March 28, 1999, New York Times
New Jersey Weekly Desk
By MARY ANN CASTRONOVO FUSCO
JUST up the Garden State Parkway and across the Hudson River
from here, the Channel Gardens of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan
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
''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.''