While I’ve been to the San Francisco Flower Market many times before, this time was very different. I’ve always been there as a sales rep, but this time, I felt like I got to know the San Francisco Flower Market on a more personal level. I’ve always been fascinated with its history and progression over the years, but more than that, I’ve always enjoyed the grit, passion, and commitment exuded by the vendors there.
From Jeanne, the director of the San Francisco Flower Market to the various vendors I interviewed, everyone welcomed me with open arms and showed me nothing but kindness. They were generous with their time, answered all my questions, and renewed my passion for the floral industry and the businesses within it. It was truly an honor to speak to the multi-generational business owners and to see how much love and hard work they put into their businesses and in the floral industry as a whole.
This blog is an insight into the stunning history of the San Francisco Flower Market, its evolution through the years, and how it’s viewed by veterans and the new generation of the floral industry today.
According to Jeanne, the San Francisco Flower Market has been in San Francisco since 1912. It was formed by a group of Italian-American and Japanese-American flower growers. While the growers previously sold their goods at the corner of the market to Lotta’s Fountain in downtown San Francisco, this stopped after the 1906 earthquake.
It was then that the vendors decided to find a building and create a marketplace. Over the years, the flower market has moved from the financial district in San Francisco, to the 5th and Howard Street location in the 1930s, and to the current 6th and Brannan Street location in 1956.
While the San Francisco Flower Market started out with mostly farmers and growers and very few wholesalers, it’s now become more wholesale-vendor based. As people sold their farms and entered other industries, the vendors naturally decreased. In the 80s and 90s, the San Francisco Flower Market had more than 100 employees. Today, it only consists of 50 vendors.
That being said, it’s the same-sized space. This is mostly because wholesalers need more floor space than growers to accommodate refrigeration, areas to receive and process flowers, etc. Before, growers just got hydrated flowers in buckets. Today, it’s very different.
It has also advanced technologically. There’s a badge buyer identification system that takes care of the sales tax information. People scan their proximity cards to enter, exist, and park. Some vendors prefer the old-school method of handwritten tags and numbers while others have embraced technology. Overall, the flower market is like a large, dysfunctional family. They’ve gone to weddings, funerals, and have seen babies and graduations. They also have sister markets like the ones in LA, Portland, Seattle, San Diego, and Boston.
I was also interested in learning about how COVID-19 had impacted business in the San Francisco Flower Market. I was especially interested in the city’s role and how Jeanne had started the chain reaction by advocating for the industry.
Jeanne got a call on March 16th warning her of the press conference that was going to announce the mandatory health order quarantine lockdown. It took two days to shut down the market and millions of dollars’ worth of products were destroyed during the process. Despite giving flowers away, dropping them off at old folks’ homes and police stations, they still had to throw a lot of them.
However, Jeanne was determined not to go down without a fight. As an active member of the floral industry, and a Marketing Chair on the California Flowers Board, she saw some people continuing to keep their shops open. That’s how she started a movement that potentially saved the California floral industry.
So many farmers were shutting down or deciding not to plant, but the flower industry in California supports a lot of jobs. San Francisco has always advocated for blue-collar jobs as well. Jeanne successfully lobbied the state and convinced them to allow the flower industry to operate as an essential business. If this didn’t happen, there wouldn’t be an industry left.
According to Jeannie, the city of San Francisco has always had a love affair with the market and so, they went to bat for them. The market holds a lot of nostalgia for people, and it was allowed to open two weeks before Mother’s Day. Coding, guidelines, and signage were taken care of so all necessary precautions could be in place. They first started with curb-side pickup and then evolved to socially-distanced foot traffic. Fortunately, the Mother’s Day boom saved the flower market since it was the biggest one they had seen in years.
Despite one vendor disappearing, the rest came back. The flower industry as a whole moved to personal consumption and enjoyment, and has weathered the COVID-19 storm well. Based on marketing initiatives, upcoming weddings, and the holidays, it will continue to blossom.
Other COVID-related changes included changing hours to accommodate delivery, closing off access points to keep homeless people away. However, like other industries, the flower industry has had issues with labor and logistics. With regards to the flower market, there have been logistics issues with flowers coming from outside California. A shortage of white roses was evident earlier in the year. The problem with a lack of truck drivers and people in processing has only continued to grow because of COVID.
The Future of the San Francisco Flower Market
As for the future of the San Francisco Flower Market, it’s moving again. However, this time it’s going to be for the final time. Their permanent home is one-third of the current space, but is only five minutes away from the current location. Their plans are to move at the end of 2023 or the beginning of 2024.
Jeanne also mentioned that they’ll be forming a new entity – a non-profit to run and manage the market and aid small businesses. As for Jeanne herself, she moved to the Bay Area in 1989 when she was attending school, and took a job in the property management office. Since then, she’s come and gone, but now she’s running the entire market as its first female manager.
If you have a passion for flowers, and have skills in legal, accounting, transportation, marketing, and advertising, reach out to Jeanne. The non-profit has room for members on the Board of Directors. Reach out to her here <add email or other link>.
I also had the pleasure of speaking to David Repetto of Repetto Nursery. As a third-generation vendor in the San Francisco Flower Market, he’s been working at the market since 1980, when he joined as a part-time employee. He’s been working full-time since 1988 and his family has been part of the flower market since it was on 5th Street. Repetto Nursery is known for growing kale, sunflowers, dusty miller, hydrangeas, and more.
When I spoke to David about how COVID-19 impacted Repetto Nursery, I learned that the business went from 50 employees to about 25. However, despite this setback, the demand for flowers has now gone back up. In the past, Repetto Nursery was selling more but was also spending more. Now, they sell less but it’s about even. While weddings and parties are slowly coming back, demand still hasn’t gone back to pre-pandemic levels.
David’s favorite part of the San Francisco Flower Market is that it’s so diverse – it has something for everyone and it’s great for the floral industry as a whole.
My conversation with William Neve from North Bay Farm Wholesale was especially enlightening. Originally from San Francisco, but raised in Italy, he has a lot of experience. He is a second-generation seller and has been working at the San Francisco Flower Market for 68 years.
As with most businesses, North Bay Farm Wholesale was also affected by the pandemic. In the beginning, William had to throw away about 95% of the flowers. The first 2-3 months were especially intense. Since then, their sales have increased.
While the first 6 months were slow, the flower industry has started picking up. According to William, the last 3-4 months have almost been back to normal. That being said, there are still shortages. White spray roses and peach roses have been especially high in demand and the supply hasn’t been able to meet this demand.
Despite being in his 90s, he comes to the market every single day. According to William, it’s his friends and customers that keep him coming. He has a passion for flowers, loves the ambiance, and enjoys the customers and his fellow workers’ company.
Another great conversation was one with Dustin Torchio from Torchio. He’s a second-generation seller, and Torchio started with his father, Daryl. The business began in 1985, and has been going strong for almost 40 years. Dustin joined about 8 years ago.
While Torchio originally started with growing plants, they don’t grow anything now. They sold plants for the first 15-20 years, but transitioned to cut flowers in the early 2000s. Dustin acknowledged the number of changes that have been made over the years. In addition to switching from growing to selling flowers, Torchio has improved communication and has embraced technology. In addition to better overall communication, they have also embraced email and texting.
COVID-19 was also rough for Torchio as they had to throw everything away- as many did. The announcement to close came on Monday, and by Tuesday, they had to throw away their entire inventory. Because they didn’t come back to the market until about a month and a half later, they tried giving as much away as they could instead of throwing it.
Then, they scaled down and shifted to need-based clients. This involved going to farms and picking up flowers locally, and using the sources they had to fill some needs. With around 5-15 farms still cutting flowers, this was extremely useful. When the flower market finally opened back up, Torchio started out with only 3-5 people.
However, just because business is back up doesn’t mean they don’t have their share of problems. Post-COVID, they have staffing issues and issues with shortages. In addition to white roses, they were short on other wedding variety roses and hydrangeas until a while ago. Now, they’re trying to find a routine and figure out the new normal.
The market has changed greatly markedly since Dustin was young. Back then, San Francisco had a lot of flower shops. This changed as supermarkets started carrying flowers. However, Dustin said the trend is now reversing as people open flower shops to fulfill daily needs instead of simply catering to weddings and events.
Dustin also has great memories of the San Francisco Flower Market from when he was a child. From speaking about pulling all-nighters as a young child to going to baseball games afterwards and spending time with the staff, his love for the flower market is evident.
One of the third-generation vendors I spoke to was Kevin Tognoli from Santa Rosa Wholesale Florist. While he’s been at the San Francisco Flower Market for 26 years, his family has been there since 1927. He has continued in the footsteps of his grandfather, Aldo, and his father, Alan.
Unfortunately, there was a struggle during the pandemic. Some small farms made it and others didn’t. What people didn’t understand at first was that while there were flowers available at the moment, they wouldn’t be as time passed. This was seen later with flower shortages. The wholesalers saw it coming, but this was new for the florists. The retail customers were completely taken aback and couldn’t grasp the concept of a time delay.
However, since then, customers have become more informed, since they’ve had to learn and adjust their expectations. The recent white flower shortage (including white roses) from August to October showed them that even things that were previously available in abundance may not be there now. Santa Rosa Wholesale Florist has dealt with this and tried to help their customers deal with these shortages.
Kevin had valuable insight into the evolution of the San Francisco Flower Market. He told me that while the customer base is still there to support them, a lot has changed. This includes the times people shop, what they wear, etc. In the past, people wore formal clothes since they stopped by on their way to work. However, now things are more casual.
I also enjoyed speaking to Kevin about his memories of the flower market. He described the smell of carnations, clean floors, and the sound of his grandfather’s shoes on the floor. While a lot about the business has changed, their quality and passion for flowers hasn’t. Kevin still aims to ensure that the nostalgic smell remains and to continue the 94-year-old legacy he’s been given. I am a nostalgia flower industry geek. It was a true pleasure speaking with Kevin, seeing the old cash register and a special thanks to Kevin for the old school shop pens he gifted me.
It was nice speaking to Cesar Hernandez Juarez about Mayesh Wholesale. He went in-depth about how much the pandemic has changed the San Francisco Flower Market and gave me valuable insight into the inner workings of wholesale day to day.
Before the pandemic, the flower market was like a big family. People were warm, unafraid to ask questions, and greeted everyone with open arms. Everything has now changed, especially how customers act and how people are received. Customers are nervous about purchasing flowers, and are hesitant to interact with people. However, Mayesh Wholesale has taken steps to put their customers at ease, including hiring a sanitation crew.
While logistics have been a concern for some, Mayesh Wholesale have their own fleet. Thus, they’ve been able to manage logistics. However, they did face issues with drivers not wanting to cross state lines because of COVID cases. It’s also been difficult with the prices of products rising significantly. The price of white roses doubled in a month because of shortages and logistics, and that has posed a lot of problems.
That being said, they have learned a lot from the situation. Mayesh Wholesale has learned that all customers are different and have unique needs. They’ve stepped up their customer service to help their clients and figure out what they can do to make a difference. In fact, they learn everything they can about the clients from dealings and apply this knowledge to future orders.
They have also started prioritizing cross-product knowledge so they can cater to walk-in customers and help them navigate the different options. With vaccinations and mask mandates, more and more customers are feeling comfortable with shopping again, and hopefully, the industry will continue to pick up.
The floral industry is constantly evolving and innovating, something that is encapsulated in the evolution of the San Francisco Flower Market. The vendors have changed, the products have changed, and even entire business models have changed. COVID brought about further change, but the market and the vendors have dealt with it all.
My trip to the San Francisco Flower Market was definitely one to remember. From seeing how the market has evolved throughout the years and how different vendors have dealt with COVID to hearing about the different generations and their passion for flowers, the business and its history. visiting the market was a great experience and I would like to say thank you to the SF Flower Market for welcoming me into their space your world and for sharing your stories with the floral industry.