Sal and Lorena Gonzalez started selling succulents and plants nearly five years ago when a yard project introduced an abundance of drought-tolerant plants into their lives. The pair began to relocate succulent plants from their own garden into pots for purchase, and Urbano Wood was born in South L.A.
Their business began as a traveling operation, where they hosted mobile pop-ups two to three times a month, often double booking days to meet the buyers’ demand, each traveling to a different location to sell their plants. The operation took them as far as San Diego and San Francisco, and with a strong emphasis on family, their three children joined them on their journeys.
Urbano Wood became a stand-still, one-stop-shop operation when the pandemic changed customers’ needs and indoor plants became most coveted.
“In order to survive with a small business, you have to change quickly… so we saw the demand for indoor plants and we shifted our business,” Lorena Gonzalez said.
The family began selling everything a customer would need to become plant friendly, from pots, plants, decorative items, and even created their own soil.
“A lot of people love shopping here with us because of the knowledge they get from talking to us… we spend a good amount of time with our customers, educating them on the plant they are purchasing and what needs they have,” said Lorena Gonzalez.
At the start of the pandemic, the family of five frequented Home Depot and Lowes to purchase plants, but the costs were too high and they elected to find an advantageous alternative. They found the grower that supplies Lowes and Home Depot in San Diego, and traveled there to stock up on plants. True to the Gonzalez practice, the entire family traveled along with them. “Family for us has always been number one,” Lorena Gonzalez said. “When I say it’s a family business,” she reiterated, “it’s a family business!”
Family values course throughout the business from its conception to creation and vending. Prior to Sal’s work in landscaping, both Sal and Lorena’s fathers were gardeners themselves, and instilled a love for plants in both of them, and in turn, unto each of their children.
“We both have our green thumb[s] from our families, my husband and I,” Lorena Gonzalez said. “A lot of the plants we sell, my family had in the 80s and 90s.”
The business goes far beyond the Gonzalez family alone. The couple found a family in Guerrero, Mexico that creates ceramic pots who then ships the pots to their relatives in Tijuana, Mexico where the ceramist’s brother customizes each pot in hand-painted designs.
“Our goal was for people to have a little bit of our culture in their homes. We were doing that for our own family, for our children to know where they come from. We want [them] to know that this is Mexican and [they] are Mexican.”
As for the shop’s location, South L.A. has been supportive of the business. “We had a lot of people from the neighborhood that would thank us, saying ‘thank you for having this opportunity here,’ because we have always been a community that lacks things… a lot of people love plants here in South L.A.,” Lorena Gonzalez said. Entire families visited their home location, largely due word of mouth. Lorena Gonzalez speculates this as their budget for marketing is slim and their address is not listed anywhere.
Lorena’s husband Sal emphasized the reward of caring for plants. “It’s our responsibility to keep them alive but in return the plants bring us happiness and joy,” he said. “We see first hand how therapeutic it is to have plants and we love to see the joy it brings to our community.”
For students, visiting Urbano Wood may be the reward itself. USC senior Taylor Sonnenfeld visited the shop and was inundated with information about the plants, ceramic pots, and even the history of the family’s love and interest in plants. “Simple pots that were on the table, even those had a little story,” she said, “every plant was special to them.”
“As USC students, we are in an area that has been gentrified very greatly, so I feel like the least we can do is give back to support the community that we are in,” said Sonnenfeld. “I think that it’s honestly more fun too, because you get to, like, explore the area and learn more.”
The Gonzalez’ are aware of the unique qualities they bring to their business. “We weren’t just a home depot where you get paid to work there just to work there. This is our passion and that’s why we started our business,” said Lorena Gonzalez.
Urbano Wood has proven to be of interest and value to all ages, and young children have the opportunity to acquire a new, fun chore.
“You start giving a small child a small interest in something new, and now you have small children that have a responsibility to keep this plant alive… we call it plant parenthood.”
Urbano Wood, which the Gonzalez’ describe as a “boutique nursery,” is a passion project turned business opportunity that nourishes the neighborhoods in South L.A.