UK: Elaine changes Pesh Flowers direction, but sticks with her suppliers

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Pesh Flowers had been a fixture on Camberwell High Street for 67 years before a huge hike in rent rendered the business unworkable for Elaine Graham in 2019. She made the big decision to close down the shop and move on. Five years later, one of the Flower Market’s regular customers may occasionally look back, but recognises that the new way of working has improved life for her and her family

“I worked for the previous owner until she retired and we kind of approached each other about me taking over in 2002,” Elaine recalls. “I knew the shop was busy, of course, but was still a bit blind to just how busy when I went from being an employee to running it the following week.

“When I first took over, we’d fill the transit van up twice a day at the Flower Market almost every day we went. It was a lot to take on, but I was 20 and I loved it. We had a lot of contract trade and the shop was always crazy busy; we didn’t do a lot of weddings at the time.

“I had five full-time florists, a full time driver and other people in and out. For Valentine’s Day, I’d have 27 people working, including drivers. I even had firemen driving for me at one point, although they wouldn’t do it in uniform. I would have paid extra for that!”

In the end, the reason to close wasn’t just the rent, but also a combination of Elaine having 5-year-old twins and not seeing them as often as she wanted, increasing staffing issues and overheads that were just getting too much. “We were working harder for less and less, so I looked around for different premises, realising that when I moved I would lose my walk-in customer base anyway, so I needed to rethink the whole thing,” she says.

It meant scaling down a 1,600 sqft shop floor to a small, but charming studio nestled in behind Elaine’s parents’ house in Forest Hill, the house she grew up in, in fact. Husband Lee, a landscape gardener who is also a regular customer at NCGM, built the new Pesh Flowers HQ out of reclaimed timber and there have been a couple of new additions for storage, plus a new greenhouse. The rear half of the back garden of the house has been commandeered and dad’s vegetables have been replaced by a selection of cut flowers, which add a touch of personalised class to Elaine’s work when they are in season.

“I’m still in my main customer area and I still have a workplace to come to every day. It’s also about halfway from my house to the market. I miss the buzz of the shop, but I like the birds and squirrels and it’s nice to see my mum most days! The stress levels are also way down and I get to spend so much more time with the twins (now 10),” she says.

“Luckily enough, I was out of the shop before Covid hit. I got really busy with deliveries – because we had that established customer base who knew me, so many people started to order for delivery. I still get phone calls from people asking if they can pop down the shop and collect some flowers – it takes time for people to get used to change!

“I have house flowers that go to people every week, and a lot of corporate, PR and events customers that I’ve kept hold of. So, in between the weddings, there is plenty of weekday activity going on.”

Long-term relationship
Elaine has been buying regularly from NCGM since she was 16 and working for a florist in Crystal Palace. “My relationship with the market has changed,” she admits. “I have always preferred to buy from the market than anywhere else, although I do buy some top-up product from other wholesalers at times. I used to aim to go to the market four days a week, though it almost inevitably became five or six days, early hours.

“Now, I go to the market three times a week outside the wedding season, but in the summer it will be a more often and a lot earlier. I still buy from everybody in the market, just not in the sort of volume I used to. I tend to go about 5am and earlier if it’s for a wedding and I want some British product and I can hit up Green & Bloom or Pratleys for an odd bucket of something unusual.

“I’m not the massive buyer that I used to be so I don’t suppose I’m in the first rankings when it comes to priority, but sometimes I’ll ring ahead with a colour palette and they’ll put a bit aside for me and I don’t feel like I get treated any differently. I’ve been going well over half of my life, so I have known them for a long time, seen lots of faces come and go, and have socialised with lots of them over the years. They are my friends.”

The key difference
When we met Elaine in March, we asked her what the main differences are between buying from the market and other suppliers. “The last couple of weeks have been really quiet,” she answered. “I’ve done a lot of admin and not been very well and I was buying more than usual from the people I usually use to top up. I can sit in bed and order up to midnight for next-day delivery, so that works, but the product just isn’t the same. The difference is really obvious – both because I can physically pick my own when I’m at the market and also because the selection at the market is much nicer.

“I know when I go to the market that most of the guys I deal with love what they are doing. You can go to G.B. Foliage for instance and get the knowledge of what’s in season. He’ll never let you buy something if he doesn’t think it’ll work for you. Then you’ve got Sonny at DG Flowers who sees you pick up some new season roses and tells you how wonderful they are. You know he knows what’s around and he’s not just saying it for effect. That’s invaluable – it builds real trust.

“It’s also nice when you get missed. Ken, who had SR Allen for years, is a really good friend – if one of us wins the lottery we’re splitting it! But he was genuinely worried about me when we hadn’t seen each other for a while. Anything else is soulless, there’s no relationship or real personal contact.”

It’s never quite the same two days running now, whereas the shop could be repetitive and was sometimes a case of running on adrenalin, Elaine admits. “Some days I don’t see anybody here and then on other days, I’ll have someone to bounce off. It can be quite isolating being on your own, so it is always nice to say ‘what do think of this idea?’ and have another perspective. The market is also good for that – even for bumping into other florists to compare experiences and discuss business. Instagram was great at first but working on your own it can make you quite insecure looking at what everyone else is posting. I think you just have to focus on your own lane, as a lot of it is smoke and mirrors.

Renewed focus
Elaine now relishes the fact that she’s not tied to the shop and can take on weddings down in Surrey or Kent and drive out to venues and spend time moving things around. “I started teaching because the shop was so big and we needed to make the space work in the quieter times,” she says. “I still do that now, workshops here in the studio and at venues I hire for wedding florist sessions. I show them my techniques and mechanics and get photographers in to take pics of what they create for their portfolios.

“Like many people, I’m not a massive fan of technology, but I’ve started photographing venues I would like to work at and sending them concept sketches. I’ve got a few pick-ups through that. It’s also great when you can go to a venue with a bride and groom and do the design for them on-screen while they are talking. I used to pen and ink sketch, or use other people’s pictures, but now I have jumped on the technology that’s out there, it has worked.”

As well as its plastic free and sustainable commitments, one of the defining features of Pesh Flowers floristry is the dedication to using locally sourced flowers. By embracing the seasons, each wedding arrangement becomes a reflection of the unique, ever-changing beauty that British flora has to offer. The market is getting better at British flowers,” says Elaine. “There used to be more, of course, but I do think there’s a move to get more. There are lots of new British growers and it’s always nice to top up what I grow myself, which is very small volumes. It’s definitely a trend that’s getting bigger.”

Colour and character
New Covent Garden Market remains central to Elaine’s thinking. “I would be lost without the market if I’m honest. It’s a big part of my life,” she says. “When you go up and see the products, the colours, the characters. That’s what makes it. If the characters weren’t there, you’d just be buying from a flat bar-coded system. For me, the charm is 50% the stuff you can buy there and 50% the people.

“It’s a really hard job – hats off to them for doing it. I know how hard it is when people ask me to do things socially and I know what time I have to get up the next morning. In my 20s, I could do any hours, but I’m not so good at it any more! They have to get up even earlier and they do it six days every week.

“A lot of the new breed of florist don’t go up as early, there’s not as much of a social side to things maybe. Owners have got older or like me have had children. It’s a long day and then you have to go home and do your admin.

“But the feeling that you’re dealing with friends and they will look after you is vital. From a business point of view, you need that support and the wins that can give you too.”

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