Bernacchi's Greenhouses Go Virtual
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Bernacchi's Greenhouses Go Virtual

With a worldwide lock-down and a virus on the move, it was either change or give up.

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Bernacchi's Greenhouses Go Virtual
Tessa Lebo

The corona virus is taking over everything: education, families, minds. Despite all the chaos, a lot of companies, free-lancers, and local businesses struggle to keep moving forward. With government restrictions and no face-to-face contact, customers, co-workers, and even FedEx, becomes a threat.

With a worldwide lock-down and a lethal virus, it was either change their ways or give up. Bernacchi's Oak Valley decided to go virtual for its 51st year.

Bernacchi's Oak Valley Greenhouses, La Porte, Indiana, opened in 1969 by Joe Bernacchi, father of Russell Bernacchi. Russell and his wife Judy ran the business after Joe passed on 3.3.03. Currently, daughter Kristine Lebo owns the business after purchasing in 2018.

The business is entirely family owned and operated. This has always been a perk, but with the ongoing pandemic and limited contact, it was a blessing.

Although all 6 staff members are family, everyone not quarantined together keeps their distance. Each employee is equipped with a sanitation spray bottle, pair of latex gloves, and a home-sewn mask, made by the youngest employee, 20-year-old daughter of owner, fashion major Mia Lebo.

"The most important thing to me is keeping my grandpa safe," Mia said. "Who is at higher risk."

She hasn't seen any of her friends since driving home from college to quarantine with her family. Her grandfather Russell, who waters from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 7 days a week, lives with a rare disease: sarcoidosis.

Sarcoidosis in the lungs is called pulmonary sarcoidosis. It causes small lumps of inflammatory cells in the lungs.

"It's hard not to hug him when I see him," Mia said, "But I know if I really care about him, it's better to just wave."

Facebook, Instagram, and a conventional website was all Bernacchi's had to manage the past 4 years, but this year they needed something advanced. For the entire greenhouse to go mobile, it was going to take a website designer, a photographer, and a staff willing to reinvent themselves.

Owner Kristine Lebo, 50, said she really thought the COVID-19 pandemic would ruin the business.

"It hit right when we are only open for 2 months out of the year, so if we couldn't open, we would lose everything we worked for up until this point."

Two of Kristine's employees are in their 70's and her youngest sister, Sarah Bernacchi, has dealt with lung issues for most of her life. Kristine goes above and beyond to keep everyone in the greenhouse safe and healthy.

"I carry around a bottle of peroxide, bleach, and water, a mask, gloves, and any door I touch, I spray inside and out." Kristine said. "We all have to stay 6 feet apart. It makes greenhouse work very hard."

Tessa Lebo

After 50 years of face-to-face customer service, retail manager Judy Bernacchi, 72, must learn Google Drive. With granddaughters sharing photographs of every flower from Ageratum to Zinnia, she must adapt or drown. She learns to swim, and orders pour in from their online shop.

"When we first started, all we had were aprons with a coin changer, a calculator, and a bill book," Judy said. "No register and no counter."

With a web shop up and running from the help of her two multimedia skilled granddaughters, she pushes forward like she always has.

"One year, I was working with my 1-and-a-half-year-old strapped to my back." Judy laughed, "I had to remember to squat when picking up pots or she would fall over my head."

36 and a half years later, that little girl, Sarah Bernacchi, works alongside her parents, sister, and nieces. An employee normally handling Natives, wholesale orders, and transplanting in the back, now sits at a makeshift desk up front, taking phone orders.

"The calls are nonstop," Sarah said. "It was easier when customers would bring you what they wanted to purchase, but now we have to pull the order, add the total, stock out those items, get payment information, set up a time to pick up, all the while my phone is buzzing from another customer."

Through all the difficulty setting up the website, and learning how to run a virtual business, the employees of Bernacchi's Oak Valley Greenhouses are tired in the best way.

"I feel apprehensive but optimistic," Kristine said. "Apprehensive that it may not be as successful as last year, but optimistic that it is heading in a direction that could set us up for the future."

After two weeks of the bernacchisoakvalleyshop.com launch, Kristine says orders have been surprisingly overwhelming. Customers seem to like the easy web shop and contactless pickup option. Getting to speak with every customer individually on a phone call, while you wrap up their order, gives the employee and consumer a more personal interaction.

"It gives way more insight to what is going out the door," Sarah said. "What catches a customer's eye and what we should have more of in upcoming years."

The greenhouse will not be opening for the duration of the COVID-19 scare. Nothing is more important than the safety of their staff, families, and customers. With half the employees at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, and only a summer left of service, embracing the web shop and easy pickup wins.

To learn more about Bernacchi's Oak Valley Greenhouses follow them on Facebook (BernacchisOakValley) or Instagram (bernacchis.oak.valley) or check out their web shop to order.

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