After several years in the position of head plug grower, Eric Barnitz is preparing to take over his dad’s role of head grower.
Photo courtesy of John Morgan

As a third-generation grower at Bob’s Market and Greenhouses in Mason, West Virginia, Eric Barnitz believes he was made for the greenhouse business.

“I was basically born into this,” says Eric, whose grandparents, Robert and Corena Barnitz, founded the business in 1970 as a roadside produce market. “I always knew I was going to be a part of it.”

From a young age, Eric and his cousins pitched in by preassembling trays for the small family greenhouse. By the time he hit his early teenage years, Eric began exploring the different aspects of the business to discover which part of the operation fit him best.

“Each of my grandpa’s five sons were in charge of an aspect of the business,” Eric says. “The oldest, Bobby, is in charge of plug production. My dad, Rick, is in charge of growing. Scott is in charge of the retail aspect of the business. Jeff is in charge of the trucking, and John is in charge of finished production and shipping.”

Several other family members and their spouses are also involved in the business, and of course, Grandpa Bob “still comes around every single day,” Eric says, although he’s technically retired.

After experiencing each aspect of the operation, Eric naturally followed in his father’s footsteps (who had previously taken after his father as well) by pursuing the growing side of the business. Eric began growing for Bob’s Market in the year 2000, just two years after the company became a seedling supplier for Ball Seed.

Now, after several years in the position of head plug grower, Eric is preparing to take over his dad’s role of head grower — transitioning the family business into the third generation.

The Barnitz family from left to right: Scott, Bobby, Bob, Jeff, Eric and Dana.
Photo courtesy of John Morgan

A tradition of growth

Over the last 20 years of working in the family business, Eric has watched Bob’s Market grow steadily and expand its footprint throughout the region.

“As far back as I can remember, it was just a little greenhouse here and a little greenhouse there,” he says. “But we purchased properties and ultimately grew.”

Now, in addition to the main location in Mason, production facilities sprawl across several more locations in town, totaling about 23 acres. Bob’s Market also operates a wholesale facility in Pittsburgh, a retail/wholesale facility in Atlanta, and retail stores in Gallipolis and Belpre, Ohio, to complement the original store in Mason.

Bob’s Market produces wholesale seedlings exclusively for Ball Seed, as well as finished crops like annuals, hanging baskets and seasonal varieties. “As far as annual plugs, you name it and we’re growing it,” Eric says. “Our finished production is more streamlined to our customer base. We sell to independent garden centers throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.”

At peak season, Bob’s Market employs 220 people, including 20 section growers who are responsible for producing crops. “They ultimately know where the bar is set, so all I have to do is check to make sure they’re within spec,” Eric says. “Attention to detail is what got Bob’s Market where it is today; if it weren’t for the little details, you can’t get a quality product.”

In addition to overseeing plug production, which fills about 13 acres, Eric is directly responsible for half of one range, which covers 4 acres. Two assistant growers help him manage this space, while another grower and his assistant maintain the other half. A couple of these employees have been with the company over 20 years, but finding more dedicated people like them is critical to continuing the company’s growth.

In addition to the main location in Mason, production facilities sprawl across several more locations in town.

“The biggest challenge is finding good, quality people,” Eric says. “The best solution has been trying to find people in the company who have already proven that they’ll work six or seven days a week without complaining. I keep my eyes and ears open for people who are smart, dedicated and hardworking, and I’ll handpick growers from another part of the business.”

For example, Eric’s wife Dana used to work on the retail side of the business, but for the last five years, she’s been growing vinca plugs and other crops. The couple — who met at Bob’s Market — traveled together to Ball FloraPlant’s facility in Nicaragua last fall.

Over the last 20 years of working in the family business, Eric has watched Bob’s Market grow steadily and expand its footprint throughout the region.

Carrying on the legacy

Of course, working with family “obviously has its frustrating moments,” Eric says, “but ultimately, blood is thicker than water. I don’t think we would have made it this far without each other.”

Eric looks forward to the future and the additional growth opportunities it holds as Bob’s Market prepares to celebrate 50 years of business in 2020. As the oldest of the third generation, Eric is paying close attention to all the lessons he can learn from his father, uncles and grandpa as the company begins its transition to the next generation.

“It means a lot to further the business and to carry on my grandpa’s legacy,” he says.

The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Greenhouse Management magazine.