Norfolk garden centre owner reveals what it’s like to inherit thriving family business
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Rollerblading down the aisles, playing in the swimming pools and driving Santa around town. EMILY THOMSON went to meet the family behind a Norfolk garden centre to discover what life has been like in the families 30 year journey.
Paul and Jean Nixon founded Thetford Garden Centre in 1982 at its original location in Lime Kiln Lane, but little did they know that more than 30 years later their family-run business would still be such a big part of the town and its community.
Now, at its site in Kilverstone, the business is run by their daughter, Lucy Nixon and her husband Shane Hinkley, who said they have big plans for its future.
But not forgetting how far they have come, Ms Nixon reminisced about her favourite childhood memories growing up at the garden centre in the 1980s.
Ms Nixon said: "My parents started the business when I was two and I remember that my dad worked very long hours to make it what it is and mum would do things like the banking at home on the dining room table.
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"As a young girl on the original site I remember rollerskating with my friends on the shop floor and there used to be pools on sale which they would fill up and I would go swimming in them.
"When I still believed in Santa at Christmas in the 80's we would drive Santa on the back of a flatbed truck throwing out sweets around the town."
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But it was not all fun and games for Mrs Hinkley as when she grew-up she soon had a role to play at the centre.
She added: "My first official job was when I was about 12 and I had to walk up and down Thetford High Street with a friend wearing a sandwich board to promote the garden centre.
"I remember when Woolworths had a revamp on the high street we bought all of their tills, conveyer belts and shopping baskets, we used them for years.
"And we also used to sell fireworks and every year we would hold a display for staff and their families, which I loved."
After ten years the garden centre moved from Lime Kiln Lane with only ten staff, to a purpose-built site in Kilverstone in 1992; which is now home to 90 staff members and Lime Kiln Kitchen - the centre's successful restaurant which opened in 2017 after a major refurbishment.
Ms Nixon said: "Today we have our restaurant which is one of our biggest turnovers, but at Lime Kiln Lane we only had a soup machine which cost about 20p. It just shows you have far garden centres have come.
"I designed most of the look and there are several sections in the restaurant which I wanted to have a different feel, like the cosy nook in front of the log burner or the outside bar overlooking the Kilverstone Estate.
"I'm passionate about good food and it is important to me that everything is freshly cooked to order instead of hot and cold self-serve counters which you see in most garden centres."
Looking forward the garden centre has already revealed plans for a large extension to include a children's play and entertainment area as well as another coffee shop.
When asked if they hope to carry it on as a family business in the years to come, Ms Nixon said it is too early to tell as her son is only two-years-old, but family is a key aspect at Thetford Garden Centre.
"Family businesses are an important part of UK retail and should be celebrated for their uniqueness," said Ms Nixon.
"It would be a real shame if they were consumed by the larger chains, I think this is one of the reasons so many high-streets are struggling.
She added: "For the future we just want to keep moving forward and hopefully giving our customers want they want.
"Although we face tough competition from online retailers, I think there will always be a place for shops with a good atmosphere, knowledgeable friendly assistants, a great cup of coffee and cake.
"I also want to make the business as eco-friendly and ethical as feasibly possible. We have been conscious of this for many years, but I'd like to take it to the next level and be ahead of the industry in this."