Say 'aloe' to new Ames Main Street venture selling tropical house plants
Imagine wandering into one of Ames Main Street's coffee shops on a cold winter day and finding yourself sipping away on a hot cup of joe while surrounded by a lush jungle.
That is the dream Ames business owner Austin Lohman is bringing to life with Back Alley House Plants, a new venture selling tropical house plants at 111 Main St. by working alongside its neighboring coffee shop.
The plant shop is currently open on Friday and Saturday and is in the process of transitioning to more regular hours.
It all started, Lohman said, while working at Morning Bell Coffee Roasters on a dreary day in January, shortly after he graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in entrepreneurship.
Though Lohman was happy working at the coffee shop, as well as his second job at Lockwood Cafe, he knew he wanted to start building something from the ground up. The only question: What kind of business did he want to build?
Creating 'an escape' for Main Street shoppers
After graduation, he said, "it was kind of like, what do I do now?" He spent a lot of time "spit-balling ideas" with his boss at Morning Bell, owner Nadav Mer.
"We thought up everything from, 'we should have a New York-style, by-the-slice pizza joint,' to ... a French-style bakery. All sorts of things I have no experience in," Lohman said. "Then we just thought, 'Gosh, it's so dreary all the time and we wish we could just go somewhere to have an escape.'"
Mer and his wife threw out the idea of a plant shop, as they had recently visited the Des Moines Botanical Gardens, and "we had this vision of how awesome it would be to have more plants in our shop."
It planted a seed for Lohman. What if there was a way Main Street shoppers could grab a hot drink on a cold day and "then go sit in an oasis of plants to escape the dreary, cold, blandness of Iowa, and instead experience a little bit of greenery?"
"We rolled with it," said Lohman, who went on to create a house plant shop which also welcomes Morning Bell customers in to sit and hang out among the plants.
It made a lot of sense for Lohman, who already had a passion for plants after being exposed to their benefits by his roommate and girlfriend.
"You would go into their living space and see this just massive plant sitting in the corner," Lohman said. "I saw how much effort had gone into that, and the reward they seemed to have gotten from it was just amazing."
Slowly, he began to build his own collection of plants, and "it snowballed from there until we eventually had an entire jungle in our house."
Combining his passions for plants and coffee shops seemed natural.
From there, he said, he began transforming the idea into a reality, and Back Alley House Plants was born.
'The environment is way different' during pandemic
Since the root of the idea was planted in January, it's been a "struggle" bringing it to life due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lohman said once the novel coronavirus started spreading in Iowa, "the government systems slowed down," making it difficult to acquire, submit and process required documentation for opening a business.
It also made it more difficult to feel comfortable with opening a new shop, both financially and logistically, Lohman said, and "it took a good six months before I felt ready."
Even now that the shop is open, there are limitations.
"Usually, when you go to buy a plant, you get to just kind of wander around and touch everything," he said. "Pick the plants up, look at them, and all of that. But now it's more restricted where you don't really get to view the plants as much and the environment is way different."
He opened the shop for its first day on Aug. 15, and to create a safer plant-buying experience, Lohman said, "I've been selling plants out of Morning Bell and out of the hallway." It has even been "spilling onto the street, and that has caught a lot of people's attention."
But while the pandemic was not an obstacle Lohman had anticipated, he always knew there would be hurdles and remained ready to overcome them.
And, he said, the response since opening day has been reassuring.
"It's been extremely humbling to see the response I've been getting," he said. "It hasn't even been a month yet and the uproar that has been happening has been kind of crazy."
'I'm excited to see where this goes'
There are a few things Lohman said the community should know about Back Alley House Plants.
First, he said, the store is tucked behind Morning Bell Coffee Roasters in a space formerly occupied by the coffee shop and more recently used for storage. There are two doors into Morning Bell from Main Street — one that enters the coffee shop directly and another which enters a long hallway. Back Alley House Plants is located at the end of that hallway.
Second, Back Alley House Plants is not functioning as a part of Morning Bell's business. Rather, "We're two separate entities, but we're working as a symbiotic organism. We are existing in the same building and benefiting off of each other's existence."
Morning Bell is currently closed for dine-in and is doing to-go service only. But when it does reopen its doors, Mer said he is excited to see where this partnership goes.
"When people are inside the building again, it will be exciting that they can go find a comfy corner in the plant shop to drink their coffee, and kind of have it be an extension of our shop in that way," Mer said.
Third, Lohman said, there are a lot of different plants available from monsteras and fiddle leaf figs to vine plants like philodendrons. However, "the list is different every week," and "It's been pretty crazy; pretty much everything I buy every week is gone by the next, and i'm figuring out how to ramp that up to meet the demand."
Lastly, the current shop is just the beginning of what Lohman has planned.
"I'm excited to see where this is going to go," said Lohman. He has a number of plans in the works to turn Main Street "into a jungle."
From offering delivery (he recently purchased a blue vintage van for just that) to eventually selling ceramic pots to use at a potting station (he hopes to partner with someone at the university for local pottery) there is still a lot in store for Back Alley House Plants.
He even has a "wild dream" of buying a full building on Ames Main Street and building a greenhouse.
Either way, he said, he hopes people come out and find a perfect plant for their home or business. And if they stay for drinks, that's great too.
"It's just extremely rewarding," he said. "There's just something about (having a plant) that you start from something small, and having them over time, seeing them grow and mature, the psychological benefit of that is just amazing."
Mer said he is thrilled to see the new business thrive.
"Austin is a very spirited and adventurous entrepreneur and we're really excited to see where that's going to take him," Mer said. "Already, it's been busier than any of us could have imagined."