From humble retail beginnings to a foliate storefront in Midtown Champaign, J. Matthis Helmick, or Matthis, shares his story about how Plant Mode took root and what advice he has for others looking to start their own business in the heart of it all.
Can you tell me about yourself ?
I am a 51-year-old person from Champaign-Urbana. I grew up here and I love being from CU. I loved it so much that when I went to college, I went to the farthest place you could go in the continental United States: Olympia, Washington. (laughs) I went there after Parkland College. Although I didn’t finish school, it taught me a lot, you know? I feel like I’m a learned person.
I have always had this retail thing going for me while I was in CU. I worked at Dandelion, TJ Maxx, and even Champaign Surplus before I went to college. After college, I went to Chicago and worked at a store called Sprout Home. I loved it and I love them. I love them because they gave me chance despite not having much plant knowledge. Sprout Home is in the Ukrainian Village. I moved back to CU in 2012.
Was Sprout Home your first time in a plant shop?
Yeah, Sprout Home was the first store where I didn’t really know what it was, but I was infatuated with it. I would walk by and think, what is this place? I think they hired me because I was strong. (laughs) I would go out and help with installations and I would carry drainage rocks, soil, and landscaping up to roof tops. When shipments of ceramic planters would come in, we would all go out to unload them from the truck, owners, too. I was in really good shape back then.
It sounds like this experience at Sprout Home was inspiration for opening Plant Mode here in Champaign. Can you tell me more about that spark and the process for opening your business?
I came back to Champaign because it was a time for a change, but I wasn’t positive what I was going to do here. I lived in my friend’s apartment at 8 ½ Main Street in downtown while he was away. I asked if I could do plant pop-ups there and that’s how Plant Mode was born. Starting in late 2013, I was open a few days a week and I used social media to get the word out to people I knew. I also sold a bunch of vases and locally made planters, too, and a lot of air plants.
During Christmas time in 2014, Amanda and Scott from Furniture Lounge invited me to do a pop-up in their showroom for the holidays. Afterward, I was going to pack up, but they asked if I wanted to continue to use the space. We had a great partnership from then until 2019 when I found my own space for Plant Mode.
How did you arrive to your permanent storefront location in Midtown?
I lived downtown and would walk by this spot with my dog. Honestly, I had been looking around for a space for a long time and a lot of property owners didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. There were several buildings I was ogling, and I would do anything to get in that space. All that I knew is that I wanted to be in downtown Champaign. I asked Rebecca at Ippatsu Salon what was going in the space next door, and she introduced me to the landlady. I’ve been here since September 2019.
I love this location. The foot traffic is great. A lot of people come through here from Illinois Terminal and walk through here to get to campus or downtown. The visibility is great.
What are some of the positive things you enjoy from running a small business by yourself?
Making people happy with their plant selection – it makes me happy. I like learning from people if there’s something that I didn’t know. I enjoy hearing people say, “wow,” when they walk. Sometimes I hear people say that they like the vibe in the store and that makes me happy. I enjoy taking special orders for people.
I also love seeing folks from out-of-town who heard about the shop on some plant group online. It makes me feel good because they made the decision and took the effort to jump in a car and come here from Decatur or Bloomington to check it out. I hope they stick around and get something to eat while they’re in town.
In addition to selling indoor tropical plants and planters, you also do indoor plant installation at some businesses around town. Can you share more about that?
I do the plants at Farren’s Pub, Rosecrance, and Meyer Capel. I would love to expand that to more businesses. I always go around and take care of those plants on my off days.
What would be your advice for someone who is trying to start their business in Champaign?
If you can find a shared spot like I did with Furniture Lounge, then that will be a great experience. My perspective is a low dollar perspective where you might not get help from my family or a loan, so you just got to get in where you fit in. Find a business that you can pair with. My advice would be to start small.
Also, when you see a space that you want to be in, just start asking questions. There are crazy buildings around downtown Champaign that are perfect for plant stores, and all sorts of other businesses.
Do you have houseplants at home?
I have 81 plants and only three of them I’ll have forever. Sometimes it changes because I keep damaged or ratty survivors that come in the shipments. Once they get bigger and healthier after a few months, I might give them away or bring them in the store and sell them marked down.
What are the three forever plants?
Rhaphidophora tetrasperma, Philodendron Burle Marx, and Hoya obovata. The Hoya started from a cutting given to me by the owner of Sprout Home and I’ve had it ever since.
For more information about this small business in Champaign Center, please visit www.PlantMode.com!
Photo by Darrell Hoemann Photography.