If Sonoma County residents are looking for an oasis that is free from distractions, delightful in every possible way, and full of genuine people, they can find it just a few miles from downtown Santa Rosa at Imwalle Gardens. As one happens into this place, which has been barely touched by time, they will likely see a mix of customers, both young and old, walking among the fresh produce, flowers and bedding plants that the Imwalles offer at very reasonable prices. Visitors may have trouble spotting 73 year old patriarch Joe Imwalle though, because he rarely sits still. He is always moving as there is always work to be done. When he does take a moment to stop and chat with his faithful customers, he will probably know them by their first name. Invariably customers tell him how much they adore him and his one-of-a-kind business.
“A lot of customers tell me they love coming here; they just love it. They thank me for being here because we’re like something from the 50s. We’re not 2014. We’re not a box store with the shiny floors and the fancy computers and all that stuff,” Joe said. Changes and improvements have been made in the family business since it was started in 1886 by Joe’s grandfather, but the atmosphere is still the same.
Joe’s grandfather, Joseph Imwalle, handed the business down to his two sons Joseph II and Henry. When Joseph II passed away at just 63, Joe became partners with his uncle at the age of 23. Six years after his father died, Joe and his uncle Henry divided up the land so his uncle could retire.
Henry took the prune orchards, which have since been developed, and Joe kept the veggies. Imwalle Gardens is three businesses in one and Joe has expanded each. “When I first started it was small and we just made little improvements every year: building bigger green houses, improving the old buildings, making a bigger parking lot. And the population grew in this area too,” Joe said. He serves the growing community with a wholesale produce business, an onsite store that sells local produce and produce from the family’s 12 acres, and a nursery.
In addition to the peppers, tomatoes, corn, squash, eggplant, leeks, Swiss chard, kale, onions and other produce from the family garden, the Imwalles cater to their customers’ wants by growing vegetable transplants. Joe recognizes that more and more people have their own gardens. “Back in the olden days they never thought of planting corn in only six-packs. I just go with the times. Everyone just wants to transplant their corn, beans, squash, and cucumbers in little packs,” he said.
It’s ironic that Joe “goes with the times” in regards to produce and not with computers, but that is part of his charm. He has evolved his business by not getting a cell phone and by following much healthier trends. “We sell a tremendous amount more of vegetables than we did 30 years ago because people are more conscious of their health. They want kale and they want local stuff,” Joe said, which is why he now sells three different varieties of kale. He also recalls how customers have expanded their palates. “I’ve seen a lot of changes. A lot of our customers are old like me now too. And there have been a lot of changes in people’s taste too. Back in the olden days when I first started, we never sold any cilantro. Now I sell probably eight to 10 cases of cilantro a day. Every restaurant uses it now,” Joe said.
The Imwalles serve a variety of local restaurants and delis, including La Gare, Union Hotel and Dave’s Market.
“Some of them we’ve had for years and they just keep coming back,” Joe said. The same goes for the Imwalle’s other customers. Joe has watched generations of community members give his family their business, coming first as a young kid and then bringing back children of their own. He has also witnessed customers coming from diverse backgrounds. “We have all kinds of different clientele. You have the very wealthy to the middle, to the ones that are less rich. We have people come out in their Rolls-Royces and their $100,000 Mercedes. Most of our customer’s come out in Priuses,” Joe muses. Wealthy, middle class, young or old, the Imwalle’s charm appeals to everyone. Anyone can appreciate their warmth and the service they provide.
Customer service and being courteous to customers is part of the Imwalle business philosophy, in addition to being honest, fair and having reasonable prices. They are able to keep prices so low because they don’t pay rent and they believe in passing those savings onto their customers. Low prices and excellent service aren’t the only things that keep the Imwalles in business though. The whole family works hard to keep their traditions alive.
Joe, his wife Maria and their children Joe IV, Charles, Paul and Angela, are all involved in Imwalle Gardens. Joe remains busy keeping product in and managing the business. “I’m working harder in hours now at 73 than I did 30 years ago because the business has grown so much that I do a tremendous amount. I take orders on the phone all night until nine. I get as many as 40 phone calls at night after I finish work,” he said.
Joe shared that Charles works very hard alongside him, and just as many hours. “A typical day is a long day. I do everything that needs to be done: deliveries in the morning, setting up the store, stocking the store in the mid-afternoon, relieving people for lunch, all that good stuff,” Charles said. Maria takes care of the books, banking, billing and payroll, and Joe IV, Paul and Angela work part-time helping out wherever they can.
Joe and Maria, who have been married for 47 years, consider themselves very fortunate to have an over 120 year old family business that they hope will continue on for future generations. Their grandchildren Kevin Imwalle Hatch, 6, Josephine Imwalle, 4, and Shelby Imwalle Hatch, 3, can be found running around the store and fields, living the same life their parents did. “They get to do all the fun stuff that I did; pick the vegetables, just get dirty, have fun, have a mud fight. It’s just free. There are no restrictions here. It’s open. Everyone here is nice. Everyone here I consider family. That’s all I can say is I love it here,” Angela said of growing up and living at Imwalle Gardens.
If you walk around Imwalle Gardens you’re bound to find fresh, reasonable produce, friendly employees and a certain charm that can’t be duplicated. But what one may not realize at first glance is the genuine love that exists in every corner of this special place. From the photo of a treasured employee in the store, to the virgin redwood barn built by Joe’s grandfather, to the fig trees around the property, one for each of Joe and Maria’s children and grandchildren.
Imwalle Gardens is not just a business, it’s a landmark and thriving slice of Sonoma County’s rich agricultural history.