A Budding Career

On the day after Easter at Oregon Floral & Stained Glass, sun streams through the storefront window onto blue and green vases, gift items and remnants of Easter egg displays that by day's end will be replaced with Mother's Day collections.

Earlier this morning, a weekly flower delivery arrived, including a standing order of 125 roses. Back in the work area, manager Sarah Lopez, 31, removes a cluster of pink roses from the shop's 40-degree cooler. With an orange rubber de-thorner in the palm of her hand, she strips each stem of leaves and thorns. It's part of the everyday routine, she explains, gently removing a couple of bad petals from the buds. She collects the bunch, puts the flowers in a metal basket so they're submerged under cold water, and presses down on a lever that instantaneously snips off the ends. From there, Lopez quickly places the bunch in a bucket inside the shop's display case, mindful of what she calls the "10-second rule" (see inset).

Oregon's only flower shop is decorated in Easter pastels. That, she laughs, is a welcome change. "After Christmas, by the time we get to Valentine's Day we're so sick of red!" Besides flowers, the shop offers unique gifts, dishes, home-decorating ideas, a bridal consulting area, greeting cards, and plants.

Lopez, also the wedding coordinator, developed a passion for floral design while planning her own wedding. In fact, on the day before her wedding, Lopez treated members of her wedding party to a floral design class in Fitchburg, where they helped assemble the arrangements for her big day. "Everyone thought I was nuts," she laughed, "but it took the edge off for a couple of hours." Not long after, she opened a home-based business, Simply Glamorous Designs, where, in her first year, she was hired for 22 weddings.

About the same time, Pam Raschein, a Realtor and Oregon Floral's owner, was looking to hire a new manager, and heard about Lopez's home-based venture. She asked Lopez to join the floral shop, and allowed her to bring the wedding business with her. "It was a win-win situation," Raschein said. "That's Sarah's niche. My niche is making sure the business is profitable and continues to service our community."

Last year, Lopez's niche brought 47 weddings to the business.



The daily arrangement


Creating floral arrangements is actually a very small part of each day. Flowers need to be cleaned and the display cooler stocked. Shelves are sprayed, cooler windows are washed, and the flower buckets are cleaned with bleach and are switched out each time new flowers arrive. Flowers need to be hydrated for three to four hours before being put into an arrangement, so time management is critical. "We try to make everything as close to the deadline as possible," Lopez says. "Sometimes we don't have the exact flowers requested, so we'll substitute to make sure each arrangement is beautiful."

Inventory control is key to the store's success. "There isn't a single flower in our shop that is more than three days old, ever," Raschein reports. Lopez concurs: "If we don't sell them, we have to eat them. So we're cautious on how much we order. After so many years in the business, we don't have a lot of throwaways."

Hallmark holidays and non-floral sales account for just about 10% of the company's annual orders, with Valentine's Day leading the pack for one-day events. The remainder of the store's business tends to be evenly split (30% each) between birthdays and anniversaries, sympathy arrangements, and wedding orders.

In a span of about 10 minutes, two women enter the store. One purchases a pre-made arrangement from the display case. Another is looking for a simple centerpiece for a dinner she's hosting and wants to keep her price under $15. Lopez guides the customer around the store before the woman chooses a simple green bud vase that Lopez fills with a handful of daisies.

Wanting a little more flair, the woman purchases four yards of a white net fabric that will wrap around the vase and spill onto the dining table. Total cost: $11.61.

Minutes later, a businessman walks in, wanting to send a floral arrangement. "What would you like on the card?" Lopez asks. "Thank you for the referral, we appreciate the business," he responds. With that, someone at American Family Insurance was soon to receive a nice surprise.

Lopez seems to know many who visit or call the store – one of the perks of running a small-town business. "I'm a people person," she says, "I love interacting with customers and knowing their names when they come in. It makes me feel good."
It's a personal business, to be sure, but as Raschein admits, "We hear a lot of things about a lot of people, sometimes more than we need to know. There's an old saying: 'Nobody forgets who gets them flowers,'" she says. "I think that's pretty accurate."

When everyone leaves, Lopez returns to the back room to design more arrangements. In her position, she has the freedom to be creative. "I try to make something for all price points," Lopez says. In a matter of minutes, she creates a floral arrangement inside a decorative ceramic pitcher, complete with pink roses and yellow and pink carnations. It will be priced at $29.99.

Typically, arrangements cost between $16.99 and $50, and delivery can add an additional $7 or more, depending on travel distance.

The phone rings. "Thanks for calling Oregon Floral," Lopez answers cheerfully, before promptly hanging up. "Telemarketer," she laments. "We get a lot of those, too."

Oregon Floral gets the bulk of its inventory from Ecuador, mostly through Bill Dorn, a wholesale company in Madison that delivers all around the state. Generally, roses come from California and South America, tulips come from Holland, and orchids from Thailand, but peonies are Lopez's personal favorite. "They are very popular right now, because vintage is very in," she notes. Those ordered from the wholesaler are, she promises, ant-free.

As for sheer volume, the red rose remains king. Calla lilies are growing in popularity, and daffodils are popular in spring. And while colorful hydrangeas are gorgeous, they're not hardy. "They're good at a reception, in water, but not so much in bouquets," Lopez says.

Lopez is the store's only employee, besides two on-call delivery drivers. All get paid by the hour, but Lopez also earns a "wedding bonus" for her wedding work.

She works five days one week and six days the next. This week, there's a bridal show in town, so she'll work seven days straight. With her obvious passion for the business, "work" is, perhaps, a misnomer.

Each day, Lopez receives a printout with new orders from wire services, such as FTD and Teleflora. Oregon Floral is a member of both, and pays a fee for the services. The shop's delivery area is vast, from Oregon, Stoughton, and Brooklyn to Evansville, Belleville, and the surrounding Madison area.

"Gas has an effect on everything," she says. "Our prices also take into account insurance, and paying a delivery person."

A family affair

Valentine's Day is by far the shop's busiest one-day event. With 3,000 roses ordered in advance, the shop made 300 deliveries this year, and had countless walk-in traffic requests and purchases. To handle the load at the busiest times of the year, up to 17 members of Raschein's family often step up to help the business.

Valentine's Day business is best when Feb. 14 falls on a weekday, Lopez notes. "If it falls on a weekend, people might do other things – go to a movie or out to dinner, for example." Second to Valentine's Day business is Mother's Day, and Lopez expects to surpass the number of Valentine's orders over the course of a week. The shop made about 200 deliveries last Christmas, 150 last Thanksgiving, and about 50 this past Easter.

While 2009 was a tough year due to the economy, Oregon Floral has a steady – if not growing – business. "The reality is, people keep passing away and getting married," Lopez says. She's learned much about the sympathy business since joining the shop about two years ago, and now enjoys personalizing funeral arrangements, such as adding flowers to a golf bag or a cowboy hat. "I do my best work when customers let me do what I know," she admits.

It's a steady but happy business – most of the time.

Lopez tells the unfortunate story of one local man, who received an order that was wired in to the shop. "We tried delivering it to the gentleman, but were unable to reach him, so we left a sorry-we-missed-you note." After several delivery attempts, the man called and warned the store not to try again or 'he'd throw them at the delivery truck.'" Lopez apologized, then tried to understand the root of his angst.

Someone had stolen his credit card and identity, she finally learned, then had the gall to go online and send him flowers, with an attached thank-you note.

Now that's a bad day.

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