Bonnie Plants has grown significantly from its humble beginnings, says President and CEO Mike Sutterer. Bonnie and Livingston Paulk founded the business in Union Springs, AL, in 1918. After 104 years, the business continues to thrive and expand. “They founded the company with 2 pounds of cabbage seeds and $50 in their pocket,” Sutterer says. At the time, the Paulks were growing in their backyard, but their mission was to bring the same quality harvest to home gardeners. Bonnie Plants continues to follow the Paulks’ mission in bringing high-quality fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers to consumers across the country.
From left: Bonnie Plants’ Senior VP of Supply Chain Fernando Quiros, VP of Research & Development Bob Harriman, CEO Mike Sutterer, COO and General Manager Tom Kuharcik, Marketing Director Lisa Silverboard. All photos: Bonnie Plants
Bonnie Plants has 87 facilities across 43 states, allowing them to ship fresh produce to any address in the U.S. in two days.
Bonnie Plants takes pride in offering fresh, unique, and flavorful vegetables to its consumers, such as these yellow tomatoes.
Three descendants of the founders of Bonnie Plants attended the Union Springs e-commerce expansion earlier this year. Pictured with President and CEO Mike Sutterer (second from left) are Leslie Harris (left), Johnny Adams (second from right), and Bonnie Paulk (right), a current employee.
The research and development team at Bonnie Plants focuses on everyday gardeners to offer unique flavors, shapes, colors, and textures of produce.
Travis Hammonds, a Bonnie Plants employee, tends to his garden with his children at their home in Alabama. Hammonds says donating their extra harvest to their local food bank helps fight food insecurity in their community and teaches his children the importance of giving back.
The company has 87 facilities across 43 states. Bonnie Plants sells live goods in all 50 states across 20,000 retail stores, including The Home Depot, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Walmart, Tractor Supply, Kroger, Costco, and Sam’s Club and their websites, as well as on Amazon and BonniePlants.com.
In the 1970s, Bonnie Plants was purchased by the Alabama Farmers Cooperative, keeping the company deeply tied to its roots. In 2016, The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company bought a minority interest in Bonnie. Five years later, Bonnie Plants became a 50/50 joint venture between ScottsMiracle-Gro and the Alabama Farmers Cooperative.
“We have the history, heritage, and agricultural grounding from the Alabama Farmers Cooperative. They’ve been part of Bonnie for 50 years. Then you combine that with the wonderful marketing, research, and brand-building that ScottsMiracle-Gro brings, and that’s a match made in heaven,” Sutterer says. “It provides us with the support that we need on both sides to be the best we can be as a company. It’s the ideal structure for us. It only took us 100 years to get there, but I’m glad we’re there now.”
Focus on Consumers
At Bonnie, there is a major focus on the end consumer. To carry on the Paulks’ mission to bring a quality product to everyday gardeners, Bonnie Plants invests heavily in consumer research to understand their preferences and pain points.
“Our research and development (R&D) team are second to none,” Sutterer says.
The R&D team screens hundreds of varieties every year. This year, the team is screening more than 1,400 varieties. However, they are not screening for things like how well the variety does during production in the greenhouse. Instead, the team screens for in-garden performance. This includes the size of the yield and unique flavors, textures, colors, and shapes.
“That manifests itself in product lines like the Bonnie Reserve collection, which are small-batch, unique genetics that you can’t get anywhere else,” Sutterer says.
Bonnie also brings unique genetics to its customers through partnerships. The company partnered with breeder “Smokin’” Ed Currie, who is known for breeding the world’s hottest pepper, the Carolina Reaper.
“There’s a subculture called pepperheads. It’s a community of people who go crazy over the hottest peppers they can get their hands on,” Sutterer says. “Smokin’ Ed’s mission is to develop a hotter pepper. We worked with him to develop an exclusive line of his special collection, the Smokin’ Ed Collection, of these super-hot peppers. We launched our first one of those two years ago. Within 24 hours, they all sold out, and we had thousands of people on a waiting list.”
This niche of small batch offerings has struck a chord with consumers, especially those under 40 who are looking for something new and different.
Various retailers, including Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Walmart, also carry exclusive genetic product lines from Bonnie Plants, which bring unique flavors, textures, colors, and shapes to the mass market.
Bonnie’s R&D team also partners with larger breeders, such as Ball Horticultural and Dümmen Orange. Sutterer says Bonnie works upstream with the larger breeders and evaluates the varieties before they are named. Bonnie also works with universities, such as the University of Florida, and smaller breeders.
“It would be easy for a company of our size to say we don’t deal with breeders on a small scale. But you can find innovation anywhere, and that’s our focus,” Sutterer says. “We build relationships and use their expertise in breeding.”
Expanding into New Markets
Sutterer says Bonnie’s vision is to be the No. 1 live goods company in the U.S. Its heritage is in vegetables and herbs, but the Bonnie team sees opportunities beyond that in flowers, succulents, houseplants, and packet seeds.
Bonnie offers a quarterly plant subscription service, in partnership with ScottsMiracle-Gro, called Knock! Knock! on JustKnockKnock.comhttp://JustKnockKnock.com. The consumer receives a curated mix of annuals in a proprietary, patented “plant pie” on their doorstep. The gardener takes the mix out of the box and easily plants it in a pot, with minimal time and effort. The mix is customized for the consumer’s region and the time of year. For example, in the winter, subscribers living in the northern U.S. would receive holiday greenery. Consumers say the process is easy, such as baking a cake from a mix in a box.
“Gardeners don’t want to spend eight hours on a Saturday afternoon weeding and breaking up the soil and figuring out how to feed and water things,” Sutterer says. “We took all of that out of the equation. We selected plants that grow well together. You just drop it in the pot.”
Bonnie Plants has another initiative, in partnership with ScottsMiracle-Gro, called Greendigs, which offers indoor plants, including houseplants, succulents, and herbs through the lens of home décor. These offerings cannot be found at a garden center, Sutterer says. They are available at ShopGreendigs.com.
“This is another platform that has huge potential as plants become more of the fabric of your home décor,” he says. “COVID-19 opened that door for a lot of people. Their home became a lot more than where they hung out on the weekends. It became an office and it became a school.”
Associates are Key to Overcoming Business Challenges
Bonnie Plants faces the same issues as other growers, such as supply chain, labor, and transportation challenges, says Senior Vice President of Supply Chain Fernando Quiros. He and his team prioritize face-to-face visits with each of the growing stations across the country to collaborate with Bonnie associates.
“It’s worth it,” Quiros says. “Talking to the station managers and our sales team, the growers, the people doing value-added work, and understanding challenges and listening to them. We couldn’t do it without their feedback.”
Quiros says Bonnie Plants believes in the power of technology to improve efficiency. For example, the company is implementing new software that tracks on-site inventory and store deliveries to provide better insights to its retailers. Quiros and his team work with a focus group of eight station managers to give feedback on the software.
“They are helping us to make sure we understand their realities,” Quiros says. “For all the things we think about doing that are new technology innovations, they tell us if they are designed well and designed for the real world.” This culture is a key differentiator for Bonnie in the live-goods industry.
“We have the most dedicated group of associates in the industry,” Quiros says.
One example of the Bonnie difference is when there was a historic freeze in Texas in 2021, a call-to-arms email went out and immediately more than two dozen Bonnie associates from across the country responded to drive to Texas and help deliver plants to get back in business. Many associates helped deliver plants again this spring in the northeast, where there was a compressed season due to weather.
Enhancing Lives Through the Power of Plants
Sutterer says when he thinks about success, he thinks about the impact that Bonnie Plants has made on communities across the country and its own employees since 1918. From the very beginning, the Paulk family set aside acreage to grow and donate food to those experiencing hunger and food insecurity in their community.
Bonnie Plants continues to work to alleviate food insecurity by partnering with AmpleHarvest.org, a free, nationwide registry that connects home gardeners with local food pantries in their area. This partnership enables Bonnie to engage gardening consumers and bridge the gap between the home-grown harvest surplus and the need at local food pantries.
“This is the time of year when home gardeners come to their neighbors with their excess harvest, and you start to not look your neighbor in the eye because you’re worried they’re going to have another bag of zucchini,” Sutterer says. “Food pantries are crying for fresh vegetables. People who are hungry want fresh and nutritious vegetables. One of the most efficient ways to get them there is home gardeners.”
Bonnie has connected more than 10 million children to the joys and wonders of gardening through the Third Grade Cabbage Program since 1996.
“When the children realize that their food does not originate at the grocery store, it’s a powerful moment in their lives,” Sutterer says.
Schools and educators can register for the free program at bonniecabbageprogram.com.
In 2021, Bonnie formed the nonprofit, 501(c)(3) Bonnie Plants Foundation. The vision of this new philanthropic arm of Bonnie Plants is to amplify and expand how the company is helping communities and associates thrive and grow healthy together through the power of plants.
The Bonnie Plants Foundation made its first major gift in 2022 to create a Children’s Garden inside the 16-acre Transformation Garden at Auburn University. The Children’s Garden will be open to the public, exposing children and families to gardening through hands-on classroom teachings.
Additionally, the Foundation established an Associate Hardship Fund to provide confidential help to Bonnie associates and their families in times of need — medical emergencies, illnesses, and disasters. Giving back to the community is sown into the culture at Bonnie Plants.
“Twenty years from now I’ll be gone, the products will fade, the financial statements will fade, but those impacts are going to live on,” Sutterer says. “When I think about success stories for Bonnie, those points where we really are enhancing people’s lives through the power of plants, those are the most powerful and enduring success stories.”
University Feeds Talent Pipeline
Sutterer says Bonnie Plants recently moved its corporate headquarters from Union Springs, AL, to Opelika, AL, for a close partnership with Auburn University. Auburn has strong programs in horticulture, business, and supply chain.
Bonnie funds annual scholarships with Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business and College of Agriculture, supports the University’s Center for Supply Chain Innovation and recruits interns and full-time positions at the new Opelika headquarters.
“Through our relationship with Auburn, we’ve brought in bright, passionate business and horticulture leaders — from growers, to supply chain and logistics, business analytics, and e-commerce — who have thrived in their careers at Bonnie,” Sutterer says. “This relationship with Auburn, along with our deep-rooted culture and our new headquarters building, allows us to offer graduating students a great place to work in a location they love.”
The family culture at Bonnie Plants is a major factor in employee recruitment and retention.
“As our company has grown over generations and into new business areas and locations, our core values have remained the same. These core values have helped us stay true to ourselves and our founding. People like to be part of an organization that gives back and matches their values.”
How Consumer Focus Drives Innovation at Bonnie Plants