COLUMBIA — The time is 4:40 p.m. on Tuesday. Amid the aroma of flowers, the employees of Allen’s Flowers are busy taking orders, organizing bouquets and talking as KWRT/93.1 FM plays softly over the speakers. Suddenly, the docile work environment is shattered.
“Hey, flower ladies!” John Gilbreth says loudly as he proceeds straight into the back work area as if he were about to arrange flowers himself. The 26-year-old, with his black St. Louis Cardinals hat with a paperclip on the bill, is wearing a 1980s-style Cardinals jacket that would make Whitey Herzog proud.
Immediately, the energy and attention of the shop are focused on Gilbreth and his quest for a “classy and simple” single flower for a woman he is taking out to dinner at Murry’s that evening. Opinions buzz around the shop (“No roses,” one says) until designer Darla Manley steps up to the plate. Suggesting a pink ice Protea, she unveils the single flower from a box. He shouts joyfully, covers his mouth and opens his eyes wide.
Gilbreth is just one of many customers of Allen’s Flowers in the days before Valentine’s Day. While most people associate the holiday with Cupid, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and candlelit dinners, florists think about working till 4 a.m., being on their feet for hours on end and chugging copious amounts of caffeine. Here at Allen’s, two days before Valentine’s Day, the rush has already begun.
The floor in the back is littered with leaves, petals and stems. In the middle of the backroom is a large, metallic work station made up of six smaller tables. Among the vases and flowers sit water bottles, soda cans, coffee mugs and a stray Red Bull. Under each table, 12-packs of soda stand ready.
All nine employees buzz around the shop in their sweat shirts — the temperature is kept at 55 degrees to protect the flowers — and purple aprons. Some take orders in person or on one of four phones that ring constantly. Internet orders spew out of the printer at a rapid clip. Everyone else works together to fill orders. The picker, Tina Bradley, grabs the order, pulls the flowers from the walk-in refrigerator and tells the designer what the order is. Amy Ferguson then designs a bouquet of six red roses, greens and the Sweet Heart Vase. She cuts and trims the two varieties of greens to size, sets them in the plant food-infused water and sprays the greens with Leaf Shine.
Sporting a maroon sweat shirt and blonde curls, Amy Ferguson dethorns and cuts the roses to size with the precision of a sushi chef. She pulls off the packing petals that protect the flower petals during shipping and tosses them to the littered floor. Leaf Shine is added again, and after the card and order form are affixed to the bouquet, the order is complete. One down, hundreds left. Over the next two days, the crew will put in 43.5 hours, 27.5 of them coming after normal hours, to fill approximately 1,200 orders. They’ll get a breather until Mother’s Day, the second busiest day of the year for florists.
The crew still remembers its infamous deadline shift preparing the 2004 Valentine’s Day orders. After working through the day and night on Feb. 13, the crew finally took a break at 5 a.m. on Valentine’s Day for breakfast at IHOP.
“We just sat,” Ferguson said, placing her hands on her face. “We loaded up on more coffee and planned out our attack plan for the day.”
Back to work an hour later, the crew worked for another 12 straight hours, growing slap-happy. But in 33 hours, the shop put together approximately 700 orders, the most they’ve ever handled in one day.
The shop expects this year to be its busiest yet.
But for now, Gilbreth is ready to pay for the Protea. Manley has arranged the flower with green and orange wrapping paper before encasing the flower in plastic. While detailing how to take care of the flower with step-by-step instructions, she rings up the purchase. Gilbreth nods.
“I love this place!” he says. He holds his flower as if it were made of glass.
Manley soon begins a new set of instructions. Like a mother talking to her son before his first homecoming dance, Manley gives Gilbreth some dating advice for the evening: act like a gentleman, take care of the woman and add some romance. He soaks up every word, and with another wide smile, he’s out the door.
In the back, the ladies pause to reflect.
“Stuff like that,” Bradley said, “is what makes me love this job.”