Bowman's Garden Center and Green Bean Cafe: Partners in Thyme in Old Towne Portsmouth

By, Justin Ayars

Nestled in the heart of charming Olde Towne Portsmouth, Bowman’s Garden Center & Green Bean Café is a business unlike any other. Bowman’s is a garden shop that features a wide range of decorative greenery, unique hand-made gifts and exquisite seasonal displays that rival any department store. Bowman’s also operates the Green Bean Café, an old-world European lunch spot that serves up a mélange of delectable entrées, fresh salads and scrumptious desserts. This eclectic shop owned by Paul Bowman and Rich Phillips, has grown from a local favorite into a destination for travelers from across the region.

Planting the Seeds of Bowman’s Garden Center

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Paul, a Hampton Roads native, has a strong background in landscaping and horticulture. Previously, Paul had worked as a private landscape architect and nursery consultant. Rich, originally from New England, was a cook in the Navy and then a private chef. Upon leaving the Navy, Rich opened a gift shop in Norfolk. In 2002, the duo decided to join forces and open a unique garden and gift shop in a 1970s era 7-11 building atop a ½ acre plot of land in Olde Towne Portsmouth. Why Olde Towne Portsmouth? “There was nothing really like us here,” explains Paul. “The nearest competition was a feed and seed store. We wanted to be more of a boutique shop.”

Paul and Rich started selling plants, garden accessories and cut flowers. They quickly increased their inventory to include garden accessories (bags of soil, rakes, shovels, sprinklers, patio furniture, etc.) and home accessories (lamps and other interior decorations). When they opened in 2002, they purchased almost all of the plants that they sold. Now, they grow about 10% of their plants and have expanded their selection to include bedding plants, herbs and vegetables.

The Green Bean Café is Born

When the recession hit, demand for cut flowers as well as home and garden accessories dropped significantly. Although customers continued to purchase plants in droves, the ever-creative pair began looking to retool their business model. In 2010, Rich decided he’d return to his culinary roots and began making fresh, carry-out lunches for customers. With pride in their voices, Paul and Rich explain, “We grow many of the vegetables and herbs we use for the restaurant ourselves. We grow lots of tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, basil, chives, sage, tarragon and thyme.”

Rich only decided to transform his take-out food business into a dine-in restaurant when a happy accident occurred in 2012. When the pair received their business license renewal to sell food, they saw that the license was for an eat-in establishment, not a carry-out establishment. When they discovered the mistake, Paul exclaims, “We didn’t question it. We just went with it. We used the old patio furniture and home accessories that hadn’t been selling and set up part of the shop to look like a house.” Thus, the Green Bean Café was born from a technical mistake and some entrepreneurial ingenuity.

Paul and Rich conceded that the first year they operated the café was shaky. Then, thanks to peer review apps like Yelp, Urban Spoon and Trip Advisor, things began to pick up quickly. Now the café is one of the hottest lunch spots in the region. “It’s odd and quirky because we still use the seating area in the café for retail. Customers are literally dining inside of a showroom display,” says Paul.

Bowman’s customers flock from across the area. “You’d be shocked at how many ladies load up in their cars and drive to us from Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Suffolk. We are their destination,” Paul says with a smile. “We also get lots of young navy folks who get lunch and a candle, young couples who are just getting into gardening and single folks who want to liven up their balcony with window boxes.”

Partners in Thyme

As openly gay men, Paul’s and Rich’s sexual orientations have never been an issue for them when it comes to their business. “I’m sure [our customers] know that we’re gay,” Paul explains. “I wouldn’t deny it if asked, but I don’t advertise it either.”

While Paul and Rich were a romantic couple from 2000 through 2013, a few years ago they decided to keep their relationship strictly business. When asked if this was a difficult change, Paul explains, “We keep our business and personal lives separate. It can be done as long as you can keep your focus on the end result. We’re both determined to make our business highly successful.”

‘Tis the Season

The busiest time of year for Bowman’s is between Halloween and New Year’s Day. “I leave the shop covered in glitter from the day our Christmas decorations go up till when we take them down,” Paul exclaims. “I look like I’m covered in fairy dust 24/7!”

During the holidays, café patrons are transported into the middle of a winter wonderland complete with thousands of brightly colored lights, dozens of Christmas trees, a life-size Santa and the faint sound of caroling as they enjoy locally-sourced entrées, fresh-baked goods and warm apple cider or virgin eggnog (the café does not serve alcohol). Many diners extend their lunch hour and wander the maze of aisles adorned with decorations and gifts including threefeet tall carolers, unusual holiday music boxes, reindeer, snowflakes, illuminated lanterns, holiday candles, ornaments, whimsical pendulum wall clocks, scone mixes, jams and pumpkin butter. Few are able to leave without purchasing something special.

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Bowman’s carries an incredible selection of holiday gifts ranging from traditional items to overthe-top kitschy items. With a devilish smirk across his face, Paul says, “We carry a line of holiday gifts owned by two gay guys we’re crazy about called December Diamonds. They make big busty mermaids with drinks in their hands and muscled mermen dressed as UPS drivers, cops or firemen with open shirts.” With ornaments named “Dick the Diver” and “Muffy the Diver,” Paul confesses, “When I first started buying them, I felt like I should keep them in a brown paper bag behind the register! But when I found out our competitors were selling them, I got over it pretty quickly.” The December Diamonds ornaments are always one of Bowman’s biggest sellers.

Another Bowman’s tradition is their annual Open House, which takes place the Friday before Thanksgiving at 5:30 P.M. Since their first holiday season in 2002, Paul and Rich have closed off their parking lot, set up tables, chairs and candles and served a crowd of over 300 people free mashed potatoes in martini glasses with over 50 different toppings. “People stand in line to make their own mashed potatoes medley, enjoy cookies, cider and spend time with their friends and neighbors,” Paul explains.

Escape Reality at Bowman’s

After almost 14 years, Bowman’s has survived the Great Recession and redefined what it means to be a local garden center. “The majority of our customers want a good lunch, pretty plants and a nice gift. We are so happy that we can provide our customers with what they want. We love it that people have identified Bowman’s as a place where they can have a good meal, buy something nice and escape reality.” So, what’s the best part about owning Bowman’s? “People always leave here with big smiles on their faces,” Paul says as he makes no effort to conceal his own contagious, glitter-covered smile.

Bowman’s Garden Center and Green Bean Café

315 Green Street Portsmouth, VA 23704 757.393.2070