-driven industry, Lisa has great respect for the surrounding growers and brokers who have all contributed to the success of the floral industry in Kalamazoo, now the bedding plant capital of the world.

“The Kalamazoo Cooperative and Michigan State University provided a good foundation for the bedding plant industry to thrive in Kalamazoo,” Lisa explains. “By working together, we found ways to produce top-quality plants. In the early days, we shipped all the way to Florida and Texas from Michigan.”

Today, Wenke Greenhouses is ranked No. 26 in the United States in regards to being the largest greenhouse in the United States. “From our original location in Kalamazoo, Wenke Greenhouses has expanded to over 50 acres of greenhouse production in both Michigan and Georgia,” she continues.

In Kalamazoo, Wenke Greenhouses has a 3-acre growing/retail greenhouse, as well as an 18-acre home office/growing facility and a 12-acre facility purchased in the last year. According to Lisa, the operation also has 20 acres of greenhouses in Douglas, Georgia.

“The majority of our business is garden centers and landscapers,” explains Lisa. “We also sell young plants – plugs and liners – to other greenhouses through the broker network, finish product contract grown for others and our retail store.”

A budding business

“Retail is now an important part of our business, because it gives us the customer perspective,” Lisa notes. “Retail is a very small part of our business overall, but it is important to us, because it helps to give us the customer perspective.”

Effie Boven, Lisa’s grandmother, started the retail sector of Wenke Greenhouses over 40 years ago. Effie was a beloved member of the Kalamazoo community. She and her dog, Troubles, helped bring a familiar face to the Wenke name by building relationships with greenhouse customers.

Those relationships helped bring on new ideas for expansion. With the added knowledge of what the everyday customer was looking for, Wenke Greenhouses made alterations.

“The retail is certainly not what drove the addition of poinsettias, pansies or mums,” Lisa details. “We started those crops because our garden center customers are open year-round and need quality product during those seasons also. We diversified away from being a spring-only grower early on. Poinsettias, fall pansies and mums have been a part of our production for many, many years.” 

Wenke Greenhouses also diversified its production methods. “The technology we deploy for inventory, production planning, order management and more gives our customer the ability to know exactly what is due to arrive upon delivery, and to receive it into their inventory system more efficiently,” Lisa explains. “This has been one of the most significant areas of differentiation from our competitors, because it helps our customers reduce their shrink while still having the assortment of product that their customers want.

New for 2015, the technology we deploy has been enhanced even more to now allow us to offer pre-pricing on hanging baskets, patio pots and larger individual pots. This will make it easier for our customers to move the product quickly from the delivery racks to the table to sell.”

From stalks to stocks

Landscapers are also an important part of the business. “In addition to quality product and accurate information, they benefit from the plants being delivered in the Elle Pot format,” Lisa explains. “We purchased a machine to manufacture our own Elle Pots, which are biodegradable plant containers. They allow for more efficient installation and the plants establish more quickly with less loss.”

The company’s proud standing in the floral business has only grown throughout the years. Wenke Greenhouses’ motto stands true to the company’s time-earned relationship with the Kalamazoo community: ‘Your preferred supplier.’

Looking to the future, Lisa has no doubts the business will continue to grow.

“People still appreciate the fact that our plants make the world more beautiful and enjoyable,” she explains. As one of the largest greenhouses in the United States, there is no question that Wenke Greenhouses will continue to blossom.

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