Four Generations Going on Five: Harriet’s Flowers
Ruskin, Florida: I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the Ladies (and one tiny gentleman) of Harriet’s Flowers. I wanted to know what it was like working in a family business heading into its fifth generation.
We sat down in the back room of Harriet’s Flowers. It’s where all the flower arranging magic takes place. Visiting with me: Harriet Garbelman (aka Harriet’s Flowers), Gail Roszel (Harriet’s daughter), Ashlye Roszel (Gail’s daughter-in-law), Joann Gauta and Kathy Blum (both family by association) and tiny little Carter Roszel (Ashlye’s youngest son) who didn’t say much from his pumpkin seat. If you didn’t catch all of the connections there’s more about them later.
Admittedly, I got a lot more than I anticipated and let’s just say I’ll be heading back to that back room again soon. These ladies are a hoot and half and hugely talented florists and businesswomen.
A Little History: Harriet’s Flowers Since 1950
Yes, since 1950, that’s not a typo.
Harriet’s Flowers, originally called Violet’s Flowers (more about that later), has been in the same location (well, nearly the same) on College Avenue in Ruskin since 1950.
Seriously! How many businesses today can say that? Since 1950! It’s one of the things I love most about our community. We have so much history and deep roots here right alongside the new and growing.
The Hovey-Garbelman-Roszel families and their florist business have been a mainstay in Ruskin for as long as anyone can remember and they’ve owned the same several acres on College Avenue for even longer. Both Harriet and Ashlye and her family live on the property, too.
The original florist shop burned down in 1977 and the current Harriet’s Flowers was rebuilt literally on the same spot at 226 College Avenue.
The Generation Map
I hope I captured all of this correctly. Trying to simultaneously interview 5 ladies and one infant is harder than you might imagine. Between my questions, multiple answers being fired back at me, interruptions amongst themselves to chat about flower arrangements they were working on, and the constant laughing I had a hard time focusing.
This is what I learned (I think)…
Start story here: The original Harriet’s Flowers was not a Harriet at all. She was a Violet. Violet Hovey was the original florist and was also Harriet’s mother. When daughter Harriet took the reins to the florist shop in 1970 Violet suggested she change the name to Harriet’s, so she did.
Next: Gail Roszel, Harriet’s daughter who now runs the florist business, did not change the name when she took the reins to the business. Gail jokes “When a customer calls with a problem they ask for Harriet,” she laughs. Gail continues to run the florist shop today and Harriet’s there, too.
Next: Ashlye Roszel, Gail’s new daughter-in-law, also now works at Harriet’s Flowers, managing the social media promotions and working with the brides, having been a recent one herself. Ashlye came to Harriet’s after working as a chef at Mise en Place and managing various restaurants. She’s easily stepped into managing the social media, brides’ bouquets, customer service and she’s also learning the art of floral arranging.
Next: Carter, one of Ashlye’s two young sons and the little man in the pumpkin seat, is not yet doing much of anything but being cute and spoiled. I do suspect, however, the ladies will put both boys to work as soon as they’re old enough.
Next: Joann Gauta, not blood family, has worked at Harriet’s for nearly 20 years so she’s family by longevity. Kathy Blum has worked with Harriet’s Flowers for four years and has also joined the clan.
Other family members participate in the business, too. Gail’s husband, retired CFO of Suncoast Health (check out that story here: http://bit.ly/SuncoastCommunityHealthCenters), manages all of the accounting activities. Gail’s son, Ashlye’s husband, handles the IT, managing the networks and phone system.
And, a little fun story: Before Gail’s husband Brantz became CEO of Suncoast Health, he was a contractor… you might know where this is going… who happened to be the one rebuilding Harriet’s Flowers after it burned down. Gail met Brantz. Harriet’s Flowers was rebuilt and it was love at first sight.
Harriet, who will be 80 in November, came to Ruskin when she was just a few months old and grew up in the agriculture business. Her mother Violet had the original florist shop and her father was inducted into the Agricultural Hall of Fame at the University of Florida for his work in the industry.
Harriet began formally learning the floral business at a young age. In 1954 she attended florist school through the Hillsborough Country Education Department. Her mother Violet had to attend with her since Harriet was only 14.
Harriet bought the florist business from her mother in 1970.
Gail naturally jumped into the floral business at a young age, too, when she began entering flower shows at age 8.
“I’ve been doing floral work all my life,” Gail says. She took over managing Harriet’s Flower at the ripe age of 19 and later completed her college degree at 38.
Apart from a few continuing education courses, both Gail and Harriet are mostly self-taught. The florist business is simply in their blood.
“We’ve learned by doing,” Gail says.
Their experience clearly shows, in my humble opinion. I watched them make one stunning floral arrangement after another during the few hours I visited with them in the back room.
Independent and Community Oriented
The world has changed and so has everything in it, including the florist business.
Today, massive online ‘flower order takers’ now rule much of the market. You know the ones – call 1-800 or visit their website, choose an arrangement and order. The recipient receives their flowers in a UPS box with “some assembly required,” adds Gail. “As long as Aunt Matilda has some mad flower skills, you’re ok,” she adds.
It’s just not quite the same as somebody ringing your doorbell with a beautiful set of flowers in hand, which is why Harriet’s Flowers is an independent operation, keeping their focus completely local.
“We wanted to stay local,” Gail says. “We’re part of the community and we want to serve the community. We don’t want to be order takers from an anonymous online company.”
The Florist Business
“The florist business is a commodities market,” remarks Gail. “Flowers come from all over the world. The logistics alone is pretty amazing. We might get fresh peonies in from Israel one day and tulips from Holland the next,” she says.
Harriet’s Flowers, like all floral businesses, are at the mercy of mother nature, too. Different flowers are in season in different parts of the world at different times of year. If Mother Nature decides to wipe out a rose crop one year you know that Valentine’s flowers will cost you more.
“I don’t like to gamble,” Harriet says, “but we have to gamble everyday in the florist business.”
It’s another reason Harriet’s Flowers is independent and locally-focused. “We can talk directly to our customers and let them know exactly what we have, what looks most amazing today,” Gail says.
Gail, Harriet and the team also ‘design right off the truck’. This is something I never knew about. Flower wholesalers, mostly from Sarasota and Bradenton, drive around with trucks full of fresh flowers and sell to local florists. Gail and Harriet can hop on the back of the truck, see what looks fresh and buy flowers from there.
“We often wind up pulling flowers and designing an arrangement on the spot,” Gail says.
Although the practice of buying from the back of the truck is beginning to decline a bit, it’s one of the reasons Harriet’s Flowers can offer the best of what’s fresh right now.
Creativity Grows in Generations
I had to ask. What’s the best thing about 4 generations working together? While we’ve all heard the hard stories of family businesses gone bad, there’s none of that here. This family loves working together.
“The best thing about it is the teamwork. The exchange of creativity,” says Gail. “The evolution of ideas is the really wonderful thing. Grandma and mom taught me and I’ve learned new things. We share our experiences and everything grows from there.”
Each person brings their special set of skills, too, which seem to complement each other.
Ashlye works with brides, runs the Facebook page and updates the website daily to reflect current offerings.
Harriet is the queen of orchids and big, bold arrangements. She does many of the large arrangements that adorn the front window of the florist shop and many of the displays you’ll see on the shelves.
Gail, well, Gail calls herself the quality Nazi, sort of like the soup Nazi from Seinfeld. She can spot a ‘hole’ a mile away in an arrangement and would never let it out the door without filling it.
The Busy Season
“They’re all busy,” Harriet jokes.
All kidding aside, it’s easy to guess Harriet’s Flowers’ busy season. While summer is the slowest, the busy season runs between November and May, hitting Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day, all the biggies of the flower world.
Of all the seasons, though, Mother’s Day is by far the busiest. As Gail says, “Not everybody has a lover, but everybody has a mother.”
Valentine’s Day, however, is the most treacherous. “On Mother’s Day we can deliver flowers on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Valentine’s Day we get just one day – the day – to deliver. It’s hectic,” Gail says.
In season, they often work seven days a week, no joke. The Harriet Mobiles can be seen around town. In fact, if you see one it may just be bringing flowers to your door.
It’s all hands on deck in season, too. Everyone in the family works, either arranging, answering phones and taking orders and delivering orders.
Harriet’s Flowers also employs part time workers in the busy season – and they’re always looking for more if you’re interested in working part time with flowers (how fun!).
Year round, however, they’re busy making special arrangements for funerals, weddings, special events and for no reason at all (and, maybe a few get-out-of-the-dog-house arrangements).
While technology has made competition fierce, Harriet’s Flowers isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. They’ve already been here forever and anticipate being here for forever.
‘We’re holding our own,” Gail says. “We’ve been in the community a long time and even though we’re a bit off the beaten path, people know us.”
Word of mouth, social media and their website helps, too. “We’re very active on social media,” Ashlye says, “and getting more and more traffic every day.”
Harriet’s Flowers has a good mix of orders coming in directly by phone, walk-ins and through their website. Ashlye can update the website everyday to showcase what they have on hand that’s stunning and fresh, so if you visit their website you know what’s available, fresh and beautiful.
So, next time you’re driving down College Avenue stop in and say ‘Hi’ to Harriet, Gail and the gang of ladies. You’ll enjoy the lovely shop and I promise you a visit in the back room will have you laughing. If you need flowers, by all means, give them a call or visit their website. You’re guaranteed a beautiful, fresh arrangement made by expert hands with lots of laughs thrown in for good measure.
When visiting Harriet’s Flowers I had the great pleasure of visiting Miss Harriet’s personal garden out back. I’m not sure how many folks get a private tour, but I felt special.
As you can imagine a florist’s private garden is something really special and Harriet has been tending to hers for decades. Here are a few pictures from her purple adorned garden.
It’s a magical place, indeed, and I could tell by the way Harriet talked about and showed me around, her garden has been her passion for a long, long time.
Harriet’s Flowers Details:
226 College Avenue W Ruskin, FL, 33570. #: (813) 645-1525
Hours: M-F: 9:0AM – 5:00PM; Saturday: 9:00AM – 12:00PM
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Harriets-Flowers-159637717392658/