Florist Spotlight

Strong Listening Skills, Practical Suggestions Key to Niagara Shop’s Longevity

Celebrating its 130th anniversary this year, Dobbie’s Florist in Niagara Falls, Ontario, has had its share of brushes with fame: the shop provided flowers for the 1901 public reception in Buffalo, New York, at which U.S. President William McKinley was assassinated; created arrangements for the set of Marilyn Monroe’s 1953 movie, “Niagara”; and designed the centrepiece at a 1991 luncheon for Princess Diana and her sons hosted by the Niagara Parks Commission.

But owners Bruce and Brenda Vandersluys say it’s their consistent commitment to all their ordinary customers day in and day out that has kept the fourth-generation florist in business for more than a century. While much has changed in the industry since Bruce’s great grandfather, John Dobbie, founded the shop in 1888, sticking to good old-fashioned business values and practices have paid off, the couple said.

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“We work very hard to please all our customers, and we’re very much about service, competitive pricing, and long-lasting and fresh product,” Bruce said. “We scrub our buckets on a daily basis. If there’s ever an issue or a problem … we deal with it immediately, come out with a resolution that is making the customer happy.”

Brenda hastened to add that passion for floristry plays a big role in their success as well. “We like what we do,” Bruce agreed. “When I first met Bruce [44 years ago], that’s all he ever wanted to do,” Brenda said.

“It’s a really creative job,” Bruce said. “You never know what the next challenge is going to be, if it’s somebody walking through the door that’s just had a death in the family, or it’s a new baby or an illness or a wedding. We listen to our customers and fill their needs according to their budget.”

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Dobbie’s is one year older than the city of about 80,000 that it serves, and the oldest florist in the Niagara peninsula. It is one of the few florists in Canada still owned by the same family.

Weddings remain a steady, important part of its business because Niagara Falls is a popular destination for brides and grooms from around the world. Dobbie’s does at least 80 to 100 weddings a year.

In phone consultations with distant brides, Bruce must zero in on clues that convey their vision and offer feasible suggestions to bring it to life. “Not everybody’s got the proper idea in their head,” he said, having seen some ideas on Pinterest that wouldn’t be practical in certain cases. For example, one mother-of-the-bride wanted the look she saw in a garden wedding photograph, but Bruce explained that the 30,000 rose petals required to re-create it would be cost prohibitive. “That’s where experience comes in,” he said.

Dobbie’s has a staff of four to five full- and part-time employees, which ramps up to 11 at the holidays.

With their long history, Bruce and Brenda know all the wedding venues and vendors. They belong to professional groups, including Niagara Events and Weddings, which help them meet planners, caterers, photographers, DJs, musicians, and officiants. The group meets monthly, and guest speakers update them on the latest trends.

“We do a lot of networking,” Bruce said. “You’ve got to get out there because it’s just not coming to your door. If you’re not actively chasing it, you’re not going to be around.”

John Dobbie’s daughter and Bruce’s grandmother, Eva Dobbie Vandersluys, took over the shop that he had started in his retirement after working as a botany teacher and school principal at Simcoe Street School. (John Dobbie emigrated from Scotland, where at one time, the Dobbie family owned the largest seed and nursery business in the world.) The original Dobbie’s in Niagara Falls included greenhouses and a horse barn. Delivery started with horse and buggy, or sleigh in the winter. Eva then passed the business on to her son and Bruce’s father, John Vandersluys, who built the current location in 1952, across the street from the original.

Bruce took over ownership in 1986. He had worked in the shop during and after high school and had also spent eight years working as a wholesaler out of Grimsby, Ontario, learning that side of the business and getting to know the community. “I did well in sales because I knew what service was all about,” he said. As a charter member of the local Sunrise Rotary Club, Bruce continues his community involvement and volunteering. He also helped institute a breakfast program for Niagara school students who need a meal.
As a wholesaler, Bruce also observed what worked and what didn’t for many florists who were his clients.

The Vandersluys family still owns their building, and rent out several residential and commercial units, which provides additional income. The shop occupies about 2,600 square feet.

Bruce carried on his father’s tradition of strong mechanics, excelling at building arrangements that hold up nicely through the delivery. “You can be as artsy as you want to be, but if you haven’t got good solid mechanics behind it, it still has to get from the design bench to the final destination.” He also prides himself on not repeatedly churning out the same designs. “Every arrangement is not a duplicate,” he said, just as “every stem of flowers is different too.”

Bruce has been a featured designer three times over the years for FTD Niagara International.

With easy access to fresh flowers from multiple wholesalers that serve Niagara, Dobbie’s can fulfill almost any request — or, because its proprietors have had so much practice, gently guide customers toward a realistic alternative.

When Bruce took over from his dad, there were four to five florists in town. “The competition nowadays is huge,” he said. “At our peak, we were competing with 21 florists … and now we’re down to about 14.”

The Vandersluyses say another key to their success has been staying current with technology. Internet sales are “extremely good,” said Bruce, who helps keep Dobbie’s website up-to-date, along with designing and keeping a hand in all parts of the business. They also monitor their Google reviews, and post photographs and albums on their social media accounts.

“Pictures are worth more than words sometimes,” Brenda said. “The pictures just grab people. Facebook just seems to be big out there.”

“That’s where you have to be nowadays,” Bruce said. Dobbie’s does very little print advertising, and only a little radio. “We’re progressive,” he said. “If you’re not doing [social media], you’re lost.”

Bruce and Brenda have two sons in their early 30s, Patrick and Matthew, who have careers outside the floral industry. Though they help in the shop at busy times, they’re not planning to take over Dobbie’s. They also have two grandchildren, Lennyn, 2½,and Otis, 4 months.

But before deciding the future of Dobbie’s, there’s the celebration to plan. This spring, Bruce and Brenda will have an open house commemorating Dobbie’s 130th anniversary with special guests and prizes. They would like their sons, who are musicians, to perform, perhaps at a rooftop concert.

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