Inside the Valentine’s Day Flower Machine


Getting the flowers ready at Starbright Floral Designs (Preeti Singh/NY City Lens)

Nic Faitos, senior partner at Starbright Floral Designs in the historic flower district at Chelsea, completed his conference call with a vendor and hurried out to the street to check a delivery of more flowers to his store. He was wearing sneakers, a ponytail, and a two-day stubble. On his way out, he told a designer what more to add to a flower arrangement, checked the tags on flowers to be delivered, shouted out instructions to people taking orders on the phone, and paused to speak to a supervisor on the status of an order. For the last four days, Faitos and his team have reported to work at 6 a.m. and finished past 10 p.m. every night.

“It is a zoo here today,” said Faitos. “I will celebrate Valentine Day with my wife—next week.”

Valentine’s Day causes a flutter in hearts that profess and demonstrate their love for another. It also results in months of anxiety for people who aim to deliver perfect flowers for this day. This Thursday, snowstorm Nico was a setback for Faitos. His consignment of 20,000 roses from Ecuador could not be delivered  from the depot.

“Getting our flowers is a challenging trip even under perfect conditions,” said Faitos. “ This snowstorm was another unexpected variable.”

Valentine’s Day, which falls on February 14th every year, is the Super Bowl for florists. It is the single largest day for their business. According to Jennifer Sparks, a vice-president for marketing at the Society of American Florists, more than 250 million flowers are produced for this single day. This year, across the U.S., 35% of Americans will spend $2 billion on flowers for Valentine’s Day.

Roses travel a great distance to end up in the bouquet with a ribbon or in a vase. Carefully cultivated in greenhouses in Ecuador, Columbia, Gautemala, or other South American countries, the rose bushes are pruned—or “pinched”—during late summer or early autumn of the previous year, so the flowers will bloom in time for the big day. Two weeks before Valentine’s Day, the flowers are harvested, cleaned, cooled and maintained at 35 Fahrenheit so they don’t decay, and are transported in chilled coolers on airplanes to the U.S. In the two weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at JFK willl have inspected more than 21 million stem-cut flowers for insects and plant diseases.

This year, according to Daniel Crespo of FMI farms, a wholesaler that imports flowers from Latin America, South Africa, Holland, New Zealand, and Thailand, the conditions were not perfect for the ideal rose. The weather in South America was unusually cold and rainy, and resulted in a late harvest. Thus, said Crespo, the roses this year have smaller heads and thinner stems—and their wholesale price is double the regular cost.

Downtown NYC florists were not complaining, though, because one variable is favorable for them this year. Valentine’s Day is on a tuesday. For the last two years, the holiday fell on the weekend, and that was not good for business, according to Chris Palliser, whose family has owned Scott Flowers on 37th street between 5th and 6th Avenues for more than three decades. A Valentine’s Day on the weekend meant most people bought flowers from their local neighborhood florist, but “a weekday Valentine is lots of love for us,” said Palliser.

Over the weekend, most florists in the city were busier than usual in making up for the lost snow day. “It is what it is,” said Palliser. “Our job is to ensure there is always a backup plan.”

The work areas at Starbright and Scott’s buzzed with activity. In the two weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, Faitos added an additional 200 people to his regular staff of 75 and Palliser had enlisted seven additional helpers. They included customer service people to take additional orders on the phone or online, designers for making the flower arrangements, and delivery people.

On the shop floor, the phones rang constantly. Sounds of scissors snipping off stems and stones being dropped into vases mingled with voices in English and Spanish, as workers executed orders.

Flowers, nearly three times the inventory on a regular day, were stocked in refrigerators and chillers, and in buckets all around the workstations—red, pink, purple, white, yellow, orange, green from roses, tulips, lilies,orchids, hyacinths, hydrangeas, iris, alstromeria, gerbera, peonies, anthuriums, freesia, plus leaves, berries, and succulents. Designers placed them expertly in vases, square and short, long and narrow, and bubble bowls in colorless glass and red. When a flower arrangement was done, they added the message cards and order form and placed them on wire shelves. Another set of workers took these to refrigerators or lined them up near the front door for delivery—each with a specific time for delivery.

“Flowers lose their meaning if they are not delivered on time,” said Palliser. “We operate on a real tight schedule for the day.”

The most popular flowers for Valentine’s Day are roses, tulips, and orchids, in that order. Arrangments cost upwards of $50, and the majority of arrangements at Starbright and Scott’s range from $75 to $150.

The retail florists are more expensive than online deliveries like 1-800-Flowers or ProFlowers, where bouquets start at $19.99. They don’t consider online companies their competition, though. “Some of my customers tried them one year and were disappointed.” said Faitos. “ There is a craft to good flowers and design. They don’t deliver that.”