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Pike daughter continues family tradition with new nursery

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

SNELLVILLE -- The Pike family is playing in the dirt again.

Dana Pike-Von Vlake, the daughter of Pike Family Nursery founder Pete Pike, is resurrecting the green thumb that was iconic across Gwinnett County for so many years.

The grand opening of her new 60,000-square-foot nursery in Snellville over the weekend marked the beginning of a new step in the family's gardening legacy. It was also filled with reminders of the old days.

The location, in the former home of a Pike Nursery on East Main Street, is appropriate. "Papa Pike" is still there, rocking away in his "office," a wooden porch set up among all the begonias, petunias and lilacs. Signage from stores and years gone by still graces the walls.

The new nursery's name -- The Family Tree Garden Center -- is fitting, too.

"This is the type of business that when people come in, they're not angry," Pike-Van Vlake said. "They don't have to be here, they're here because it's relaxing ... They just enjoy it, and I missed that. The people are No. 1. And you want to carry on your family tradition, too."

The Pike family tradition began when Pete Pike opened up his first store in 1958 in Marietta. Business boomed and Pike Nurseries became a 15-store chain in metro Atlanta. One thing led to another, and the Pike stores and family name were sold to Armstrong Garden Centers, a California gardening chain, in 2008.

Some Pike stores hung around. Others didn't. And the Pike family was no longer in the gardening business.

"When we sold it, it was OK for about six months, and then you're like, 'Why did I do that?,'" Pike-Van Vlake said. "But everything works out like it's supposed to. You learn as you go."

And, seemingly, everything has worked out. Dana Pike-Van Vlake, who had been out of the business and a stay-at-home mom since 1998, found the old nursery property in Snellville and purchased it last year, nothing more than a real estate investment at the time.

"We started off, we thought it would just be a good investment with the land," said Jeff Van Vlake, Dana's husband and co-owner of the nursery. "And the more we talked about it, we were just like, let's go ahead and open one up."

By the summer Dana was getting all the paperwork done at city hall, and Jeff, a former IT guy with IBM, was getting dirty and cleaning out the inside of the "dark, rat-infested, dirty" former Pike store.

More progress was made by November. It was crunch time come January, and by March, the hiatus was over.

"Everybody about killed me," Pike-Van Vlake said, "but we did it."

The nursery officially opened its doors on March 5, but the "great big party," as Jeff Van Vlake put it, began with the official grand opening over the weekend.

"It was crazy," said Regina Lewis, one of the nursery's 12 certified plant specialists. "It was non-stop. Literally if you could be pulled in three different ways, that's exactly what it was like. But it was wonderful. It was nice to help a lot of people and solve some problems."

Every member of The Family Tree's 30-person staff was handpicked by Pike-Von Vlake -- everyone from Trong (who's worked with the Pike family for 30 years), to Michelle (who Pike Von-Vlake worked with as a cashier at one of her dad's stores in her teenage years), to Kelly (a master gardener who volunteered over the weekend and wound up landing a full-time job).

"Once you get out of the business, you miss it," Pike-Van Vlake said. "When you're in this green industry, it gets in your blood. In other businesses, people are like, 'Oh, I want to change my career.' Not in this one. You do it because you love it, you enjoy helping people."

And the people are apparently willing to be helped -- Pike-Von Vlake said she counted license plates from six different counties over the weekend, and the tables that had been full of greenery for the grand opening were ready to be restocked by Monday.

The Family Tree has already picked up where Pete Pike's stores started so many years ago, priding itself on friendly, expert customer service, a huge selection and family values.

All that, of course, begs the obvious question -- will Dana Pike-Von Vlake take the parallel even further and start her own franchise?

In a word, no.

"People are asking if we're going to open more, but we look at it as a one-of-a-kind destination store," Pike-Van Vlake said.

"Bottom line is we're just having fun."