A Family of Some Cultivation 
March 28, 1999, New York Times
New Jersey Weekly Desk  


JUST up the Garden State Parkway and across the Hudson River from here, the Channel Gardens of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan are traditionally awash in a sea of fragrant lilies at Easter.

But this year, with the gardens under reconstruction, few people will be as affected as Robert and Karen Hoffbauer, owners of the Julius Roehrs and Company. For about half a century, it has been supplying lilies to Rockefeller Center.

The Hoffbauers aren't worried that their Monmouth County business will be stuck with an excess of snowy blooms. Other clients, like St. Patrick's Cathedral, will more than likely snap up the 12,000 Nelly White lilies in time for Easter.

''We're still busy with everything else, but it's very strange,'' Mr. Hoffbauer said of the current construction-site atmosphere of the typically verdant Channel Gardens.
Although the plan is for at least half the Channel Gardens to be refurbished and potted with lilies in time for Easter next weekend, no one can say for sure just what the Fifth Avenue tourist attraction will look like. But no matter how many flowers are needed, the Hoffbauers will make sure Rockefeller Center gets them. Working horticultural miracles is all in a day's work.

''They're one of the few companies that grow and have the greenhouse space for all the tropicals and plants that are essential to New York,'' said David Murbach of Tishman Speyer Properties, which manages Rockefeller Center. ''They're the kind of people who, if you had a problem -- and I stress if -- will always take care of it, no matter whose fault it was.''
The roots of this family business stretch back to 1864, when 20-year-old Julius Roehrs left Hamburg, Germany, to be an orchid grower on the Jersey City estate of the industrialist Michael Lienau. ''It was the custom for wealthy gentlemen to cultivate their own private plant collections under the supervision of expert gardeners,'' Karen Hoffbauer explained. ''Europe was the great horticultural center of the day, and most plants sold in the United States were imported from abroad. Americans searched the best horticulture schools on the continent to recruit their gardening staffs.''

Roehrs eventually became Lienau's chief orchid grower, and in 1867 he helped his employer publish one of the earliest American orchid catalogues. Two years later, Roehrs started his own nursery on 17 acres in East Rutherford, and cultivated a business worth more than one million dollars.
''Roehrs grew flowering plants for private customers and, more important, for the newly appearing retail florist shops in Manhattan,'' Ms. Hoffbauer explained. ''Every morning baskets of cut roses, lilies-of-the-valley, narcissus, lilacs, chrysanthemums, and cattleya orchids were loaded aboard horse-drawn wagons and carried down the Paterson Plank Road to the Hudson ferry, which shuttled them to the New York wholesale market.''

When he died in 1913, Roehrs left his five sons and three daughters an operation made up of 100 greenhouses and more than 100 acres of open field filled with nursery stock tended by 200 workers.

But the years that followed were no bed of roses. The Plant Quarantine Act of 1917, which banned the importation of plants in soil and ultimately forced the company to propagate its own stock, almost destroyed the business; the Depression found it deep in debt. After World War II, a tropical plant boom led to the development of the company's specialty -- interior landscaping, providing an increasing number of skyscrapers with fresh flowers and plants for their offices, lobbies and other public spaces.

At about this time, Roehrs's daughter Anna married Carl Hoffbauer, and in the 1950's, he took on his nephew, William Hoffbauer, as a partner. In 1969, Mr. Hoffbauer moved the company headquarters from Bergen to Monmouth County. Two of his four children carry on the family trade today.
Entering the family business was not an easy choice for Robert Hoffbauer, who studied politics at American University and enjoyed working on Capitol Hill during college. Indeed, Karen Hoffbauer recalled that 26 years ago, when her brother Robert was 20, their father said to him, ''This is for you.'' But, she went on, ''He panicked and said, 'Karen needs to help me with it.' ''

For her part, Karen Hoffbauer -- who had a master's degree in English and had worked in several secretarial and marketing positions -- was ready for a change. ''I know how painful it is to be out in the working world,'' she said. ''Sometimes he doesn't appreciate all the benefits of being your own boss.''
Over the past 26 years, the siblings have divided their responsibilities according to their individual strengths. ''My hat is sales and marketing and his hat is production and administration,'' said Ms. Hoffbauer. ''I'm more of a people person and he is much better with numbers.'' She handles sales for the New York area from an office in Jersey City; he is based in Farmingdale, where six acres of glass greenhouses on 86 acres of land house plants ranging from dainty primroses to 20-foot-high coconut palms.

Although the Easter lily display is the Julius Roehrs Company's longest running show at Rockefeller Center, it is not the largest. Over the past eight years, the company has mounted an October chrysanthemum show of thousands of blooms, which takes 10 months to prepare. Throughout the year, they install and maintain horticultural displays throughout Rockefeller Center, as well as for clients on both sides of the Hudson, including American Reinsurance, Chase Manhattan Bank, Colgate, Harborside Financial Center, Lipton, Merck, Paine Webber, Rutgers University, SAS Airlines and Warner Communications.

Though impressive to the home gardener, the Farmingdale complex, which is open to retail customers Wednesdays through Saturdays, is small by industry standards. ''Our capacity is limited by our greenhouse capacity,'' Ms. Hoffbauer said. ''There's a market for 10 to 20 times more than we produce. The industry of growing is separate from the interior landscaping business. We're a multifaceted company. We keep the size of our business within the framework of what we feel we can handle successfully..''

Horticultural technology featuring automatic watering, computer-assisted shading and potting machines that calibrate the amount of soil per container represents a radical departure from the days when Julius Roehrs Jr. bought his own forest in the Ramapo Mountains to supply logs to heat the East Rutherford greenhouses and stored chunks of ice in sawdust to keep temperatures down in summer. ''But even with all the innovation, it's still a labor-intensive business,'' Mr. Hoffbauer said.

Huge expanses of lilies don't bloom in midtown Manhattan exactly in time for Easter on their own, and running a nursery encompasses all the administrative and customer relations headaches of any other business. ''Years ago we used to do a lot of decorating with lilies in banks and commercial buildings,'' Mr. Hoffbauer said. ''But today everybody's more sensitive to the religious overtones.'' These days, many corporate clients insist on what are perceived as nonsectarian arrangements of orchids, hyacinths, tulips and daffodils.

''In the 80's the interior landscaping business burgeoned because tax abatements were given for atriums; this contributed to quite a market for plantings,'' Ms. Hoffbauer said. ''There was a retrenchment in amenities for corporations in the early 90's. That has turned around 180 percent. Now business is growing and amenties are again a very important factor.''

Despite this sunny outlook, Robert Hoffbauer said he will let his children -- Jennifer, 8; Kelsey, 6, and William, 3 -- decide for themselves whether they want to enter the family business.
Karen Hoffbauer is thrilled that her young nieces visit the greenhouses on Saturdays and have already helped design wreaths at Christmas. She enthused about the career possibilities available to them as heirs to a family business as uncommon as some of the plants it propagates. ''What a rare thing it is,'' she said. ''There are so few left.''

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