Flowers for All Reasons

Lori Rowe's Vivaldi Flowers celebrates Old World
tradition in a contemporary setting

by Larissa K. Vigue

For those who only think of purchasing flowers when a holiday rolls around -- or who would define an "exotic" flower as a rose any color other than red -- a trip to Vivaldi Flowers in South Burlington is in order. Owner Lori Rowe, who started the business in 1993, has created the aura of an old-time, European flower market. It emphasizes freshness, variety, and an intimate, personal approach for modern customers bored with an increasingly mass-produced world.

Lori Rowe brings a European flair nurtured during her years in Germany to Vivaldi Flowers in South Burlington. "I like to watch when people walk into the shop," she says, "because they visibly relax."

Even in the dead of winter it feels like an open-air market, particularly because the flowers are so accessible. "We don't want any barriers between the people and the flowers," Rowe explains. Using a number of wholesalers, some local, ensures access to a wide variety of product, so that "every week we have some really funky and unusual flowers" to tempt the customer.

Not surprisingly, Vivaldi's success -- the business has grown steadily each year it's operated -- is built on experience. From 1973 to '77, Rowe lived in Europe with her first husband, who was doing graduate work at the Free University of Berlin. After he finished his studies, the pair decided to remain in Germany and took teaching jobs for the Army in 1974. Rowe, who had graduated from Lehman (formerly Hunter) College in 1969 with a degree in English and philosophy, taught American G.I.s who, in some cases, were in the service "because it was the Army or jail." The challenges of her work life and traveling through Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall taught Rowe a great deal, not the least of which was to appreciate the small details. It was in Europe that she learned how flowers can be part of everyday life. "You'd be in the market and there were always flowers available and whenever people visited they brought flowers. That was such a wonderful experience."

She packed up those memories when the couple left Europe and settled in Burlington in order to be close to their families in New York. Rowe began working in the president's office at the University of Vermont in 1978, and soon was overseeing the affirmative action program. She left UVM in 1985 to take a position at Fassett's Bakery (now Bouyea Fassett's), but in 1986, was hired to start the human resources department at Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. Two years later, she became director of human resources at Fanny Allen Hospital, before ascending to vice president of the department.

Amidst the job changes, she embarked on a second marriage with Douglas Griswold, president of S.T. Griswold & Co. Inc., raising two children: Alyssa Rowe and Emily Griswold Shepler. She also imagined starting a business.

She had two ideas of how that might happen. One of which -- consulting in her field -- she considered practical, but not exciting. "The other was to do what I considered my fantasy," she says. "Flowers had always been a passion and it made sense to start a business related to something you're passionate about because you work really hard and you should love what you're doing."

By way of turning the dream into reality, Rowe spoke with Diana Carminati, then director of Trinity College's Women's Small Business Program. "Her suggestion was to apply with this fantasy as a concept because I'd have the opportunity to test it out in a safe environment."

Rowe started the program in fall of 1991, while still at Fanny Allen, and graduated that December. She equates the program to earning an M.B.A. in 15 weeks and says it was structured the way she wanted to run her business. "It was a very collaborative, supportive environment -- a room full of cheerleaders who were really excited about your business and faculty that was there to support, not intimidate, you. I don't believe I would have started my business without that support."

In order to graduate, Rowe had to devise a business plan that dealt with such necessities as scouting an ideal location. "At the time, South Burlington was in a growth mode," she recalls. "I looked at a map of Chittenden County and where the flower shops were. There weren't a lot in this area."

She settled on Dorset Street, which recently had been widened, and found empty space in the building that housed The Net Result, Orbit Hair Design, and Burlington Bagel Bakery (which has since closed that location). "I looked at the numbers in terms of what the daily traffic would be and it seemed like a really good mix of businesses, with a common customer base."

Rowe left Fanny Allen in 1992 and consulted in human resources while researching the flower business and taking design classes as far away as California. In searching for the shop's name, she fell back on her love of Europe. Not only was she drawn to the full and vibrant sound of the famous composer's surname, but, for those familiar in even the slightest way with classical music, there was a built-in marketing component. Painted on the shop's window and scrolled across the company's business card is "Vivaldi Flowers -- for all seasons," a play on Antonio Vivaldi's most famous concerto, "The Four Seasons." With everything in place, Rowe opened the shop in April 1993.

Lori Rowe credits her human resources background with giving her the skills to run her shop smoothly. From left: Theresa McGuire and Catie Coleman. Other staffers include Kathy Dowd Hill, Alyssa Rowe, Charlie Moore and Ryan McLaughlin.

From the seasons marked by the calendar, the metaphorical leap to the "seasons of life" is a short one. Just ask long-time Vivaldi customer Chris Kasprisin, who once enlisted Rowe's help with a presentation for her doctoral program. They created a diverse bouquet symbolizing the stages of Chris's life that, she says, "helped me internalize my accomplishments and direction." A member of Vivaldi's Frequent Flower Program (for every $100 spent, customers get $10 off their next purchase), Chris finds the shop so soothing that she makes a point to stop by if she's having a particularly stressful day. Beyond the calming atmosphere, she says that Rowe "really has inspired me and reawakened my love of flowers."

This is what Vivaldi Flowers is really all about: translating the purchase of flowers into an intimate, custom-designed experience that adds value to the customer's life. This is often exemplified at wedding ceremonies, for which the business provides flowers nearly every weekend throughout the summer and fall. "We've done weddings where people had some very symbolic needs," says Rowe, including draping arbors with vegetables and herbs and creating garlands for dogs in the wedding party. In other words, flowers are more than just window dressing. Or, as Rowe puts it: "I feel like there's something about flowers that really feeds the soul."

The shop is designed to mirror this internal expression of external beauty. "I like to watch when people walk into the shop because they visibly relax," says Rowe. "Aesthetics really have a way of playing on one's mood." A cafe-style iron table and chairs in front of an old-fashioned black street lamp draped in greenery invites customers to sit and absorb their surroundings. Through the magic of paint, one wall features a mural of mossy green tendrils with tiny purple flowers hanging from window boxes set under shuttered windows, compliments of Fresco Studio. Rowe showed the painters slides from her Europe days and said, "I don't want it to look like any one of these places, but I want it to feel like all of them." She thinks they accomplished the task remarkably well.

Ned Davis, AIFD, who runs the Vermont Academy of Floral Design in Waterbury Center and who has taught Vivaldi designers as well as worked alongside them, agrees. Listing image development as crucial to a flower shop's success, he says that Rowe "has created a very distinct European look. It's what makes her shop stand out."

The heart of the operation, called "Vivaldi Central" by the staff, consists of a built-in desk and shelves housing scheduling books and files. The compact area is part of a newly renovated back room that also features slate-topped work tables and substantial space for design work and storage. Organization keeps the sometimes frantic pace from getting out of hand. For instance, the shop does 130 to 140 deliveries on Valentine's Day alone. (A normal busy day consists of 15 to 18 deliveries.)

The wholesale price of roses doubles on Valentine's Day, the shop's busiest day; Vivaldi's prices remain steady. Lori Rowe, pictured with Lisa McInnis, tries to offer plenty of alternatives to balance the scales.

"It's bigger than Christmas week and Mother's Day combined," says Rowe, and the wholesale price of roses doubles for that day. Since Vivaldi doesn't double its retail price (in fact, the price of roses has stayed the same for the seven years the shop has been in business), Rowe tries to provide lots of alternatives. "We have things like a Dutch spring bouquet with tulips, daffodils, and iris. And we do some arrangements that might have one rose in them, but also lots of other things."

This original approach has made Vivaldi the florist of choice for businesses that want a distinctive look. Vivaldi provides flowers for the clothing store Sportstyle, Stephen & Burns Salons, Grannis Gallery, Vermont Symphony Orchestra concerts, and a couple of law firms.

Smokejacks Restaurant features new arrangements every week that often incorporate food in the form of olives, pomegranates, and figs. Owner Leslie Myers raves about Rowe and her staff. "They really go out of their way to be very creative and unusual, and take a tremendous amount of care" with their work.

With all the vendors, Vivaldi enjoys creative license, which is fun for the staff of seven. "We have parameters as to size and fragrance, but otherwise we get to do what we want," explains Rowe. "I have very talented people working with me and each has a different design style. I don't ever dictate. I think collaboration makes the environment a far more pleasant place to work and that it makes the work we do more unusual."

Rowe credits her human resources background with giving her the multi-tasking and management skills that have resulted in the shop's well-run and familial atmosphere. Full-time designer Catie Coleman attests to this: "I really like the people I work with. Lori is very supportive and helps us develop our skills and creativity."

That creativity extends to selling more than just flowers and vases. Shuttered wall shelves display peripheral items like painted plates, candles, and picture frames, most with floral motifs and some made by Vermont artists. Furthermore, Rowe's "goal at this point is to work at ways of expanding our volume through vertical integration of other kinds of services," including more active involvement in customers' interior design and gardening. These services will be advertised via direct mail primarily to the 450 customers in Vivaldi's target market: Frequent Flower Program members, vendors, and other regulars. "They are our most loyal customers and so we're designing more programs to benefit and reward them," she says.

Rowe's reward is her passion for all things floral, a love that blossomed in Europe but which took root in childhood. When her family moved to the suburbs of Yonkers from its four-room Manhattan apartment, outside of which 9-year-old Lori wasn't even allowed to walk on the grass, the future florist delighted in tending to her own little flower garden. Now, she tends just as energetically and happily to Vivaldi.

"I don't think I was ever prepared for how hard and long you work and how completely all-consuming the business is," she says, "but I think if you're not consumed by it, then you ought not to be in it."

Larissa K. Vigue is a free-lance writer living in Winooski. She plans to complete her master's degree at Middlebury College's Breadloaf School of English in the summer.