Florist Spotlight

Ontario Florist Draws a Studious Clientele

Like many florists, Tina Riddell, owner of Living Fresh Flower Studio in Kitchener, Ontario, designs and sells beautiful special-occasion arrangements and customized wedding flowers. But there’s another side to her business — a school where students can learn enough about the profession to obtain an entry-level job in a retail shop.

Riddell teaches Floristry 101, which covers the fundamentals of floral design, and runs four to five times a year with the next course starting in early April. The beginners’ class meets for three hours one evening a week for six weeks. The $1,100 cost includes supplies, materials and a tool kit that students keep. Riddell said the classes usually fill to capacity of 10 students.

Riddell started Living Fresh in 2007 as a side, part-time business from her home, while also working full time managing a garden centre. In 2011, she quit her full-time job, and focused solely on Living Fresh, launching the flower school out of a community arts centre in 2011, and opening retail space in 2012. In 2014, she expanded her shop, doubling its size to 850 square feet. Previously, the space only had room for six students at a time.

The retail floristry program at Conestoga College in Kitchener, which Riddell graduated from in 2005, had ended in 2010 or 2011, creating a vacuum for floral education, she said. She liked the idea of sharing her knowledge and skills. Riddell looked into getting the school accredited, but found it wasn’t feasible because she would have had to charge more for longer classes, pricing her school “out of our marketplace.”

Riddell doesn’t typically teach in the summer months because she’s too busy with weddings, but she has tried other class formats such as a one-week intensive course. Ultimately, she found that students needed more time between each lesson to absorb and practice the material. “They get better over the course of time, rather than in a short span,” she said.

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Several former students have gone on to work in area flower shops, including two at Living Fresh. A few students have worked in shops for a year or two, and then started their own businesses, Riddell said.

Robyn Scott, who took Living Fresh’s Floristry 101 class in early 2012, chose it because she was familiar with Living Fresh’s work.

“I knew that I wanted to embark on a floral career, and it was very important to me that I learned from florists who not only had great depth of knowledge and experience, but who were also setting trends,” Scott said. She appreciated Riddell’s nontraditional approach and constructive criticism, saying her “insight into the floral world was invaluable.” Evening classes worked well for her because she had a newborn at the time.

“It was the perfect fit, and I couldn’t have been more impressed,” said Scott, who started home-based Blooms & Flora after completing the course. In 2015, Scott opened a full-service boutique flower shop in Guelph, drawing on her previous marketing career to reach new clients, and build her website and brand. Her new career “isn’t for everyone,” she said, because it’s not just “playing with flowers.”

“We work long hours, rarely get the chance to sit down, and deal with high pressure situations and emotional times during such important milestones in our clients’ lives,” Scott said.

Riddell doesn’t mind that former students have become competitors.

“We don’t look at the industry in that manner,” she said. “For us, it’s not about being better than the competition. It’s about being a collective group of florists.” There’s more than enough business to go around, she said, “so we try to build a supporting community where people can go out there and do something that they love” with confidence. “Creativity flows best when you’re collaborating and sharing ideas. I learn stuff from my students every single time I teach a class.”

She gets something else from her students — income that helps keep the business going in the winter months when the number of walk-in shoppers drops. Event work, retail and the school each generates roughly a third of her revenue. She has two full-time and two part-time employees who help her keep the operation running smoothly.

Living Fresh just launched its new website in January. “It was time for a change,” Riddell said, after three or four other iterations. She worked with a local branding agency, Ashley & Malone. In addition to an updated logo and aesthetic that appeals to her demographic, the site now enables customers to order flowers and gifts online.

Living Fresh Flower School also offers terrarium and holiday classes, and occasionally an advanced class, Floristry 102. Some students travel quite a distance, coming from Toronto, Mississauga, Hamilton, Hanover, Stratford and even Windsor, which is about 2.5 hours away.

Christy O'Farrell
Christy O'Farrell is a freelance writer in Alexandria, VA.

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