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Brandi Cowen Top Shops: Eco-chic at Sweetpea’s

It’s good to be green at this Toronto shop

Written by Brandi Cowen
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Sweetpea’s burst into being back in 2009. The idea came to Sara Jameson in the wee hours of a sleepless night. By eight o’clock the next morning, she had registered the business as a landscaping company and put her graphic design skills to work creating business cards, flyers and lawn signs.

p12_SweetpeasStaff  
From left to right, Sweetpea’s Thalia Johnstone, Tellie Hunt, Sara Jameson, Danette Relic and Krish Holt.

 
“My husband came downstairs in the morning and was like, ‘What have you been up to?’ and I said, ‘Nothing, just starting a business,’” she recalls.

For two years, Jameson spent the hours in between bigger and bigger landscaping jobs developing a business plan for a flower shop and garden centre to complement Sweetpea’s existing business. When a storefront came up for lease on Roncesvalles Avenue, an area of Toronto undergoing a huge renovation and rejuvenation project, Jameson jumped on the location.

“I signed the lease on June 30, got keys Aug. 1 and we were open Sept. 17,” says Jameson. “In that time we incorporated, I hired staff, I renovated, I set up POS systems, business loans, everything – I had six weeks to do everything to get the store open.”

That quick opening set the pace for Sweetpea’s first years in the floral business. Within months of opening its doors, Toronto Life magazine named the shop best fresh cut flower purveyor in the city. The media coverage hasn’t stopped there though. Sweetpea’s has also been featured in BlogTO, t.o.night, Weddingbells magazine, the Globe and Mail and the New York Times.

“We have a highly intelligent group of customers. They’re not necessarily wealthy; they’re careful with their money, but they have a sense of style and they want beautiful things in their lives,” says Jameson. “They’re choosy about what they get and who they support, and they’re very dedicated to them.”

Sweetpea’s has worked hard to earn that dedication. Last year the shop took on responsibility for watering all of the new trees and plants lining the made-over street. Staff wheeled a wagon up and down the block, leaving hole-punched buckets full of water near the new plant life. People in the neighbourhood kept an eye on the buckets and returned them to the shop when they were empty. This simple act of caring brought Sweetpea’s increased foot traffic and went a long way in building up some goodwill in the community.

A style all their own
Everything about Sweetpea’s is unique, from the disassembled Curious George picture book that now hangs on the wall as an art piece to each and every arrangement that leaves the shop. The arrangements are truly works of art; Jameson gives her florists free rein to create.

“I’ve never wanted to be a florist, but I’ve always wanted to own a flower shop,” she says. Her smile suggests that she knows this must sound a little odd. “I can’t make a bouquet, I can’t put together arrangements, it’s just not my skill set, so I hire people who do that for me.”

“Because I’m not a florist, I don’t dictate a style. It’s very rare that I critique, it’s very rare that I ask [staff] to do something again. I tell them to go ahead and express themselves – just make sure it’s something the customer wants and that it fits their needs.” This creative freedom allows Sweetpea’s designers to produce some incredible work, but it also makes staffing an ongoing challenge. At the moment, the shop employs two full-time florists and one part-time florist. Jameson says finding designers with the confidence and experience to thrive in the shop’s anything-goes environment isn’t easy.

But Sweetpea’s 1,000-square-foot retail space is more than just a flower shop; it’s a showcase for salvaged items that have been repurposed into stunning displays and an eclectic mash up of found objects that give the space a warm, welcoming feel.

“The shop is everything that I would want in my own home on a bigger scale. It’s eco-chic meets elegance,” says Jameson. “What we’re trying to show people is that you can have things that are elegant and beautiful and that fit your lifestyle but aren’t necessarily shiny, brand new plastic and chrome.”

She jokes that even the shop’s pets – two rescue Great Danes and a pair of cats adopted from Toronto Animal Services – are recycled.

Staying true to Sweetpea’s eco-friendly roots takes a lot of dedication from Jameson and her growing staff, including six employees in the retail shop, three administrative workers, and a stonemason who’s taken on the role of construction manager, overseeing his own crews on landscaping jobs. The shop sources locally grown flowers as much as possible, so Jameson makes weekly trips to the flower auction at The Clock. She has also built strong relationships with local growers. When the shop has to import product, suppliers know that it must all be eco-certified in order to fit with the business’s green philosophy.

To minimize waste, staff are expected to use up older floral product stored in a refurbished, pink painted walk-in cooler before turning to the newer stock, which is kept in a cooler painted purple. (Both coolers were purchased as scratch and dents and painted so you’d “never know they were beat to crap.”)
At a Glance
Company name:
Sweetpea’s
Location:
Toronto
Owners:
Sara Jameson
Years in business:
3
Website:
sweetpea-blooms.ca

“We have to buy very, very carefully. It’s not just waste as an ecological point though, it’s financial. In order to keep the financial cost down for the customers, we have to make sure that we’re not throwing out half the fridge every week,” says Jameson. Roses that are past their prime are diverted to seniors’ homes throughout the city, where residents with a variety of illnesses and ailments use them in horticultural therapy. When it’s time to clean out the 500-square-foot garden centre, stock is moved to the sidewalk out front of the shop and a message goes up on Sweetpea’s Facebook page inviting customers to come by and help themselves.

The shop uses biodegradable cellophane to wrap purchases when necessary, but at three times the cost of traditional cellophane, it’s an option that’s used sparingly and only on purchases that really need it. How flowers are packaged depends on whether they are being given as a gift or simply wrapped for protection on the trip home. When it comes to gift- and table ware, packaging materials that come into the shop protecting shipments of new stock go out again protecting a happy customer’s purchase. When there’s no other use for packaging – the netting around the store’s spider mums, for example – Jameson takes care to dispose of the waste responsibly.
“I will literally sit there over a glass of wine and cut them into pieces so they don’t get caught around the necks of fish or geese,” she says with a laugh.

At Sweetpea’s, being eco-conscious is about more than just being mindful of waste and finding new uses for items that would otherwise wind up in the trash.

Jameson is working to switch the shop over to Bullfrog Power. For every watt of power Sweetpea’s pulls from the local power grid, Bullfrog Power will pump a watt of 100 per cent green wind or solar energy back into the grid. The shop will continue to receive bills from its current electricity provider; Bullfrog Power will simply add a small premium to each bill in order to cover its costs. Jameson, who has already signed up with Bullfrog Power at home, says that this option costs a little more but winds up paying off in the long run. Besides which, some of the shop’s more expensive eco-friendly choices are balanced out by other options that actually save a little money while showing the environment some love.

“There’s always trade-offs. For example, we probably pay more for flowers in the winter, but we know that we pay less for them in the summer.”

It isn’t always easy being green
Although Sweetpea’s eco-friendly approach to business has been a success, not every practice that the shop tests out winds up sticking. There’s an element of trial and error in figuring out what works. Last Mother’s Day, staff used a brand new cargo bike to make deliveries. Customers loved the idea and it worked well enough when pedalling around small orders. For larger arrangements, though, Jameson says bicycle delivery was “an absolute disaster.”

p12_FreshCuts
 
p12_MothersDayBags  
“It worked just fine for some arrangements but when we got into sympathy pieces, it fell over and crushed the piece on the way to the funeral home.”

In another location, bicycle delivery may have worked better. But Sweetpea’s prime spot in a bustling neighbourhood meant the delivery cyclist needed to be very confident riding in traffic. Moreover, the weight of the bike – especially when loaded up with heavy arrangements – made it difficult to stop and start, so a second cyclist had to accompany the delivery rider in order to help control the bike.

“Hills were our mortal enemy – you could not make it up hills on the bike,” Jameson says.

On the landscaping side, Jameson has started to limit the areas where Sweetpea’s will take on jobs. In this case, it’s an eco-conscious choice that also makes good business sense. “We’ve gotten to a point where we don’t want to be driving half an hour, 45 minutes through the city to a job site and back again. That’s the eco-friendly side, but then it is the business side as well. When it costs almost $200 to fill a tank of gas and then you’ve got four guys sitting on a truck, I don’t want to be paying for that transportation back and forth.”

To cut down on fuel costs, the shop uses a 48-horsepower mini-truck for many of its landscaping and maintenance jobs. In addition to being more economical, the truck is small enough to park just about anywhere in the city. Jameson says they will probably start making smaller event deliveries in the mini-truck in order to cut down on the shop’s carbon footprint and save on operating costs.

“Being an eco-friendly florist isn’t an easy thing and it’s something that we have to work at all the time,” says Jameson. “Because it’s something that’s ingrained in who I am and what I do, it’s something that comes naturally.”


p12_GardenCentre  
Customers (and the shop’s pets) love Sweetpea’s 500-square-foot garden centre, located behind the store.

 
Six tips for a greener shop
  1. Minimize waste in your shop. After all, it’s good for business if you can avoid throwing out product and find creative ways to work with broken stems.
  2. Be practical about packaging. Don’t use more wrap than the flowers really need just because your customers expect their purchases to be packaged a certain way. Explain how you’d like to wrap a purchase and why – most customers will trust your judgment.
  3. Swap out paper towels for cloth towels and rags. Wait until you’ve got a full load before throwing them in the wash at home.
  4. Get to know growers in your area. Build up a network that can supply you with local product and leverage those relationships when working with eco-minded clients.
  5. Explore options to offset your shop’s environmental impact. Bullfrog Power can offset power consumption, while an organization like Terra-Pass can offset the carbon footprint of your delivery vehicles.
  6. Keep an open mind. With a little TLC, items found at garage sales or salvaged from curbside on garbage day can make great additions to your shop. Sweetpea’s sends small arrangements in vintage teacups that can be returned to the shop for a credit towards another purchase. The shop has also repurposed old bird cages for large sympathy arrangements.

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