Smile Politely

Plants and small business operations during a pandemic

Plant Mode moved to its brick and mortar location at 75 Chester Street in September 2019. In previous years, Plant Mode owner and designer Matthis Helmick expected fewer customers during summer months when University of Illinois students left C-U. But this year has been different. After the students left this spring due to the pandemic, people working from home found Plant Mode.

Smile Politely: Tell me about the inspiration for opening Plant Mode.

Matthis Helmick: I worked at a plant shop in Chicago for ten years called Sprout Home. I wanted to be a baby Sprout Home. I was pretty happy there; I went from being a grunt worker and gardener to being a manager, buyer, and designer after five years. The job grew into a love as I got more and more into plants.

I definitely wanted to try to be as lush and green as my inspiration shop but also try to be a little low key and also bring in a lot of local products. My mom was into plants when I was growing up. We knocked the plants over when we were playing in the house and I’d re-pot them. I’m not going to say I was good at it but sometimes the re-potting job was fine or that’s what I was told.

SP: What was it like to be in your own physical space for less than a year before the pandemic hit?

Helmick: I moved to this location at 75 Chester on September 5th. I was located inside of Furniture Lounge for five years before that. It was a good partnership. My stuff went with their stuff and my clients liked to buy their stuff and I think vice versa. I worked for them a few days a week and that’s how we dealt with rent.

I walked my dog by the location where I am at now. I noticed that Rumors Hat Shop re-branded and moved to Campustown. I talked to Rebecca from Ippatsu next door. She gave me the landlady’s contact information and said, “We’d love to have you on the block; I hope it works out.”

Also, being a block from the old Champaign Black business district (1st street, between University-Washington) is special to me. I would buy records at an old Black-owned record store, and get haircuts at Banks’ Barber Shop and Rose & Taylor’s as a kid. I’m stoked to be so close to that area.

Yet, moving, I was kind of nervous. I went from paying no rent to paying rent. But it’s been okay. Christmas was really good. Usually January and February are slow but I kept it steady. Then the pandemic hit like with everything. That was a big hurdle but we’re still hanging in there.

SP: Is your physical space open to customers right now?

Helmick: Yes, we are open. Two people are allowed into the store at a time. I ask people not to touch things and everyone needs to wear a mask. I plan to do that for a while. I’ve also been selling online for about two and a half months. Now I’m doing both online and in-store and sometimes when there are a lot of orders to pack up in the morning and then I open, it gets a little crazy. But I’m grateful.

SP: Tell me about the Local Market and Random Resale sections of the website.

Helmick: They both should be much bigger. I’ve been picky about what goes in the market. Right now, we have a couple of candle lines. My friend Maxx Gogski under the artist name XXM has a selection of items. My friend Janice Weldon of Feral Florals offers her stickers and enamel buttons. I’ll be putting out a call for more. I’d love to have more products that fit with what the plant shop is.

As for the Resale section, It’s just random stuff. When I was at Furniture Lounge, there are always things I’d find in a garage sale that I know others will want. I worked at the original Dandelion for four years before I moved to Chicago. This was back when Sarah Hudson owned Dandelion. I have a long retail, re-use background. Granted, that was in clothing, but when I see little things, I buy them. There is no theme to that section. It can be anything.

SP: How often do you get new plants and do you use many different suppliers? What is your process?

Helmick: There are a few vendors I developed a relationship with from my Sprout Home days. Lately I go on runs once a week on my day off. I try to be casual and have fun.

Today is Tuesday and I have a bunch of new plants I got yesterday. There was a rush of online orders because my regulars know that Monday/Monday night I start posting the stuff that’s available. There are other people who will see something on Instagram and casually come in on Saturday looking for it but it could already be gone. I do a supplemental order of things that usually get delivered on Thursdays.

SP: How has business been? How have you had to shift your business during the pandemic?

Helmick: A lot of people see Plant Mode bags and they say you are killing it. I’m selling stuff and I’m grateful. I’m glad that I’m able to be open.

Throughout all of the pandemic, I was shut down for four weeks. That first four weeks, everything was shut down. I didn’t want to come in here and see people. I still believe in science and we’re not done. I had friends message me and say that such and such garden center is open and the parking lot is full. Instead of looking at it as a negative, I called the Public Health department and inquired. I told them I sell indoor plants. I told them that I have a very small herb section but I’m not going to try to pull their leg and say that I am an essential food store because I am not. They told me that it was fine and I could offer curbside, mask up, and don’t let folks into the store. When they gave me that go ahead, I announced it on my social media and there was a huge spike for about three weeks. People were home. Maybe they had more time to tend to the plants they already had. There were several people who said I am ready for this more challenging plant because I work from home now. They aren’t going to watch it every second of the day but they just felt they were ready now.

Everything was steady until a couple of weeks ago when I believe the focus on social justice became more important than anything. I had a super slow week but that’s cool with me.

The way my shop usually works is that two weeks after graduation, I look around and see a lot of stock and no people and think, “Oh, no.” Then it’s a super struggle until August. Most of my clients are iPhone-wielding, Instagram-following students. That shifted. Right when the students all went home because school was done at U of I, it was a dip in those people and a pick-up of the community. It hasn’t dipped yet this summer.

SP: Why do you think the community found out about you now?

Helmick: I don’t know. But I’m more visible now. People will say, “We were driving by and we noticed you” or “We were eating at Manzella’s.” There are more eyeballs on me.

This corner is great. People drive down First Street and there is a ton of foot traffic down Chester. Students, grad students, U of I affiliated people get off the train and they live right over on Third Street.

My neighbors Ippatsu opened when Phase 3 started. There are cars out here on the street now. And there is Benny & Kay’s right around the corner. I’m anchored by these two awesome female-owned salons. Page Roasting is right across the street. Manzella’s has tables outside and Avionics is doing a ton of take-out. I’m happy to be in the neighborhood.

SP: It also seems like your customers are so appreciative of your help. I saw the story on Facebook about the customer who posted about always “killing plants” and how grateful they are to you for helping change that.

Helmick: My favorite thing about running a plant shop is trying to teach people about plants. And I’m still learning every day. I really enjoy showing people that it’s not so bad if you have basic information.

It’s fun to teach people about plants. I think that’s something I have over the big box stores is that I answer questions. Some of the other shops, they are there to answer questions. Plants are becoming more popular. You can see people who say, “I just got into plants” and then they ask for one of the five most rare plants so I like re-directing them. I point to a good ‘ole Sansevieria and point out how beautiful the leaves are and how it releases oxygen at night. That other plant they want costs seventy dollars on Etsy. I like to convert people to the basic plants and then I also try to carry some of the trendier plants if people are asking for them. Philodendron Birkin is trendy right now.

SP: What have you sold the most of during the pandemic?

Helmick: Calatheas. They have super stunning leaves and all kinds of trippy leaf patterns. I have eight different varieties. They are finnicky. They don’t like tap water. You have to leave your tap water out or get a nice filter. In the last three months, the Calatheas have been the biggest seller. Four-inch for folks who are like, “I know this is difficult but these are really pretty.” And the six-inch for the more established folks who have been collecting Calatheas.

There’s also Sansevieria, a snake plant. I have been trying to get different leaf varieties. One is called Sansevieria Trifasciata ‘Jaboa.’ It has a leopard look. A lot of people will say they don’t want a Sansevieria because they are common but then I show them how beautiful it is.

SP: How many plants do you have in your home?

Helmick: This is always a very disappointing answer to people: not many. I have one big Ficus tree. I like Ficus trees but they are fussy. It got super bald at the last location. I took it to my apartment to recover, it recovered, and I left it there. When you walk in you see one big tree; that’s kind of nice. And then I have lots of little things in plastic cups and yogurt containers, cuttings that have broken off in the shop. I’ll root things in the shop window to show people that they can do this. And sometimes I end up taking some of those home.

SP: What would you be doing/working on right now if there was not a pandemic?

Helmick: I wanted to be open later during the day. Right now, I’m open Tuesday-Friday, 12 to 5 p.m. I wanted to stay open until 8 p.m. with one or two employees. I do plant maintenance at two places right now and I want to do more of that. I was hoping to get that going this summer so that when the fall hit, we could keep staying open later and do more installs. I wanted to be out and about doing more outside. Without the pandemic, I would have done a few more beer gardens and restaurant planters. This year I’ve only done Maize at the Station. Buying big, substantial planters is not a priority this summer for restaurants.

SP: What else do you want Smile Politely readers to know?

Helmick: If they’ve never heard of Plant Mode, my Instagram, Facebook, and website are a strong way to know what is going on. When people come to the shop for the first time, I try to do requests for people. But, if you are overwhelmed by all the plants in the shop, just scroll back through my Instagram a few years and pull up some old pictures. If you like it, message me and I’ll get it going. I’ve had some clients who pulled up some old pictures of plants I forgot about. I want people to know I try to track down plants and information about plants.

I also want people to know that we are open to the public. There is a two-person max and I have had a situation where there was a line outside. Please be patient here and everywhere else.

Top photo provided by Matthis Helmick.

More Articles