By Justine Calma
On the Wednesday before Valentine’s Day, Manhattan’s historic flower market is in a flurry of petals, stems, and customers. It’s 11:00 a.m., and most wholesalers on 28th St. have been open for business since 4:30.
“I’m about two hours away from even being able to blink,” said Brian Luebcke, 47, who owns Empire Cut Flowers, a wholesaler.
Luebcke holds a two-page long order from a customer, and coaches a team of sellers who fetch the flower varieties Luebcke shouts out. Siberica. Misty blue. Sexy Pink. He and his team have to work fast, and with no margin for mistakes. “You can lose a good customer in one minute,” said Luebcke, so every stem has to be just right.
The flower business first budded in New York City in the 1800s. Since the 1890s, wholesalers have been centralized around the Chelsea flower market. Now, just a small strip of wholesalers and flower supply shops remain on a stretch of West 28th St. between 6th and 7th Ave. At its peak the flower market was home to up to 60 wholesalers, today they are down to about a dozen fighting hard to keep the flower business in Manhattan alive. More competitors in the game, real estate development in the neighborhood, and a changing culture are all factors that have changed the way the industry once ran.
“You have to be good to survive. And to survive in New York City you better be damn good,” said Gary Page, another wholesaler in the market. He’s been in business since 1984.
Wholesalers today have more competition than ever for the attention of customers. Supermarket and online flower sales allow retailers and customers to get their flowers direct from growers, cutting out the wholesale middlemen.
But wholesalers say the quality of online blooms is not as good. “Online flowers are crap. They are garbage,” said Luebcke. Bouquets bought online are made methodically according to instructions that specify exact quantities of each item. As long as instructions are followed, the bouquets don’t need to look like they do online. Online orders, perhaps, are too precise, sterile, say wholesalers.
And, according to Luebcke, they are made with bottom-of-the line flowers with short shelf lives. His roses, in contrast, were cut 4 days ago in Ecuador, and he says they are ready to keep for weeks in someone’s home.
For years, Chelsea was fertile ground for flower wholesalers, who wanted to be closer to upscale customers on Fifth Avenue. Now prime real estate in the neighborhood has made the location less hospitable.
“The clock is ticking,” said Luebcke, who doesn’t think he can afford to stay on 28th St. after his lease ends in seven years. He pays $13,000 a month in rent now, and he thinks that could double when his lease ends. “My landlord already told me to be prepared,” said Luebcke.
Some wholesalers, in response, have begun running businesses out of trucks, picking up flowers at the airport and driving from store-to-store to sell them. “I might end up in a truck one day. I don’t know,” Luebcke mused.
A changing cultural attitude towards flowers is another challenge to the market. “You just have to get people’s relationship with flowers back to where it was,” said Page. “Years ago people used to be far more focused on their immediate setting. They wanted to have flowers in the house to improve their lifestyles because [flowers] made them happy.” Now, says Page, there are a lot of people looking at computer screens instead.
And New York has lost what Page calls, “the mega parties” that wholesalers and florists once supplied. “In the old days people wanted the bling. They wanted the show,” said Page. Since the recession, “They’re very concerned that they’ll be perceived as spending money frivolously.”
But it’s a business he still loves. “It’s a terrific business. It’s a shitty business,” said Page. “There’s stress. It’s very competitive. The good guys win, but the good guys win over time.”
Many New York City flower lovers hope the good guys will survive too.
“I hope the flower district continues,” said Geoffrey Akst, a math professor who has been shopping at the flower market for the past 20 years. With each shop that closes, “customers lose service, mainly the availability of quality supplies,” said Akst.
One of Akst’s favorite stores is U.S. Evergreens, a shop that specializes in cut, flowering branches. U.S. Evergreens has been around since 1982. It’s a family owned business that grows its own trees in New Jersey. Owner Joanna Theofanis’ uncle started in the business in 1950 as a supplier who grew flowers upstate. “We’re still here, thank God,” said Theofanis.
Her biggest seller right now is Quince, a flowering branch with delicate pink buds that open slowly over time. The sweet pink color is popular for Valentine’s Day, and Quince is also in demand for Chinese New Year next week. “Quince is for good luck,” she said.
Wholesalers and florists are expecting a slow Valentine’s Day this year, because of bad weather and because the holiday falls on a Saturday, so fewer lovebirds in the city will have flowers sent to their offices.
Luebcke says he has doubled or tripled his inventory for Valentine’s Day in the past, but this year he was careful and bought flowers as orders came in to him. Now with New York City thawing after the passing of last month’s almost-blizzard, business is looking better than predicted. Luebcke was almost out of red roses by Wednesday.