Blog: Norm Silk

"There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." –Anais Nin.

Take it from Norm Silk, owner of Blossoms florist, who discusses the growth
and challenges (the Iceland volcano) of the floral industry. Then follow his rehab of Detroit's only Frank Lloyd Wright property, and progress report on the Woodward Avenue Action Association's work on 6 to 8 Mile's commercial strip.

Post 1: 45 Years in the Floral Business. WOW!

In the early 60's when I started in the family flower business, things were quite different. Every florist had the same basic selection of flowers: carnations, chrysanthemums, red roses, and maybe a few specialty flowers grown in their own greenhouses. Now flowers arrive like produce from growers all over the world within days of being harvested, offering an astounding selection of colors and varieties.  

30 years ago, when we opened a flower shop we wanted to set ourselves apart from what we considered to be a "traditional" florist. Most shops had flowers stored in coolers and arrangements were stiff, structured, pointed triangles. We changed that. Our first BLOSSOMS store in the atrium of the newly opened Millender Center had vases of fresh flowers openly displayed on glass tables and available for purchase by the stem or the bunch; glass vases with simply arranged flowers as if they were just picked from the garden became our signature.  Purchases were packaged with style in clear paper with ribbons. Buying flowers became fun and customers were pleased to bring flowers into their everyday life.

To put the time in perspective, Martha Stewart was new on the scene. Martha's fresh new approach to flowers, food, and entertaining helped create demand for flowers by offering new styles and introducing us to new varieties. The BLOSSOMS look was widely accepted by customers looking for style-driven products. Sometimes new customers who simply heard some buzz about BLOSSOMS would be horrified to receive flowers that "looked like they had been just stuck in a mayonnaise jar". Thankfully, over time those calls have diminished.

When was the last time you received flowers? If you think back, it will be clear why people buy flowers. Flowers make you feel good, conveying feelings that are often hard to express in words.  Saying, 'I love you, I'm thinking of you, Get Well, Thank you, or I share your sorrow'. When I make a delivery to an office or hospital, people in the elevators and hallways always say "Are they for me?" Flowers are so valued, even after their intended use at a wedding or funeral they are carried home to enjoy longer.

In 1963, I made flower arrangements in ceramic booties for new babies, tea cups for Mother's Day, mum plants with big satin bows in hat baskets, and sympathy arrangements that were triangular flat arrangements of gladiolas, carnations and mums. It's sad to say that if you drive just a few miles in any direction from our shop in Birmingham you can still find these designs in flower shops. But many consumers are slow to change. Think of Aunt Shirley still wearing that 30-year-old hair style and polyester. Our customers have sophisticated taste and want updated modern designs. We still offer arrangements in clear glass vases like we did in the '80s, but the styles have evolved. Current flower trends include "hedged" flowers in square vases, grouping of flowers into masses, and designs with all one kind of flower. The preferred flower arrangements at BLOSSOMS are compact, with colorful flowers grouped en masse.

A unique part of our business is creating special event flowers. This is how our company started. Simply known as Silk and Morgan, we created countless weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and corporate events for several years before our customers convinced us to open a retail store. Even though I grew up in the family flower business, I was unaware of this huge specialty market until I worked in a large shop in San Francisco in the mid '70s. Suddenly I was one of 80 employees in a huge prestigious flower shop. 30 designers created parties and décor for local celebrities like Bing Crosby, William Hearst, Shirley Temple Black, and the like. The scope of these parties was amazing.

Upon returning to Michigan, I came to know Tom and Diane Schoenith of Detroit's famous Roostertail. They were the preeminent party givers of the '70s and '80s in Detroit and enlisted our creative help with décor. Without limitation we were free to express ourselves and we created dozens of events with Tom and Diane. Later we were "discovered" by Dolly, Charlotte, and Marsha, a trio of prominent party planners. The rest is history. Over the years we have created hundreds of events including the first wedding ever at the DIA and the recent Red Tie Ball at Joe Louis Arena. Our wedding bouquets were recently featured in both Hour and Ambassador magazines. BLOSSOMS showroom walls are lined with events we have designed both large and small, creating memories of a lifetime.  Parties in the '80s were over the top, each one a tribute to the customer's successful place in life. Each customer seemed to want to outdo the next. What else can we do?.. was the buzzword. Today's parties have a sense of simple understated style. Venues are often upscale hotels and clubs or restaurants. Beautiful tables are important. Lovely linens and tasteful flowers set the mood.

One of the biggest changes in the business is the availability of flowers from all over the world. Local commercial flower growers in Michigan have nearly vanished. In the mid-'60s, one of the largest rose crops came from Mt. Clemens.  With high labor and fuel costs, they are all gone now. Many small family greenhouses grew carnations, snapdragons, chrysanthemums and other specialty crops, sadly these too are gone. Today we have one supplier of field-grown summer gladiola and a few seasonal plant growers. A handful of small growers offer summer crops of "garden flowers".

Most commercial flowers today come from Holland, South and Central America, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, and Southeast Asia.  California and Florida are the only domestic markets still in this country. Some boutique rose growers have emerged in California over the last few years. All European-grown flowers are sold through the huge Dutch market in Alsmeer, Holland, including flowers from Israel, France, and many Dutch-grown flowers. The best roses come from the mountains of Ecuador. Tropical varieties arrive from South America, Costa Rica, and Hawaii. Dendrobium orchid production shifted over the years from Singapore to Thailand, and now many are coming from Malaysia.  Most large florists purchase through brokers several days in advance. Brokers handle the buying, transportation, customs, and finally, local delivery.

Most flowers are shipped by air and arrive carefully dry packed in boxes. Upon arrival they must be carefully conditioned according to high standards to insure longevity. Extreme cold in winter and hot summer days are a florist's nightmare, sometimes resulting in frozen or "cooked" flowers. An occupational hazard, I suppose.

World conditions now affect flowers. Recently the volcano in Iceland prevented shipments of flowers arriving from Europe, forcing us to find substitutes for special orders intended for bridal flowers. When the Thai airport was taken over by rebels, orchid shipments stopped for a week. World weather affects us in other ways. A spring freeze in Ecuador affected flower production, and cool weather slows growth and affects flower color and size. Insects found in tropical orchids during agricultural inspection often result in the entire shipment being seized and destroyed. Explain that to a bride who had 500 purple orchids on order for her wedding in a few days.  

Flower selection continues to expand with the development of new varieties. Flowers are grown in conjunction with today's design and fashion trends. Currently popular colors are red, orange, and yellow. Green flowers are popular and unusual, with blues also gaining popularity. Nature provides a huge choice of natural colors but sometimes customers insist on "matching" colors, primarily for bridal work. If requested, we may alter the color gently with special floral dye or spray tints. The world wide availability of flowers has expanded the season for availability, but I prefer to offer them in their intended season. Somehow tulips in July or sunflowers in December simply don't have appeal, and often the quality out of season is not good.  

We never know what a day will bring. Customer needs are immediate and time sensitive. We can't expect someone to accept their birthday or anniversary flowers the next day; however, in recent years we have seen a trend away from advance ordering to an overnight way of thinking. This makes designing and delivery a challenge sometimes. Our drivers carry cell phones to facilitate communication. We strive to provide excellent customer service by using Google maps to zoom in on a location that might be difficult to find.

Any successful business must change and evolve to stay relevant. We have certainly seen many changes in our 30 years in business and even more in my 45 years in the flower business. The biggest changes:

•    Technology: everything is computerized now
•    Websites: Many people refer to our website on the phone or order online
•    Convenience: Fewer people shop in person for custom arrangements, preferring to order by phone
•    More choices: Greatly expanded floral varieties
•    Unrealistic expectations: Thinking every flower in every color will always be in stock or you can get it on a moment's notice
•    More non-florist outlets to purchase flowers

As Detroit moves into urban farming, perhaps we can return to some local production of flowers and plants. Fresh, locally grown flowers could become a new modern family business.

Tomorrow: A Walk Through the Turkel House