When Wabash Feed & Garden Store owners Betty Heacker and Devin Jones got their spruced up new bus, they considered using it for deliveries but decided instead just to use it for exposure. It’s been two years since Wabash moved to 4537 N. Shepherd Dr. and promotion is still as important as ever.
When deciding where to move from their longtime location on Washington Avenue, Heacker said that part of the process was looking at their mailing list.
“We knew that a large percentage of our customers were already here,” said Heacker.
Still, she did understand that they’d lose business from the Memorial area and River Oaks.
“We knew when we moved that we could grow,” said Heacker. “We wanted to connect to the new neighborhood.”
Wabash is doing that by starting to host more events at the store, such as recent talks about Urban Beekeeping and Fall Vegetable gardening as well as a Fall Family Fun day which featured costume contests for pets, pumpkin decorating and a Fall photo set-up.
“The petting zoo in the spring brought out a lot of kids,” said marketing director Rhondda Black. “We have more space here so we can do more things. The gift area is larger and we can carry more Texas food products.”
Heacker hopes to expand their outreach to garden clubs and area schools.
“Young urban kids can see things that they can’t easily see in the city,” said Heacker. “Here they can hold bunnies and baby chicks. We see ourselves as a little part of the country in the city.”
That’s pretty much been true for the 100 years the store been in business. It started in 1908 as a consumer grain store. The German family who owned it sold the store in the early 1980s to an interior designer who wanted to use the big barn as a show room to house the rustic furniture that was so popular.
“He kept and sold the feed in the back room for three years,” said Heacker.
However, with a downturn in the markets and the declining price of oil, people weren’t buying antiques anymore. Heacker bought the store from him in 1985 but kept the name he’d given it. Wabash is an acronym that stands for Washington Avenue Bric-a-brac Antiques Sundry and Hardware. Who knew?
She kept selling the rustic furniture, including lots of wardrobes to new Heights residents who lived in the original small homes with no closets.
“At the time, The Heights was just beginning to renew itself,” said Heacker.
Eventually it got harder to source that kind of furniture at a decent price, but the store still offered feed and was starting to sell more pet food. Heacker birthed the garden part of the store, first picking up transplants from Canino Produce on Airline and later from a rep at Conroe Greenhouse – who asked Heacker if she’d ever thought about selling herbs.
“We had 26 varieties, all basil,” remembers Heacker with a laugh.
Devin Jones began working at Wabash in 1990 and is now a co-owner who comes in to support the store and front counter every Tuesday and Friday.
“It’s been interesting,” said Jones. “We’re still building.”
The business continues to grow organically. At one time, Wabash sold a lot of caged birds, beginning with finches, because there was a breeder who needed to sell them. Finches, according to Heacker, are as prolific as rabbits.
“You started with a pair, and pretty soon you’d have 20 or 30 birds,” she said.
That market shrank too – but the store still sells a lot of farm related poultry, like chickens, ducks, geese, guinea hens and peacocks. In the spring they might sell water fowl, like whistling ducks or wood ducks that people buy as breeding pairs to start populations at country homes.
The chickens are something they’ll likely never get away from.
“When Washington Avenue turned into townhomes, we figured the sale of laying hens would die down,” said Heacker. “But that didn’t happen.”
The feed is a mainstay too with customers who drive in from Tomball and Sugarland for product.
“We look carefully at the ingredients of everything we buy, preferring preservative-free, organic and non-GMO when possible,” said Heacker. “We sell a little more horse feed at this location.”
Heacker says the gardening aspect continues to develop and that they sell much larger plants here because people want something that will make an immediate impact in the yard.
“People want gallon plant material,” she said. “We’re selling a lot more yard art too.”
There are big plans for the second year anniversary celebration of the new location, starting with a holiday celebration for friends and family and then a spring event for the whole community that will incorporate their vendors, and offer special pricing and deals.
Heacker and Jones are still working hard to let people know where Wabash is. Heacker notes that most people turn right off of 43rd onto North Shepherd instead of left so they don’t get the through traffic they used to on Washington.
“I run into people in Garden Oaks who tell me that they can’t find us,” said Heacker.
She says that they’ll keep tweaking and adding to their current inventory as the community dictates.
“At the old store, we were the old woman and the shoe,” she said. “Now we have room to grow, and we’re still seeing where we can expand.”