Lukas Nursery built the Butterfly Encounter nine years ago as a new way to draw customers - and it’s worked, drawing about 20,000 people each year. This IGC retailer is always looking for ‘the next thing.’
Painted Lady butterflies flutter their delicate orange and black wings inside the screened area of the indoor butterfly garden at Lukas Nursery in Oviedo, FL. They are ready to eat this morning, kept separate from the garden’s nectar plants in preparation of a visiting group of school children. Small paper cups filled with fruit punch-flavored Gatorade are ready to go.
Soon, the children will feel the tickle of butterfly legs as the winged creatures drink the red, sugary liquid from their fingertips - or maybe even their noses. If not, Edna Kane, Manager of the Butterfly Encounter at Lukas, will gently hold a painted lady by its wings, lift it from the screen and place it into the child’s hand. “That moment changes everything,” she says.
This memorable experience is part of what keeps people coming back to Lukas Nursery season after season. Every year, about 20,000 people visit the nursery’s Butterfly Encounter, created in 2004 as a “new angle” to attract customers. “I thought it would add more customers,” says Phil Lukas, who hatched the idea 14 years ago during a visit with his son to a butterfly conservatory in Costa Rica.
Phil, along with his mother, niece and two nephews, owns Lukas Nursery, ranked No. 92 in IGC Retailer’s IGC 100 report with $6 million in sales. For more than 100 years, the Lukas family has run agriculture-related businesses on the 45-acre property, and has operated the retail nursery there for 40 years.
The Butterfly Encounter consists of an indoor butterfly garden and screened enclosure in a tube structure, as well as an outdoor butterfly display garden and a small gift shop with a nook full of benches that serves as a classroom.
The nursery charges $5 per admission, and sells a season pass for $15 per person or $40 per family. Aside from the 4 percent of sales directly tied to the encounter, it’s impossible to specifically quantify how it helps business, says Caleb Lukas, Accounting Manager and one of Phil’s nephews who co-owns the business. But it is certain that it generates goodwill and notoriety. It brings people back time and again, and they often purchase a souvenir in the gift shop or butterfly nectar and host plants for their own home gardens.
Lukas sells more than 60 nectar plants to feed butterflies: about 40 annuals and perennials, four vines and another 15 shrubs and trees. It also sells another 50 varieties known as host plants, which provide food for caterpillars. The nursery provides a handout that explains the purpose of the plants in butterfly gardens, with common and botanical names, light requirements and design ideas.
Beyond the Butterflies
Butterflies aren’t the only draw at Lukas Nursery. The garden center is known for its broad selection of annuals, perennials and nursery stock, decorative pottery and custom-blend potting mixes and fertilizers.
Green goods are Lukas’ bread and butter, at 73 percent of sales. The company grows about 30 percent of the plants it sells, including some perennials, woody ornamentals and specialty palm trees.
Customers can browse the nursery’s depth of plant selection in outdoor displays on their way to the sales barn, an 8,000-square-foot structure open on four sides that houses the registers, garden supplies, chemicals, seed, and Lukas’ custom blend of potting soils and fertilizers.
Lukas introduced the custom blends, tailored for Central Florida’s sandy, low-nutrient soils, about 25 years ago. The fertilizer, $9.99 for a 2-cubic-foot bag, is formulated with Nitroform Blue Chip as its nitrogen component, phosphorus and potash, plus 5 percent magnesium, among other nutrients. The potting soil, $6.99 for a 1-cubic-foot bag, includes horticultural-grade Canadian sphagnum peat moss, composted pine bark and perlite, among other components. Sunniland, a Florida company, makes both products, and Lukas sells it under its house brand. In potting soil alone, the garden center sells 25,000 bags of the 2-cubic-foot bags and 25,000 bags of the 1-cubic-foot bags over a 10-month span, and it goes through a semi-truckload of fertilizer every other week, says Phil.
In a 5,000-square-foot building dedicated to pottery, fittingly called the “pottery barn,” Lukas has seen strong demand for Vietnamese containers, says Sarah Lukas, Phil’s wife, who buys and sells pottery for the business. Once she points out the thickness and strength of the pottery, customers are willing to pay a little more.
Across the operation, Lukas carries whimsy into its displays. A 6-foot Sasquatch and a 7-foot Big Chicken, a solid concrete chicken weighing 400 pounds, are both moved randomly around the property as a novelty. In addition, there are purposeful reminders of the family’s agricultural roots, including a pen of chickens, a young bull out behind the nursery stock, and farming tools and implements displayed in the sales barn. A large set of wind chimes hangs nearby, adding to the relaxing effect of browsing the nursery’s grounds.
It’s all part of the atmosphere, says Phil, and something the box stores can’t possibly replicate behind a chain-link fence.
Firmly Rooted to Weather the Storms
The Lukas family has remained connected to the earth for more than 100 years. Phil’s grandparents, immigrants from Czechoslovakia, arrived in Oviedo by way of Cleveland, OH, and began farming the land in 1911. For decades, the family truck-farmed, growing black-eyed peas, lettuce, cabbage and celery.
That changed in 1973, when the family opened Lukas Nursery with 50 1-gallon pots of woody ornamental plants. Phil pitched in to get the nursery ready, and formally joined his brother Stanley and mother Gertrude to run the family business in 1977 as vice president and general manager. The trio shepherded Lukas Nursery through more than two decades of growth until Stanley’s death in 2001. His three children - Caleb, Stanley and Cecelia - are now co-owners.
Phil shares such a fondness for working with his family, he makes dealing with the destruction and damage of a trio of hurricanes in 2004 sound almost easy - at first.
The same year the Butterfly Encounter was built, Hurricanes Charley (Aug. 13), Frances (Sept. 5) and Jeanne (Sept. 26) pounded the Orlando area, directly hitting Lukas Nursery.
Lukas also felt the indirect effects of Ivan, which made landfall in Alabama during September that same year.
“We thought it was going to blow away,” says Phil of the Butterfly Encounter’s tube structure. “But it held up.”
The four hurricanes knocked out 50 trees, many of them huge, old oaks, resulting in the loss of 70 percent of the property’s shade. The loss of protection for plants was one factor that led to lost inventory, the other was lack of water. Upended tree roots pulled up main line irrigation pipes. After a deluge of rain from the storms, the weather turned “dry as a bone,” and there was no effective way to water plants.
Losses were significant - and not covered by insurance - but none of the Lukases recalls the exact amount or wants to dwell on the hurricane damages. Instead, they remember what went right and how the family pulled together.
“Everybody worked together as a team and had this place back on its feet,” says Phil. And there was a rainbow after the storm - 2005 was a banner year as customers purchased replacement plants and trees for those lost to the hurricanes. The Lukases replanted their trees as well, and a decade of growth has helped restore a comfortably shaded shopping experience.
Now, a new greenhouse is on the horizon. Phil is negotiating bids with three potential companies to build a beautiful, hurricane-proof structure. He pictures a porch where customers can sit in rockers and relax, listen to the wind chimes, and enjoy the greenery and some of the nursery’s restored shade.
igc retailer vital stats
Business Founded Overall business 1912, retail nursery 1973
Annual Gross Sales $6 million
IGC Retailer IGC 100 Ranking No. 92
Percentage Retail 88%
Percentage Landscape Design 2%
Percentage Re-wholesale 10%
Customer Count - up or down? Down 6%
Average Sales Trend Down 9%
Average Sale Per Customer $68.08
Customer radius, in miles 10-15 miles
No. of garden centers in radius 12-15
No. of boxes & Mass Merchants sellING L&G in radius 25
Estimated Space Allocation
Total Retail 240,700 square feet
Outdoor Sales 5 acres
Indoor Sales 22,900 square feet
Retail Greenhouse Imperial Builders & Supply, 6,000 square feet
Total Production Area 20 acres of growing fields
Display Gardens 6,000 square feet
Number of Parking Spaces 85
Hours of Operation
Mon - Sat, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Sun, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Peak Mon - Sat, 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.; Sun, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Full-Time Off season - 14, Peak season - 19
part-Time Off season - 14, Peak season - 15
Department Managers 3
Office staff 2
Payment & Registers
Credit Cards 90%
Number of Registers Year Round 4-5; Peak season - 7
Industry Associations/Group Affiliations
Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association and
Voluntary Purchasing Group
Monthly Sales Percentages
Product Category Breakout
Green Goods 73%
Pottery & Outdoor Decor 8%
Butterfly Encounter 4%
Landscape Design 1%
Advertising Expenditures: 2% of total sales
Social Media 2%
Event Sponsorships 2%