Top Shops: New Business Model Blooms
The Olla Urban Flower Project may be housed in a 126-year-old heritage
building, but its approach to business is all about new ideas.
The Olla Urban Flower Project may be housed in a 126-year-old heritage building, but its approach to business is all about new ideas. The shop’s commitment to community is at the heart of everyday decision-making, from which products to purchase and whom to hire to what becomes of the blooms once an event is over.
|Olla’s contemporary designs lend a modern feel to its heritage space. Photos by Images By Bethany
“We’re a plant and flower shop that is trying to be socially and environmentally accountable while making really beautiful things,” explains owner Megan Branson.
Branson opened the shop almost two and a half years ago, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The neighbourhood is often identified as Canada’s poorest postal code, but these days a wave of revitalization is sweeping the streets. Young entrepreneurs like Branson are flocking to the neighbourhood, bringing a flood of creative enterprises and creative approaches to doing business.
Olla’s model is straightforward, but it can take time for some stakeholders to wrap their heads around how it works. All of the shop’s fresh good are ethically purchased from one of three sources: Veriflora or Fairtrade certified flower farms (currently the shop works with two such farms, one in California and the other in Ecuador), conventional and organic local farms, or urban wholesalers growing stunning plants in their personal gardens. It’s this last source that can take some explaining – especially to those who receive a notice from Olla, quoting a price per stem for something growing in their yard.
|At a Glance
Olla Urban Flower Project
Years in business:
“When we’re partnering with what we call an ‘urban farmer,’ we’re driving around the city and we spot something beautiful in a private garden. We have these leaflets that we drop in the mailbox that say ‘we’ve spotted beauty in your garden’,” Branson says. “We fill out what we’ve specifically spotted that we might like to buy from them. Essentially, from there, if they’re interested in working with us they become an urban flower wholesaler. They tend their garden as they would normally and then they cut from their own garden and we come and pick [the cuttings] up and pay them for their flowers.”
Communicating how this type of relationship works isn’t without challenges. “It’s still something that we’re trying to find the simplest, most accessible language to describe. It’s not necessarily a complex concept, but it’s foreign and new so we are constantly defining the term to people.”
The shop has already developed relationships with a few key urban wholesalers. During the spring and summer, about half of the shop’s fresh product is sourced from urban farms and gardens. Come fall, that drops to between 15 and 20 per cent of fresh product – mostly berries, seed pods and foliage – and the shop leans more on local conventional farms and certified Fair Trade and Veriflora growers.
“I get the sense that people find the things that we make very unique,” Branson says. “Because we source flowers from urban and less conventional sources, we get to use things that a lot of other florists may have access to but don’t typically use because they’re not grown commercially.” Staff design in the Japanese Ikebana style, using everything from interesting sticks foraged from B.C.’s Okanagan Valley to unusual varieties of artichoke grown by an urban wholesaler.
Olla tries to source other merchandise from within the community as well. Local artists often come by the shop to drop off cards featuring their work, and this fall, the shop is launching a design competition for ceramic arts students and pottery guild members in the Vancouver area. “The idea is that there’s a lot of talent locally and we have the means of producing quality goods here in Vancouver,” says Branson. These unique designs will complement the shop’s collection of more standard vases purchased from wholesalers, and vintage options that offer a retro look with a smaller footprint on the planet.
Care for the community is also a key factor in the shop’s hiring practices. The staff includes three designers (among them Branson) and one position that’s always open, offering work experience to local residents facing barriers to employment. These barriers may include mental health issues, substance abuse, or any other personal issues that might prevent someone from holding steady employment. The 10 hours per week position is designed to be flexible, allowing the employee to choose which days they will work.
Supporting non-profits and service organizations operating in the Downtown Eastside is another important component of Olla’s socially conscious business model. “We think that they’re deserving of beautiful things, even though they often don’t have the budget for it,” says Branson. The shop has an annual sponsorship budget and invites groups to apply to have plants or flowers donated to their events. Business cards and signage let attendees know the flowers and plants are from the shop. Olla’s clients can also choose to forward their special event flowers to an organization operating in the neighbourhood. Sometimes this means an arrangement designed for a corporate event is forwarded as is to a non-profit at the end of the night. Other times the components of an arrangement may be broken down and repurposed. Flowers left over from one corporate event were later used in a flower arranging workshop hosted by the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, an organization that offers a range of services to women, children and seniors.
This community-mindedness has played a huge role in building awareness about the shop. Because Olla is located in a second floor loft space, it isn’t easily visible from street level. Along with Facebook and Twitter, sponsorship – and the word of mouth buzz it builds – has been the shop’s main method of advertising. Olla also sells its potted plants in three stores throughout Vancouver, tapping into client pools located in other parts of the city.
In the years ahead, Branson sees a big opportunity to have a positive impact on the neighbourhood and the city as a whole. “I think we have a really good model that we’ve created and we just need to grow it so that we can reach more people and have a greater impact. The more clients we have, the more demand [for urban flowers people] have and so we can then increase the number of urban farmers that we are working with.” Future projects include launching an e-commerce website this fall that will allow customers to order cut flowers and living containers online, and raising funds to invest in a cargo bike for making downtown deliveries.
Given Olla’s community-centric approach to business, it’s no surprise that Branson’s advice to other florists is based around being a good neighbour. “It is incredibly important to reach out to your community,” she says. “If you engage in sponsorship or sourcing flowers from your community or forwarding flowers to service organizations, you become embedded in that community. People come to know you, and to know you as something other than just a retailer.”