Portland-based florist Staci Gundry is making bouquets the old-school way: one stem at a time

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Florist Staci Gundry, owner of Bodle Frog Botanical, checks out the roses at the Portland Flower Market on Swan Island. At this industry-only wholesale market, stems cost about one third of their final retail cost.

Florists have two massive weeks, around Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. Mid-February and early May are when occasional flower buyers dig deep for their loved ones and spring for a square of tight roses or something better than a gas station bouquet.

For Staci Gundry, owner of Bodle Frog Botanical, her place in the supply chain is all about adding value through creativity. The one-women business buys her flowers every week at the Oregon flower Growers Association's wholesale market on Swan Island, called the Portland Flower Market.

PMG FILE PHOTO - WORKING: A monthly column about how old school jobs are impacted by the new economy.

This Costco-sized warehouse is subdivided into different stores, but there is plenty of overlap. Need a TV-size box of oasis, that green, impressionable foam for poking stems into? Several sellers have it. Casket saddles for balancing funeral wreaths on coffins? Plenty. A fridgeful of Latin American bridal roses? They all have them. Customers wheel shopping carts in and out of coolers, staff tear off craft paper from giant rolls to wrap bouquets by the bundle.

Buyers must be registered with the state or city, and their guests can shop with a $5 per day pass. Peak time is six in the morning, but the Business Tribune went with Gundry at the more laid-back hour of 10 a.m. when it was quiet, and the clientele was mostly middle-aged women dressed in black.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Roses have English names, some to appeal to Boomers.

Miami nice

There are roses flown in from hothouses in Holland and Latin America, packed in squares of card with padding between them. Some come in dozens, and some come with a second batch of 13 underneath. The stems are approximately two-feet long and still have all their leaves, which the retailer will have to remove. The farms where they are harvested don't have time for such niceties.

Typically, they are farmed in greenhouses in Latin America and flown to Miami, Florida, in about two days. Then they are trucked to Oregon, which can take five days. They arrive in Portland, chilled, compact and unblemished. If the stems are cut again, to maximize water uptake, Crysal Clear preservative is added to the water, which should give the flowers a couple more weeks of life in the vase before they go brown and droop. Gundry can tell these are sturdy, long-lasting roses by pinching the rose behind the bloom and feeling the thickness of the head and the stem.

Miraculous as it seems, you can get a dozen roses in New Seasons in January for $12.99. They're small, however, unlike the ones on sale here.

"When you buy from a florist (in Portland), you are probably buying from Central America," she says.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Florist Staci Gundry, owner of Bodle Frog Botanical, shops at the Portland Flower Market on Swan Island. She is diversifying into dried flower art pieces to balance out the instability of the fresh flower business.

What's in a name?

At the Portland Flower Market, many roses come from Ecuador and Columbia. They have oddly irrelevant English names, such as Moody Blues and Sweetness. Compared to July in the Portland International Rose Test Garden, these roses barely smell. When buying roses, she looks for the label EcoRose. She knows the reputation of the industry for using pesticides with little regard for the health of workers and wants to avoid supporting such companies.

"Red is still very popular for roses," says Gundry, surveying the choices. About half of them are some shade of red. There are pinks, whites and yellows, as well as some green roses the same shade as iceberg lettuce. The most expensive roses are the short, roundish bridal roses at $4 per stem. Regular, long-stem roses vary from $1.25 a stem to $2.50. Gundry usually marks up her flowers by 300 percent, to account for her expenses, her time, and her creativity.

Gundry studied botany at Oregon State University, so she knows the names and the plants and their families. "This is sea holly or eryngium," she says, fingering it while considering whether to buy it. It looks like a blue-green thistle. In the language of flowers, there are few weeds.

"It's not filler. It's more of a focal point. People really like it. It just adds some excitement," she said.

"You always want a point flower. You want a focal flower, some round flowers and filler flowers. There's a real specific kind of combination to make an arrangement."

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - At the Portland Flower Market on Swan Island, they sel more than live plants. They stock all the accessories for big holidays.

Click here to say it with flowers

Some flower consumers have taken to technology. 1-800 FLOWERS was the first service to have a dedicated phone number. An ad for 1-800 FLOWERS played in heavy rotation during the 1992 Olympics and cemented itself in the national consciousness. Again, during the first Gulf War, when other advertisers were fleeing CNN because of its coverage, Ted Turner convinced 1-800 FLOWERS to stay. Later the company was the first to advertise online, on CompuServe (1992) and America Online (1994). It was also one of the first e-tailers to embrace chatbots, where shoppers type questions to a customer service software robot, and in 2016 launched it on Facebook Messenger.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Wholesale rose prices at the Portland Flower Market on Swan Island.

But shoppers will always want to get close-up for a look, feel and smell of flowers, just like certain clothes and furniture. For that, they will need the personal assistance of florists like Gundry.

In her station wagon, Gundry drives the flowers to her house in Beaverton, where she has a basement studio for processing them and turning them into bouquets. Its damp work and hard on the hands.

Then there is the driving, interacting with customers, and collecting money. The business is traditional retail — hands-on, customer-centric, and subject to a fluctuating prices. It's a lot like wine. A small commodity, which is tossed out within days, somehow creates great emotional resonance for the buyer, vanishing while leaving great memories.

Like many small businesses, much of her market is repeat customers: people who have become friends, people who order regular bouquets for their home, people who call her when they need special-occasion flowers. But she also needs a retail platform.

Last year she had a monthly deal with a Beaverton coffee shop, which let her set up in one corner and sell pre-made bouquets or custom ones to the curious customer. "I didn't pay rent, just gave the owners a bouquet. They just enjoyed me being there."

She had no overhead and could even piggyback on their social media.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - At the Portland Flower Market on Swan Island, they sel more than live plants. They stock all the accessories for big holidays.

A matter of taste

At the Portland Flower Market, in the run-up to Valentine's, many accessories sell well — everything from pink cellophane and notecards to plush animals and plastic hearts on stems. A walk down the aisle reveals petal-friendly glitter spray, bails of dried moss and plastic bags still living moss, and endless variations on the glass vase.

Inside the Adam Frank store, an employee who gave his name as Billy, explained that there are price squeezes on wholesalers.

"We get roses from all over South America and California. Prices do vary a lot depending on the type of rose and where it's from," he said.

"And on holidays, the prices go up," he said. "A lot of that is due to fuel prices. You know they jack the fuel price on us because we have all of the product trucked to us. They're just upping their prices because they know you're going to pay more in February. We don't really have a choice. They call the shots."

Nobody does it better

For Valentine's Day 2020, Gundry has two pop-up shops. On Feb. 13 and 14 in Arrow Coffee on Alberta Street, and on Feb. 14 in Workshop Vintage, a clothing store on North Williams Avenue. She's working on setting up more regular pop up stores in Northeast as she moves her operation from Beaverton to the Alberta Arts District.

On this day at the market, she's looking for dried roses and spray, a kind of small roses that she uses fresh and dried.

That's because Gundry is now diversifying into more artistic work, beyond just small floral arrangements for the home to something permanent but still botanical. This means working on art pieces made of dried flowers and other objects, such as thrift store curiosities.

Like art, it would hang on the wall for years. For pricing, she is targeting Antler Gallery, where the art ranges from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.

"I'm doing large botanical installations on canvas. It's floral arrangement as art," she said. Gundry sees a market for them hanging in offices, hotels and stores. "Nobody does it."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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