By Josh Stipanovich
Bob Neapolitan was diagnosed seven years ago with a rare lung disease that doctors said would kill him in six months.
That’s when he began researching and eating organic foods. He figured he would give it a try in the hope it might save his life.
He credits the food, which is natural and not sprayed with chemicals, as one of the main reasons he is alive today.
“The chemicals are the things that just are scaring me,” Neapolitan said. “Everything I’m eating was being sprayed, being waxed, so the [organic food] I tasted last year was just phenomenal. The taste is better.”
While it’s a healthier option, it’s also more costly, he said.
So he decided to grow his own organic foods, and in 2012, this new hobby flourished into a small business — Nature’s Wonders Greenhouse — on Western Reserve Road. He and his partner operated out of a 10-by-20 foot Amish-built greenhouse where he grew tomatoes, peppers and other all-natural foods.
“We start every single seedling ourself,” Neapolitan said. “We water every two weeks with Epsom salts. I think it’s one of the best fertilizers there is.”
In his first growing season last year, which lasted until Father’s Day, he said, Neapolitan sold about 8,000 plants.
Business was good, and his customer base was growing, which called for a larger space and another business idea, Neapolitan said.
He had his eye on the former Giant Eagle building for sale at Market Street and U.S. Route 164 in North Lima. He wanted to purchase it so he could open an antique mall while maintaining the greenhouse.
Customers could come in, shop for old knickknacks and pick their own organic foods from the greenhouse, which sits outside next to the antique mall. It was the perfect idea — one that was brewing inside Neapolitan’s head one night.
He was in bed and couldn’t sleep, he recalled. So he got into his Mazda Miata at 3:30 a.m., with a flashlight, and drove to the North Lima location — something he admits wasn’t the best idea.
“By 4 a.m., I was in the back of a police car,” Neapolitan said with a laugh.
Police there thought he was trying to break into the building.
Three weeks later, he secured the building, and business resumed in November 2012.
After a not-so-good growing season and move to a larger location this year, he managed to sell twice as many plants from a much larger, 36-by-48-foot greenhouse, Neapolitan said.
Brian Yatsco, 20, of Boardman has known Neapolitan for about 10 years; he graduated with his son. Yatsco was working across the street from Neapolitan’s new location a year ago. He was on his lunch break and walked over to Neapolitan’s new place to see what he had going on.
He has been working for Neapolitan since.
Yatsco didn’t know a thing about the business, but he was willing to learn.
Yatsco worked during the day and was on the phone with Neapolitan at night taking lessons to learn more.
Today, Yatsco is the go-to-guy. He does everything from helping run the antique mall, to growing and maintaining plants in the greenhouse.
“I learned so much in one year,” Yatsco said. “It looks like I know what I’m doing,” he added as he laughed.
Neapolitan’s business was then featured in Greenhouse Grower, the largest greenhouse publication worldwide, and Neapolitan said there are several reasons why his greenhouse sticks out from the rest.
“Everything we plant is only in 41/2-inch pots. We don’t plant cells. We don’t do flats,” Neapolitan said. “Nobody does that. That’s unheard of in the industry.”
He added that he only grows heirlooms — an older, more- flavorful process of growing organic before World War II — another unorthodox business tactic.
“Everything we’re doing is wrong, but [Greenhouse Grower] found success in it ... and it’s working,” Neapolitan said.
Business has been so good that a second greenhouse and cold house — a greenhouse kept at low temperature for grapes and other fruits — is on the horizon, Neapolitan said.
Neapolitan wonders how some people know where it is, but word of mouth is a good guess, he said.
As you approach Route 164 and Market Street, look right, but make sure it’s light outside or you’ll miss it. You’ll see a rusted, paint-chipped pole that once housed a Giant Eagle sign that is now vacant, tall grass, and a near-empty parking lot with a tattered brick building.
That’s where Neapolitan found success.
The only sign that gives passers-by a glimpse of what’s there is a small banner posted in front of the building that is visible only from the parking lot.
“A lot of [our marketing] is social media, but a lot of it is education the people have before they came here,” Neapolitan said. “It’s a different group of people, and the word seems to spread about them.”
Billy Richards, 50, of Poland started buying from Neapolitan this year. He and his son work at the antique mall and wanted to plant vegetables and herbs.
“There’s a couple of things [Neapolitan] has, and they taste pretty good, too,” Richards said.
He said his nieces come to the greenhouse and pick cherry tomatoes every morning.
“It’s healthier for my nieces and my children,” Richards said. “It’s just something I’d rather do for the environment, rather than put chemicals in the soil.”