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Making It | Neil Mendeloff of Plantworks - The Local East Village Blog - NYTimes.com


Making It | Neil Mendeloff of Plantworks


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For every East Village business that’s opening or closing, dozens are quietly making it. Here’s one of them: Plantworks.

plantworksShira Levine

It ain’t easy being green. Neil Mendeloff, a onetime Parks Department employee, and his wife Verna, a terrarium and bonsai specialist, opened Plantworks on Mercer Street some 38 years ago; it moved to Waverly Place two years later and eventually put down roots at 28 East Fourth Street, where for the past 28 years it has helped beautify many a Manhattan home, university, restaurant, government building and hotel. But now, Mr. Mendeloff says, his rent may double. Unless his landlord extends an olive branch, his lush wonderland of Florida palm trees, Japanese maples, and Oregon pines could end up buried six feet under. We asked him how he’s managed to make it this far.

Q.

You have a lot of space in the heart of some high-traffic blocks. What are you working with size- and price-wise?

A.

I’ve got about 3,600 square feet here and started out paying about $2,800 a month. We’ve been up to about $15,000 a month recently. There have been slight reductions during recessionary times though. I also have the yard next door and have a separate landlord for that which is an additional cost. It’s an additional $6,000 a month.

Q.

What happens to a business like yours in the winter?

A.

We do landscaping work up until about Dec. 10 and some Christmas work. By Dec. 15 most of my crew goes on unemployment for about three months. I keep four or five people in the store for interior maintenance projects. Those months there is almost no work so I have to kick butt and make my year in those eight months to survive the twelve. I basically need to create $1 million in business a year to stay in business.

Q.

How does an urban landscape business manage to kick butt in eight months?

A.

Well, there is a need for it. The problem is that in the last ten years, every open space has become a building, every gas station and parking lot has turned into a condo development. Giuliani and Bloomberg have made it possible for banks, Duane Reades and Rite-Aids to come into these storefronts that once belonged to small business owners.

Another problem is that with the improvement and gentrification over the last eight years on the Bowery, Second and Third Avenues, and Lafayette Street, this area is now a hotspot. The hotels and new residential building along Houston have caused the property taxes for all of us to skyrocket. My water bill has skyrocketed. I use a lot of water! So that has been an additional burden. We have a $20,000 a year surcharge for property tax. Our water bill has gone up 40 percent in the last the last years.

Q.

Is that why there’s a “for lease” sign outside of your shop?

A.

My landlord wants to lease the space now for double or more what I am paying. I currently don’t have a lease; it’s expired. It’s a co-op board and they need more money. I can’t afford to pay what they are asking for.

Q.

Do you want to leave?

A.

No. This is my home and my business for 38 years. I’m not ready to retire yet and don’t want to have to start something new. I want to stay at my current rent or less.

Q.

With the area now so rich with restaurants, do you get a lot of business from them?

A.

I do, but they’re difficult. They all want cheap. They all want me to compete with Home Depot and I can’t be compared to Home Depot. I’m a service specialty place.

Q.

How do you feel about Home Depot?

A.

They’re a pain in the neck. Besides Home Depot being a problem for me, in the last five years the Internet has also become a big problem for businesses like mine. People can go on the Internet and just look up the manufacturer that I work with. I had a large job for $30,000 and the guy went on the Internet and found someone to buy at wholesale price, shipped it all in and cut me out. Now when I do an estimate, I have to charge a fee because I have to get something for my time and labor. A lot of people want to use you and then go get a cheaper price on their own.

Q.

Are you still able to enjoy yourself given all of this stress?

A.

Well, when I started this business it was 85 percent joy and 15 percent aggravation. It is now 90 percent frustration and aggravation and I get a couple of laughs here and there in between, and maybe I can extract 10 percent of joy still.

My road out in front of the store has been under construction for three years. I have a 25-foot truck and four vans, so I couldn’t get in and out. I don’t get my plants direct anymore. I have to get them dropped off in Jersey or Long Island, have friends of mine truck them in and pay them a service fee. You can’t bring tractor trailers over 40 feet during daytime hours anymore. With construction on my block, I can’t get any kind of truck in between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. I have to go to the construction contractors every morning and make negotiations for access. The last two years, I would say I’ve lost 25 percent of my walk-in traffic and retail because of the construction. People couldn’t get to me to even pick something up.

Q.

Does the city do anything for you as a business owner to help?

A.

I went to the city three times. I sent pictures, and I went to representatives. Nothing.

Q.

Is it all bad right now?

A.

No, there are still a lot of new developments who I work with. Those developments have penthouses with terraces and wealthier people who walk in and spend $1,600 right there.

Q.

What have been your best years?

A.

My best years have been 2004, 2005, and 2006. Now is O.K. Things are improving. People are not traveling as much so staying at home and taking care of things more.

Q.

The trend to being greener must have helped business a lot.

A.

It has. People care more about their environment and cleaner living, but then another bad thing for me is that the city has opened the Greenmarkets where the farmers come into the city and sell directly to the public. I’m not a grower, I’m a seller and my growers are selling at cost to the public so the public doesn’t have to come to me anymore.