PIKE LAKE, Sask. — As a boy growing up in Edam, Sask., Roger Valliere would occasionally help old Mrs. Foster weed her garden.
His payment would be a handful of hens-and-chicks, which are desert plants that store water in their leaves. He faithfully planted the hardy succulents in his mother’s garden.
Decades later, Valliere returned to Edam after his father died to clean up the farmyard and move his mother to a new residence.
“Lo and behold, there was 36 feet by four feet wide of hens-and-chicks, my little paycheques. I dug them all up and I brought them here and I sold them for $35,000,” he said.
“Here” is Solar Gardens, the European style greenhouse that Valliere operates on his farm 20 minutes southwest of Saskatoon.
What started out as a hobby has grown into a thriving multifaceted business that generated more than $850,000 in revenue last year.
The company’s foundation is the 1,500 varieties of succulents that Valliere produces and sells out of five commercial greenhouses, providing him with nearly 1,000 sq. metres of growing space.
Many of the succulents came from rare varieties that Valliere imported or brought home from his travels around the world. His favourites are the firesticks from India and South Africa.
While old Mrs. Foster launched his love of succulents, it was the man who helped him build his first greenhouse who became his mentor in the business.
Brian Day, owner of Day-Grow Greenhouses and a legend in Saskatchewan’s greenhouse industry, lent a hand one weekend as a favour for Valliere’s partner, Chris.
Valliere asked what he could do in return, and Day said he could help him deliver poinsettias.
“I started out in the greenhouse industry as a poinsettia delivery boy,” he said.
Day soon recognized Valliere’s penchant for plants and made him a grower at Day-Grow, a job he held for 12 years.
The two became best friends. Day passed on his wealth of gardening knowledge and paid for him to attend the four-week-long Ohio Short Course every summer for five years.
That’s where Valliere learned how to turn a hobby into a business and an art into a science.
“If you’re going to create a crop that is going to be sellable, have every plant the same value, all at the same size, there has to be some science involved,” he said.
Valliere estimates he sells 250,000 succulents a year using the floriculture techniques he honed in Ohio.
He credits Day, who recently died from cancer, for giving him the start in a job that feels more like play than work.
Valliere began by wholesaling succulents to Day-Grow and other greenhouses in Canada.
The business has grown into what he claims is one of the largest private collections of succulents in North America.
In 2007, he was asked to teach 40 master gardeners a class on how to create a succulent bowl. That was the beginning of a new profitable venture.
He now offers a wide variety of classes to the public on the weekends at a rate of about $50 per class from April to July and by private appointment during the offseason.
“Last year I taught 9,300 people the succulent bowl class,” said Valliere.
Those students noticed him baking bread and pizzas in his outdoor wood-fired oven and wanted to sample the fare.
It was the genesis of the Firestick Cafe restaurant, where customers are invited to make their own $13 pizzas or choose from a wide variety of other menu items. One recent Sunday he sold 200 pizzas.
Baguettes are sold in the gift shop and tasting studio, which was modeled after an old-style general store and populated with antiques and rare artifacts that Valliere has collected from around the world.
There are doors from a castle in Egypt, a mahogany shelving unit from an old felt hat company in Washington, D.C., large beveled glass lamps from the Jasper Hotel in Maple Creek, Sask., and a modern tin tile roof ordered online that looks like it is from a different era.
Valliere wanted to give the shop the feel of the old Red and White general store he worked at as a child in Edam.
The store doubles as a tasting studio for the 200 lines of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and white vinegar he imports from Italy. He bought a quota with an Italian olive oil manufacturer that allows him to sell oil for half the price of high-end stores in Saskatoon.
He sells $18,000 worth of olive oil a month during peak periods. The butter-flavoured oil is the top seller. Valliere ran out before Christmas and ordered 20 more five-gallon containers.
“And I still ran out,” he said.
Valliere doesn’t see the store and the restaurant as sidelines. They are part of an integrated business that together offer customers an unforgettable experience. And experiences are what he is selling.
Valliere had no intention of following the trend in city greenhouses that have branched out into marketing lines of clothing, jewelry, makeup and giftware.
“I would much rather have people come and learn something or come and enjoy with us. I wanted to sell an event,” he said.
Valliere hosts musical evenings, art shows and high teas complete with fine china and silverware. Guests gather on decks or in the solarium.
There are swooping canopies and funky outdoor lights made by a local artist.
Everything is inspired by Valliere’s experiences travelling throughout Europe. His vision is to create a European-style estate that will one day become a botanical garden.
All the marketing is done through an email newsletter and on the company website – solargardens.ca – where people can reserve a table at the restaurant or book special events and classes.
The only other form of advertising is word-of-mouth.
“Once you’ve had the event here, it will be the thing that people talk about around the water cooler for days,” he said.
However, $850,000 in sales aren’t generated merely by offering people food, music and fun times. The profit margin in the restaurant business is razor thin, a fact that hasn’t escaped the shrewd businessperson.
“It doesn’t mean I won’t have a succulent pot with a price on it sitting on their table. I will. And I’ll have the gift shop stocked with fresh-baked bread,” said Valliere.