ST. PETE BEACH
When customers stopped buying flowers, Lou's Florist started buying wine.
No, John and Kim Lovell, third-generation owners of Lou's Florist in St. Pete Beach, did not slosh their business woes in alcohol. They filled half their store with vino from around the world, put "wine" in their name and began offering gift baskets and hosting free tastings at their Blind Pass Road store.
It worked. A year later, Lou's Florist & Wine Garden, which began in 1956 as Lou's Florist, is carrying on as a hybrid business designed to stay afloat in tough times.
"We knew we had to come up with an idea. What else were we going to offer to customers?" said Kim, 48, co-owner of the business, who also runs Seaside Florals, a small shop at the Don CeSar Beach Resort.
Competition from big retail chains and the Internet have wilted mom-and-pop flower businesses.
"Home Depot sells stuff for the price I pay for it. I have to mark it up to make a profit," said John, 52, whose grandfather, Lou Lovell, opened the shop in 1956 on 75th Avenue. His father, Glenn, opened the current location in 1987.
Flowers are just another luxury item that many people are doing without, said Matthew Pacheco, regional director for the Florida State Florists Association.
"Every single day there's at least one store that's closing," said Pacheco, 26, whose family owns Carlson Wildwood Florist in Clearwater.
Coincidentally, Carlson Wildwood will soon begin selling beer and wine in addition to flowers, Pacheco said.
The markup on a bottle of wine isn't as good as on a birthday bouquet. But unlike a tender flower, wine only improves with age.
The Lovells filled half the floor space in their 4,200-square-foot store with 200 wines, thinking the synergy would be good. They figured that Home Depot and Walgreens and Publix couldn't offer their level of artistry and service. And they thought they could offer something more intimate than the bigger wine stores already in the area.
Unlike the big chains, each flower at Lou's is hand selected. Bouquets are assembled to order by floral arrangers. For a small fee, the shop will deliver your wine and roses.
Their free Friday night wine tastings have been successful, drawing partnerships with local restaurants that bring food, and readings by authors and artists that bring their work.
Some things at Lou's remain the same. On a decades-old map on the back wall, Pinellas County is broken up into four corridors by a felt tip pen: north, south, east and west. Each chunk represents the area serviced by major flower shops. During the 1970s fuel crisis, the shops formed a partnership to save gas. They'd meet every day and take deliveries in each other's areas. Today, the arrangement lives on.
Is there a fourth generation to carry on the store?
The Lovells' sons, 25 and 30, run a paving business. John said his sons make more money than he does. He doesn't plan on going out of business any time soon, but also doesn't expect his sons to take over.
"Probably not going to happen," Lovell said, "unless something big changes."
Luis Perez can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2271.