Lawson Thalmann’s dream to play in the NBA dribbled out of bounds halfway through his basketball career at Loyola Academy. But not because he had lost the drive to shoot high and land a professional contract in his favorite sport someday.
The scion of family-owned Chalet Nursery in Wilmette was a guard for the Ramblers’ smallish squads more than 10 years ago, a tenacious defensive specialist who often had to defend taller hoopsters—“trees”—in the paint. Thalmann sprouted, gradually, to a height of 6-feet-2.
He stayed 6-2.
“Didn’t have that significant growth spurt,” the Glenview native and 2009 Loyola Academy graduate says, chuckling.
Thalmann later pivoted—off the court.
“There’s a rule for those in a family business,” says the 29-year-old, who majored in economics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and is studying for an MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “It says you should skin your knees doing something else, so that when you do join the family business, you’ll have a rounded-out perspective. I was enamored with the stock market, involved with a couple of start-ups, and I worked in financial services after college.
“But I always knew working at Chalet would be my calling.”
Thalmann serves as Chalet Nursery’s ECommerce Manager, and, before Gov. J.B. Pritzker deemed garden centers in Illinois an essential business on May 1, wondered how much longer he could hit his bed’s pillow at 2 a.m. and wake up for work two hours later. He endured a six-week stretch without a day off. Late last month, the second month of the pandemic, Thalmann was busier than a metropolis’ lone florist on Valentine’s Day.
“We were taking about 200 online orders per day,” Thalmann recalls, adding the $100,000 in online sales that Chalet had generated in one week in April matched the total in online sales Chalet had cha-chinged in … 2019. All of 2019. “Gangbusters. It was exciting and stressful and crazy. It was a challenging time for all of us, emotionally and energy-wise. A lot of us had to change gears quickly.
“Our e-commerce, it’s growing fast. Customers are loving it; lots of repeat sales.”
Thalmann’s great grandfather, L.J. Thalmann, launched Chalet as a yard care business in 1917, when a 22-year-old Boston Red Sox pitcher/ outfielder named Babe Ruth hit a grand total of two homers in 52 games the year before the onset of the Spanish flu. Chalet is now a one-stop destination for inspired landscape design, classically fresh products, curated home décor, and customer service that creates lifelong connections. A recipient of “Innovator of the Year” honors by Garden Center magazine, Chalet earned a special recognition in retail sales award from the Perennial Plant Association in 2019.
Its 183-acre, growing nursery Chalet Farm, born in 2004, produces high-quality, lush plants and pure wildflower honey in Bristol, Wisconsin.
The market leader’s succinct, clear mission: “We make beautiful simple.”
Second-generation co-owner Lawrence J. Thalmann Jr.—the father of current Chalet President Lawrence J. Thalmann III—died in 2018 at age 88.
“My grandfather was known for his sense of humor, as well as for his enthusiastic storytelling and his love of dogs and birds,” says Lawson Thalmann, who lives in the Chicago neighborhood, Bucktown. “He had a big grin, along with a white, bushy beard. He was jolly. Looked a lot like Santa Claus.”
Chalet’s month of May, so far?
Merry, for the most part. Normally 60 employees work the floor at the North Shore staple’s Garden Shop. Thirty employees, Thalmann reports, do so now. Either Chalet HR Manager Sandy Van den Avont or Chalet Head of Safety Kevin Kaufman greeted each customer at the door in early May.
“We knew safety for our staff and customers would be a priority weeks before we were allowed to reopen,” Thalmann says. “So we weren’t forced to react on May 1; we were ready. Before the pandemic, an employee typically spent 20-25 minutes with a customer, walking around with them, helping in any way, and answering questions. Unf or tunatel y we’re not able to spend that much time with each customer now, but we’re operating well with a limited staff.”
With temperatures creeping t ow a rd 70 degrees, coopedup-forever homeowners are itching to head outdoors and spruce up their yards. Home is a haven, now more than ever, and Chalet’s awardwinning landscape architects doublemajor in enhancing turf and customizing design solutions.
“During this unprecedented and challenging time, let us help create a sense of tranquility through nature,” Chalet President Lawrence J. Thalmann III tells his company’s website visitors near the end of a heartfelt message.
Lawson Thalmann’s outdoor space at his place in Bucktown is too small for a garden. Last year Skokie-based Rise Gardens, a start-up with the mission “Grow What You Eat,” installed a smart indoor hydroponic gardening system in Thalmann’s home, where it yields vegetables, herbs, and fruit.
“That’s a special interaction, technology with gardening,” Thalmann says. “I had a lot of interest in it before COVID-19. I like to sniff things out, like that Rise Gardens system, and make them available to our customers. We’re finding more and more people would rather grow their vegetables at home rather than venture out to shop for them at a grocery store.
“And,” he continues, “when will people feel comfortable again in restaurants, even after they reopen?”
The thought of any North Shore business going out of business because of the pandemic pains Thalmann. Small businesses are in jeopardy, bigtime. Thalmann’s thoughts, on the health of Chalet?
“We do a lot of things well, but we can still improve from an operations standpoint,” he says. “This pandemic has provided us with a reality check. Just because our garden center is one of the best in the country doesn’t mean we can get away with being complacent. Complacency—that’s the last thing my dad wants to see around here. Our staff understands what the North Shore values, and that’s why we won’t stop shooting to up our game each year.
“I see everybody at Chalet rallying together and supporting one another during this difficult time. We have to scratch and claw in order to survive and thrive.”
Chalet Nursery, 847-256-0561, is located at 3132 Lake Ave., Wilmette. Store hours are Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, visit chaletnursery.com. Click the line “Safety is our Service” near the top of the site’s home page for in-store shopping guidelines