HUMBOLDT PARK — It’s tough navigating the front half of Marcus Kirby’s apartment these days. Nearly every inch of wall space is lined with house plants: large trees, hanging plants, small succulents, cacti and everything in between.
“There’s probably 500 plants in my apartment right now,” said Kirby, 34.
When the coronavirus pandemic gripped Chicago in March, Kirby took a big leap: He stepped back from his job as a server at Native Foods in Wicker Park to grow his online house plant business, The Succulent City, into something more than a side hustle.
That gamble paid off big time.
Kirby has gone from making $1,500 a month as a server/cashier at Native Foods to making up to $15,000 a month selling house plants to Chicagoans stuck at home amid the pandemic.
After just a few months, Kirby already has plans for expansion.
“It doesn’t feel real to me,” Kirby said. “It just blows my mind that I’ve been wanting this for so long and working toward this for so long that when I actually get here, it’s in the middle of an epidemic. When do I wake up from this?”
Facebook Sales To An Online Shop
Kirby, a native of Kansas City, Missouri, traces his love of house plants to 2015, when he bought his first plant at Adams and Sons in Humboldt Park while living in Chicago. Later that year, Kirby moved to Austin, Texas, and worked at a plant nursery, where he learned more about proper plant care and maintenance.
Kirby moved back to Chicago the following year and started selling house plants on Facebook.
Kirby’s plants come from wholesale distributors in the Chicago area, the same companies that provide inventory for neighborhood plant shops across the city.
Kirby buys staples like snake plants and ZZ plants, but also snags unique plants you might not be able to find at your typical plant store, like the ric rac cactus.
“It looks like something out of ‘Rocko’s Modern Life,'” Kirby said of the cactus with long, squiggly leaves.
Last year, Kirby upped his game and started selling his unique plants at markets and festivals, but the sales only ever amounted to extra cash. He made most of his income working at Native Foods.
“Maybe every month I was bringing in an extra $1,000-$2,000. It was helpful, but it wasn’t enough to sustain a business,” Kirby said.
Things changed dramatically in March, when Kirby started pouring almost all of his time and energy into The Succulent City. At first, he was only selling small, 6-inch succulents at low price points. But as demand grew, he brought on large snake plants and fiddle leaf fig trees for $50-$65.
Almost immediately, customers flooded Kirby’s inbox and sales exploded — $8,000 in March and April, $10,000 in April and May, $12,000 in May and June and $15,000 in June and July.
“The response was really, really good, so I kept going with it,” Kirby said.
Kirby launched a dedicated online shop about three weeks ago. Now he’s looking for a warehouse to rent so he can get all of those plants out of his Humboldt Park apartment and streamline the pickup process. He’s also looking to get a car so he can start doing deliveries.
Kirby considered options for a physical store, but he said he wants to stick with an online shop given the coronavirus pandemic.
“At some point I’d like to create a curated environment, but I don’t think that’s realistic or safe right now,” he said.
‘It Just Feels Like I’m Lucid Dreaming’
People across the country are buying more house plants and home gardening supplies to cope with the stresses of the pandemic.
Kirby said one of his distributors told him California-based growers were having trouble keeping up with the high demand so they had to take a week off from sales to catch up.
“They said, ‘We’ve been doing this for 25 years and we’ve never seen anything like this. We can’t keep up with the demand,'” Kirby said.
Kirby said his customers are driven by a desire to spruce up their homes, where they’re spending so much time these days. Chicagoans also are crazy for plants because of their calming effects, he said.
“With everything going on in the world — civil unrest, uncertainty about how things will look in the future — people have a lot of anxiety,” Kirby said. “… If people can’t control what’s going on externally, then perhaps they can control it internally by curating their spaces and cultivating what would be a safe space for them.”
That theory, while abstract, has had a real impact on Kirby’s life. After six years of being a server/cashier, Kirby is now the owner of a thriving small business.
“It just feels like I’m lucid dreaming, like I’m just in a dream state,” he said.
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