June/July 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Jennifer Harrison
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Flowers from the farmer to the florist to you.
Louie Figone packs his truck full of dahlias to sell at the San Francisco Flower Mart.
More online: Video
Call it a tale of two cities. While most of San Francisco sleeps, there's a bustling business that opens well before dawn—actually, about 2 a.m. It's the San Francisco Flower Mart. By 4 a.m., the place is packed. And by the time many people in the city are grabbing their first cup of coffee, customers here are leaving with arms and trucks loaded with flowers.
One of only five grower-owned wholesale flower markets in the United States, the San Francisco Flower Mart offers the nation's largest selection of floral products under one roof. It plays an integral role in moving California-grown cut flowers—which constitute 75 percent of all domestically grown flowers in the country—from farmer to florist to you.
Alena Barrangan shops for the perfect bouquet.
The Bay Area institution is steeped in history—one that started with immigrants growing and selling flowers.
"A hundred years ago in the Bay Area, if you had an acre of land, it was considered a farm," explained Robert Otsuka, executive vice president and general manager of the California Flower Market, which controls two-thirds of the San Francisco Flower Mart and is celebrating its centennial anniversary.
Rise and shine—the San Francisco Flower Mart opens at 2 a.m., with peak hours from 4 until 10 a.m. The market consists of large warehouses in the SoMa (South of Market) district.
In the late 1800s, Japanese, Chinese and Italian immigrants often used their land to grow flowers. They would then trek down to Lotta's fountain on Market Street in downtown San Francisco to sell their bounty.
This curbside market concept flourished until the earthquake of 1906 leveled the city and prompted regulations to keep streets clear of obstructions. Flowers could no longer be sold street-side. The need for an indoor, centralized location that could bring together these three ethnically diverse groups of flower growers was the impetus for what would later become the San Francisco Flower Mart.
San Francisco floral designer Michael Daigian searches for flowers at Louie Figone's stall.
"It was like one big family, from a historical perspective. That is what the flower mart is built on," Otsuka said.
Louie Figone is part of that family. You'll find him in stall 74B, where he sells sunflowers, miniature calla lilies, greens for bouquet fillers (in the form of thimbleberry, pita sparm and eucalyptus) and popular hydrangeas and dahlias. His nursery is in Miramar, about 30 miles south of San Francisco in San Mateo County.
Benito Herrera Ignacio picks dahlias at Figone's nursery in San Mateo County.
Flowers are part of Figone's heritage. His parents started out growing produce, but in 1955 began growing flowers. They often took Louie to the flower mart.
"When I came down here in the '60s with my dad, everyone was a grower," Figone said.
In the beginning, only California flower growers sold their goods at the San Francisco Flower Mart. Over time, however, the business model transitioned to include floral wholesalers and products from all over the world—and now fills a sprawling warehouse complex in the city's SoMa (South of Market) district. But the family atmosphere remains.
"I look forward to coming to the market," Figone said. "We know everybody, know their families."
Robert Otsuka, executive vice president and general manager of the California Flower Market, oversees the 100-year-old operation.
Michael Daigian often buys from Figone. He's a third-generation and well-known San Francisco floral and event designer whose creations are seen in movies and at weddings, restaurants and corporate events. Daigian comes looking for hydrangeas, agrostemma (commonly known as corncockle) and unique greenery for his creations. Today, he's especially interested in Figone's dahlias.
Jamie Coleman and daughter Ella load their cart.
"This is farm-fresh right here," Daigian said. "They come in buckets," he added, emphasizing the flowers' just-picked quality, coming from the farm within 24 hours.
The dahlia is a bushy, tuberous perennial harvested from mid- to late summer. Its flowers are light-sensitive, making Figone's farm in Miramar—which can have fog—an ideal place to grow them.
"Dahlias do well, as we have a microclimate back in the canyon," he said. "They like a cool climate."
Victor Neve grows peonies in Shasta County.
Figone grows the karma variety of dahlia in 17 colors. Burgundy is the most popular, selling at four times the rate of his other colors.
During peak season, you'll find Figone and his team picking 400 to 500 bunches of dahlias a day. They are also busy picking hundreds of bunches of sunflowers and hydrangeas.
Back at the San Francisco Flower Mart, what sells depends on trends. The 4,500 regular buyers—florists, designers, everyday consumers—usually come knowing what they want.
George Themelis, right, owner of Nuckton Co., which is still in the market, poses for a picture in the mid-1900s.
"Trends are huge in the floral world," Otsuka said. "Floral often follows fashion when it comes to color."
Last year it was purple, but the hot color for 2012 is something called tangerine tango—a vibrant orange.
"The flower grower takes a gamble that what they planted will be what the buyer wants," said Jeanne Boes, marketing and promotions director at the San Francisco Flower Mart.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the world of weddings.
"The wedding industry is driven by the Internet now, with blogs, social media and e-magazines, and brides know what they want, down to the specific shade of a color," Boes said.
Floral designer Daigian witnesses this firsthand. Many brides come to him citing the make and model they want when it comes to floral arrangements.
"Low, lush, mounded and tightly packed arrangements were popular last year, but now arrangements are loosening up a bit," he said. "Everything is cyclical."
Al Nalbandian, shown at far left in this photo from the mid-1900s, has purchased cut flowers from the flower mart for his corner store at Stockton and Geary streets for decades. He still does business there today.
What else is popular now? Peonies. San Francisco Flower Mart farmer and vendor Victor Neve of Neve Brothers grows them in fields at a 3,300-foot elevation in the town of McArthur. The flowers thrive in Shasta County's cold winters and warm springs, but take three to five years from planting to maturity.
"The hardest thing is the waiting time," Neve said. But he added that the results—large, lush blossoms with an old-fashioned look—are worth the wait.
Though getting to the flower mart means starting his day at midnight, Neve, like Figone, was born into the business and embraces it.
"The people in this business—they are the greatest people you could ever want to deal with," Neve said.
Figone agrees. By midmorning, he's getting ready to leave the city and head back to the nursery, but not before Daigian makes one more round to inspect Figone's dahlias.
"If he doesn't buy from us, he'll come and take a piece of licorice," Figone joked, adding nonchalantly, "His dad bought from my dad."
Such are the stories that come with a 100-year-old flower market.
How to keep cut flowers fresh
Shasta County flower grower Victor Neve offers his top tips for longer-lasting bouquets.
Keep it clean: Change the water every two to three days.
Trim it: Once home, trim flowers 1/2 inch from their original cut. This gives stems a fresh cut in which to take in water. Also trim the stems every time you change the water.
Keep it cool: Nothing wilts flowers faster than a hot room. Place bouquets away from direct sunlight and appliances such as computers, which can dehydrate flowers.
If you go…
The San Francisco Flower Mart opens to its wholesale customers well before dawn, and the general public is welcome to shop from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information: www.sfflmart.com or 415-392-7944.