Petal (and pedal) power
Mar./Apr. 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Jennifer Harrison
Photos by Matt Salvo
Farm-raised entrepreneur creates bouquet-a-day concept
Farmgirl Flowers delivers arrangements via bicycle and scooter in San Francisco and by car in other parts of Northern California.
It all started with parties.
As an event planner at a Bay Area university, Christina Stembel was routinely shocked at the cost of floral arrangements for special occasions.
"We'd be doing these big donor dinners and asking alumni for donations in fundraising for the university, and then we'd be spending $250 for the centerpiece for the middle of their table," she said.
So Stembel got creative. In the fall, she'd buy locally grown pumpkins and bedazzle them with glitter, or with the help of her team, she'd assemble her own floral arrangements—using what was in season and from only a few miles away. All the while, she wondered why the cost for flowers—sometimes $10,000 a weekend for multiple events—was so high.
"Why? Why was it $250 a centerpiece?" she asked. "It made sense once I researched it. Every time it changes hands, that person doubles what the cost is. By the time it gets from the grower to the consumer, it has changed hands five times."
Flowers can travel great distances to get to your doorstep—and most do. Between 75 percent and 80 percent of flowers sold in the U.S. are imports from South America, according to the California Cut Flower Commission.
"The most troubling statistic I found after researching a long time: Fifty percent of all flower farmers in the U.S. have gone out of business since the early 1990s," Stembel said.
Those figures sparked another idea: Why not connect the farmer directly with the customer? And with that, Farmgirl Flowers—and an entirely different approach to floral arrangements—was born.
Fresh face of flowers
Based in San Francisco, Farmgirl Flowers offers only one arrangement per day, but in three sizes that range in price from $30 to $80, plus tax and delivery. (There is also an option to buy a living plant.) The floral arrangement of the day is based entirely on what's in season and what Stembel can acquire from local farmers.
Christina Stembel's Farmgirl Flowers, based in San Francisco, offers fresh-cut, seasonal flower arrangments, direct from local growers.
"Growers thought I was crazy at first," she said, laughing.
"Maybe a little," agreed David Repetto of A. Repetto Nursery in neighboring San Mateo County.
Repetto happened to be Farmgirl Flowers' first contact: While at the university, Stembel bought pumpkins from him after spotting his patch on her drive to work.
Stembel herself grew up on a farm in Indiana, where her family leased land to corn and soybean growers. She knew if she could connect with growers, she might have a new business concept on her hands.
"That's my favorite part of the job: working with the farmers," she said. "I love it."
Repetto is a third-generation farmer in Half Moon Bay whose family started growing vegetables but added flowers in the 1950s. He grows dahlias, some as big as salad plates, that grace Farmgirl Flowers bouquets.
"We grow eight to 10 acres of dahlias," he said. "They don't like heat; they like the cooler weather and fog on this side of the hill."
Stembel buys her flowers from about 20 farmers within a 200-mile radius. The business operates a storefront at the San Francisco Flower Mart, but most arrangements are ordered online and delivered via bicycle and scooter in San Francisco, and by car in other parts of Northern California.
Blossoming into a business
The early years of business were the most difficult, she said.
"The first two years, we worked out of my dining room—and by 'we' I mean me. I used to always say 'we' to make it sound like we were a big company. It was me."
To attract customers, Stembel took bouquets to local businesses and coffee shops, along with a handful of business cards. She conducted informal focus groups over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, where friends had to bring friends—and different perspectives were encouraged.
Stembel works directly with growers such as David Repetto, a third-generation farmer in San Mateo County who grows dahlias for Stembel's arrangements.
Stembel tried relentlessly to catch the attention of the media, one time sending out more than 500 emails; nobody replied. Slowly things evolved, and she eventually landed in Martha Stewart Living and Sunset magazines.
"Then one day, you go outside and you are carrying a flower arrangement and somebody in the street says, 'That's Farmgirl Flowers!'" Stembel recalled. "And you start crying and are like, 'Thank you! I don't care if somebody paid you to say that!'"
'Thrillers, spillers and fillers'
In addition to the direct farmer connection, the allure of Farmgirl Flowers is its unique bouquets. Stembel adheres to a strict aesthetic when it comes to her designs: She creates a look that is both rustic and refined, preferring what she calls "wild designs."
Stembel favors muted colors with a punch of bright or saturation thrown in. She even has a bouquet "recipe," which determines how much of this type of flower, for example, or that kind of greenery.
"Our arrangements feature thrillers, spillers and fillers," she explained of her design theory, which is common in landscape architecture. "Thrillers are our big-faced flowers: big garden rose, dahlia, peonies, for example."
Spillers move the eye through the arrangement—examples are veronica, jasmine, eucalyptus or anything that adds whimsy to the design. Fillers include ornamental kale and greenery that round out the bouquet.
Stembel and her team create a seasonal bouquet-a-day: one arrangement that is available in three sizes.
"We love greenery in an arrangement," Stembel said. "We think it is way undervalued."
It has to be the right kind of greenery, however, and no "shiny leaf, sprayed, leather-looking stuff," she insisted.
Farmgirl's packaging is very specific as well: Flowers are delivered in burlap wrap, cut from recycled coffee bags from local roasters, or in repurposed vases—all in an effort to reuse in order to reduce waste.
Stembel's ultimate goal is to compete with the nation's "big guys," using only locally grown flowers. This is realistic in California, the state that produces 75 percent of U.S.-grown cut flowers.
Back at Repetto's farm, Stembel is ogling a huge, peach-colored dahlia and suggesting the farmer plant more of certain colors and less of others.
"I don't want primary color red," she said. "I love this peach color. I want more of that."
Stembel is beginning to work with the growers in the planting process, which benefits both: The farmers can grow more flowers and Stembel can help determine what gets planted—because she'll be buying those flowers.
"I wanted to do something good. This does something good," she said of her locally grown business. "We are saving jobs and educating consumers. It's all about that. I want to support the farmers already out there."
Dahlias are a favorite of Christina Stembel of Farmgirl Flowers—and she's not alone. The popular blooms have a colorful history:
- The dahlia originated in Mexico. Some say it started as a wildflower in the high mountains, which may explain why dahlias thrive in cooler climates.
- Marie Antoinette supposedly fell in love with dahlias upon their arrival in Europe. Today, there is a variety named after her.
- The dahlia was officially adopted as the flower of San Francisco in 1926.
- Dahlias belong to the Asteraceae (Aster) family, along with daisies and sunflowers. There are 30 species of dahlias.
- Dahlia blooms range from 2 inches in diameter to 12 inches or more.