April 30, 2001
Why people drove wa-aay out to Woodinville
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
Honest! There was a time when people couldn't imagine what possible purpose there was in driving to the city of Woodinville. Egon Molbak remembers.
"People would say 'Woodinville?'" he says illustrating people's incredulous reaction upon hearing the town's name. "It was waaa-ay out in those days," he adds. When he refers to "those days," he means the 50s when he and his wife Laina first came to Woodinville, a dusty town 20 miles northeast of Seattle.
Egon recalls, "There were a few little old homes on NE 175th. On the other side of the railroad tracks there was a little grocery store, a gas station, the Woodinville Mercantile and a little restaurant."
Did he realize then that his and Laina's wholesale business would grow to become one of the largest retail nurseries in the United States? Did he even imagine the business being touted as a major tourist attraction by the Woodinville Chamber of Commerce? Or fathom being showcased as "Best of the West" by Sunset magazine, which has an exclusive readership of 5 million?
Not then. In fact, there was a time when Woodinville was a world and an ocean away from Egon. He grew up in Denmark working in his family's orchard and never heard of Woodinville. Even if he had, he had no future plans of a retail business. But growing things was part of his and his family's life. Everyone was in the greenhouse business, including two horticulturalist sisters.
After World War II, Egon graduated from college as a horticulturalist himself and began to think of what he'd do. "I needed to get out and do something," he says. When an opportunity came up for Egon to go to the United States as an exchange trainee, he set his sights on America. "Laina and I were engaged before I came here," Egon explains. "The year over here was fascinating because life was so different than we had seen for a number of years [due to the effects of World War II.]" After a year, Egon returned to Denmark and he and his sweetheart, Laina, were married. The two of them took off for America for an extended honeymoon. "We'd promised our parents we'd be back in no more than five years." They returned in six, but during the period they were here in the United States, Egon had eyed a little old place in a town called Woodinville. They left Denmark to purchase that little old place known as the Woodinville Greenhouse. It sat in the center of town on 4.36 acres with 15,000 square feet of glass houses.
"We took it over in December 1956, and it has evolved from there," Egon says and adds that he set out to build a wholesale business, not a retail. "I'm a grower by profession. The retail is something we developed." In the beginning, local people stopped by "Molbak's Greenhouse" wanting to purchase bedding plants. And so he and Laina, a registered nurse by profession, began selling blooming plants to the public on the side.
Egon remarks that soon after, "We realized we had something." They began to advertise on a popular home economics TV program, similar to an early Martha Stewart show. And people began to drive "all-llll" the way out to Woodinville to buy flowers and plants. "There was nothing else to make them venture out here," Egon quips. In 1968, Egon and Laina decided to try a retail test. "We took a plastic shed we had on the side [driveway] and put it out in front. It was 100 feet long."
Bedding plants sold like crazy and their wholesale business began to take a backseat.
"In 1971, we made probably the biggest decision we'd ever make. We decided we'd go retail year 'round. We tore all the old greenhouses down. We couldn't have retail people in there [for safety reasons]."
The Molbaks began to rebuild their business. "And little by little we acquired neighboring properties," Egon says.
In 1976, they added on the garden store and the tropical conservatory. "We just built on and built on and in 1982, we built The Farm (36 acres of greenhouses located on Woodinville-Redmond Road.) "We turned all this into retail," Egon says motioning toward the main store, now on 15 acres and the largest plant retailer in Washington state.
Today, the name "Molbak's" is as much a part of Woodinville as tulips are to Holland and cherry blossoms are to Japan. "Molbak's is a definite attraction," said Lisa Mari Ugartechea from the Woodinville Chamber of Commerce. Executive Director Viriginia Becker concurs, stating; "We appreciate and feel fortunate that Molbak's is a top tourism attraction in Woodinville, attracting more than a million visitors a year to our city!"
But Molbak's has grown beyond Woodinville's borders. It has a store at Pike Place Market and another in University Village. Recently, the nursery began selling plants at Larry's Markets.
Molbak's is now under professional management with President Kern Gillette at the helm. Laina and Egon, along with daughters Ellen, Kirsten, and Heidi, and son Jens are the owners as well as members of the Board. Speaking for his family and store management, Egon says, "We hope it's a joy to shop here."
Sunset magazine readers certainly think so. Molbak's was voted as a favorite nursery demonstration garden in the March 2001 issue. One reader described Molbak's as "a wonder world of plants and flowers any season of the year."
Senior citizens must agree, as they arrive by the busloads to spend a day enjoying the gorgeous flowers in every imaginable color.
In addition, there's seasonal entertainment. Each fall, Molbak's presents Floral Fairyland, a theatrical production that leaves standing room only.
At Christmas, there's the Poinsettia Festival when the complimentary Danish pastry is served non-stop for six weeks. Of their pastry supplier, Egon says in jest, "We keep that bakery in business."
Egon says that he and Laina have always wanted to present their product in a pleasing manner. With creativity, color and imagination, Molbak's pleasing manner has kept even the "black" thumb gardeners spellbound.
Today no one asks incredulously why anyone would want to drive to Woodinville. It's understood.