It’s petals to the metal as Biloela Florist prepares for Valentine’s Day

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By Jen Gourley

IT’S a blooming busy time at Biloela Florist right now with Valentine’s Day just two days away.

Cupid’s special day is one of the biggest events of the year for this local business and it takes months of planning and prep work to be ready when romantics from all over the Banana Shire choose flowers, chocolates, teddies and more to express their love.

Chris Gunnourie, owner of Biloela Florist on Kariboe Street in Biloela, kindly allowed the Biloela Beacon behind the scenes to see just what’s involved to prepare for Valentine’s Day.

Sliding open the front door, you walk into the main part of the shop, filled with a wide range of gorgeous gifts for all sorts of occasions, but it’s at the back, past the shop counter, where the action is happening right now. There, surrounded by ribbons and papers, baby’s breath and ferns, are Chris and her friend Leicha Gleeson, two skilled florists with busy hands and even busier minds as they think, prep, plan, design, brainstorm, problem solve, organise, adapt and create!

There are buckets everywhere filled with the most breathtakingly beautiful flowers and the combined fragrance of thousands of petals floats through the air.

It’s a time of busy-ness and beauty for Chris, and as usual, she’s called in her friend and fellow florist Leicha to help. They’ll be joined by another florist friend too at times during this craziness, just to make sure all the local lovers have got their posies, bouquets and arrangements on Valentine’s Day.

With 14 years running Biloela Florist, Chris has learned a thing or two about how to make the big day run as smoothly as possible. There are checklists for everything including the little details such as ensuring the computer mouse has spare batteries and that there’s plenty of sticky tape.

Last year’s Valentine’s Day is put under the spotlight to see what worked and what didn’t work, and more lists are made, and not always during working hours!

“They usually come to you as stupid ideas in the middle of the night when you wake up or you’re in the shower in the morning,” Chris says. “So, I just make a point of writing all those things down and now there’s a little Excel spreadsheet that I just print off every year and go through and check everything.”

And then there’s the stars of the show – the flowers. They need to be ordered about a month before Valentine’s Day. And the day of the week that it falls on makes a big difference too.

“Tuesday’s fabulous for us as florists,” Chris says, “because we get a chance to spend all weekend prepping and making flowers.”

As for the choosing the blooms? It’s not just about carefully selecting from the thousands of flower plant varieties that Mother Nature gifted us, it’s also about the amount. It’s a pressure and a challenge and more than just a wee bit of stress for florists to hope that they’ve not under ordered or over ordered.

 “You just take an educated guess on what we did last year and you order a certain amount,” Chris says.

They could cross their fingers, but those talented fingers are already busy snipping leaves, twirling wire, cutting paper and curling ribbon so they’ll just have to hope for the best.

So, what flowers DID Biloela Florist order for this year’s Valentine’s Day?

“Well, definitely red roses and coloured roses,” Chris says. “You’re basically left to what the suppliers let us order really. I would love to be ordering things like dahlias and zinnias, and beautiful things like that but you’ve got to pick what’s seasonal and what’s going to travel. I think we’ve built our reputation, and Leicha’s the same as me and I think that’s why we work so well together, is that our customers are spending a lot of money on flowers so we want them to have the best possible longevity of those flowers. So, we’re try to choose things that are going to give them good value for money.”

The flowers are ordered from suppliers in Brisbane and Toowoomba and are sourced from around Australia and also the world.

“I try to use local as much as I can,” Chris says. “By local, I mean Australian and I like to support Australian if I can. But these days it’s not easy to do all that and there’s also the availability. Australia doesn’t make enough flowers for our domestic markets, so we have to import.”

The flowers can come from all over the world including Kenya and Ecuador due to their climate. Those two countries alone export flowers such as roses, carnations, alstroemeria, statice, lilies, daisies, ranunculus and sunflowers. (And if you’re wondering, Australia’s main flower exports are natives such as banksias, kangaroo paws, Geraldton wax and eucalyptus foliage.)

The suppliers send the flowers to Biloela Florist by courier.

“One lot comes on Followmont Transport, and it’s just an open truck the whole way and no refrigeration,” Chris says. “With those ones we have to be particularly careful… especially with the heat like this. You’ve got to really make sure that we look after them and hydrate them properly.”

Those flowers still get some TLC though for their road trip, with Leicha explaining that they are boxed up with ice packs to help keep them cool.

“Two of my other supplies come on the fruit truck that comes up to Anderssons (Foodworks) with their fruit,” Chris says. “That works well because they’re refrigerated the whole way.”

After the flowers arrive, there are certain things the florists need to do to improve their longevity.

“I think that’s one thing that we do really, really well is what we call conditioning our flowers, because they’ve travelled that long time,” Chris says. “We take great care of them. We pull them apart, let them breathe, trim their bottoms and just look after them and sort of nurture them back to life again. And by doing that, we’re hopefully extending their life.”

Not everything goes according to plan, though, when it comes to the flower orders.

“One of the suppliers has already really rung up and cancelled tulips and something else,” Chris says. “So, that’s another thing – you take a punt and order what you think you’re going to need but then halfway through it, they cancel, ‘Oh this is not available and this is not available’ and we think, ‘Oh god, that’s one of the designs going out the window.”

What do the florists do when that happens?

“We just have to improvise,” Leicha says.

“That’s one thing about being a florist,” Chris adds. “You’ve got to be able to think outside the square. You can’t just sit there and go, ‘Okay, I’ll make this and this and this and this and follow the recipe and make it’. You really have to think about what you’re doing and improvise and yeah, it’s fabulous in that respect, I love it.”

Both Chris and Leicha trained under Debby Birach-Mayer from Flowers to Impress in Toowoomba. Debby is a Dutch Master Floral Designer with more than 25 years of experience and has won highly-prestigious awards in international flower competitions.

“She is an amazing lady with an absolute passion for flowers and teaches you the best way to look after your flowers and give the best to the customer,” Chris says of her mentor.

As for Chris, how did she get into the flower business?

“Oh, I’ve always loved it,” Chris says. “My mum is a huge gardener and has a beautiful country garden and I’ve always loved flowers. I always tell the story that when I was in, I think it was about grade five or six, the school had a fete. My friends and I had a flower stall. And my dad was president of the P&C at the time. He says, ‘What are you doing something like that for? You’ll never make any money for the school’. But we got everyone, out of their gardens, to donate all the flowers and then we got jam tins, painted them and decorated them, put the flowers in them and sold them. So, we had absolutely no cost. But everything we made was profit.” And that was Chris’s first foray into floristry.

“That was really young, but I’ve always just loved flowers,” Chris says. “I’ve had a passion for flowers all through my life. Forever. I used to work at the DPI here and I loved my job there too. It was a fabulous job. But when this shop became for the sale, I just said to Grant (her husband), ‘You know what? I want to buy that’. And he went, ‘Really?’” laughed Chris. “And I did. I’ve been here ever since and done some nice study and learnt a lot, but I do believe there’s a certain knack for it too. You don’t have to be gifted, but you have to have the ability to do it.

“You might look at something and go ‘That’s beautiful’. But we know that the correct height is there, the correct proportion is there, the correct flower balance is there and the correct mechanics are there behind it. We’ve studied to learn all of that, but we still have that ability just to be able to do it as well.”

Leicha had her own florist business in Chinchilla for several years but now lives between Moura and Bauhinia. When she’s not helping Chris arrange flowers for busy events like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, she works on her cattle farm with her husband Walter, and also has her own barbed wire art business.

Right now, though, the barbed wire is sitting idle and it’s floral wire that Chris and Leicha are artfully using in their flower arrangements. The clock is ticking and while many orders are done, there are still plenty more to complete before Tuesday morning. An average day’s business for Chris might be about five to 10 flower arrangements, and a busy day could be 15.

“Each order takes you, say 15 minutes, because a bouquet takes 10 and an arrangement in a box takes 20. Really, I can only do four orders an hour, as well as deal with customers as well as answer the phone. So, if you’re doing 10 to 15 orders a day, that’s quite a busy day. For Valentine’s Day we look at 100-plus orders, as well as walk-ins. I have no idea how many walk-ins we do because they’re not being delivered, but I know at least we’re going to have 150 orders to do.”

“And then you have your general orders on top of that,” Leicha adds.

Last weekend the florists spent did a lot of prep work but the workload and adrenaline have increased exponentially as Valentine’s Day draws closer.

So, what’s it going to be like on Tuesday, when the big day arrives?

“We’re usually here early,” Chris says. “We will have worked the night before, so everything’s done and finished. We’d like to have all the orders done the night before so usually it is about 10 or 11 o’clock that we go home. I know florists in the city that work right through – they don’t stop and I really don’t know how they do it and I refuse to do it.” (Although one night before Valentine’s Day our local florists didn’t go to bed until 3am).

One reason for the early start is for couriers to collect flower orders that are going to Theodore and Moura.

“Grant often delivers for me out to Theodore and Moura, but sometimes people want them early. So usually we’re here by 5am the day of and probably two or three days leading up to it,” Chris says.

As well as dealing with the deliveries out of town, there’s an efficient plan for delivering the flowers around Biloela on Valentine’s Day.

“Once we’ve taken all the orders, we work out where they’re all going to according to different parts of town,” Chris says. “So, one part of town is grouped as an A, next part of town is a B or C. So, when the delivery drivers are going out, they’re not going up to say Thalberg Avenue and then go back down to Alexandria Avenue and then over to Redeemer and then pick up for Thalberg Avenue again. All the Thalberg Avenues go together. So, when we take the orders and write the cards up, each order is designated in a category and so when we make it, it gets put into those categories.

“When you come in at five o’clock in the morning, it’s checking everything to make sure it’s all okay because sometimes, for some reasons, flowers just give up the ghost during the night – they drop their heads or something. So, we come in, check all the flowers, and then there’s usually a few things that might need to be done like tulips going into a vase or (take out) something that needed to be in the cold room all night. And then we just keep on making up flowers and we open the shop at 9am for trade.

“We usually try to get the first lot of delivery drivers out before we open up the shop so that at least some of the front’s cleared. When Valentine’s Day was a Tuesday last time, we had over 100 orders. So, there were 100 orders sitting out in the shop front there, so we try to get as much out as early as we can, plus people like to get their flowers early as well. Yeah, you can’t be waiting all day for the flowers.”

It’s a non-stop day of deliveries, phone calls, and walk-ins and once the door closes about 5 or 5.30pm, it’s time to clean up.

What’s the feeling at the end of Valentine’s Day for these florists?

“Exhausting,” Chris says. “It’s absolutely exhausting. And it’s different. Different people appreciate flowers differently because some people absolutely appreciate everything you do for them and just go, ‘Oh my god, that’s just amazing, I just love it’, and other people go, ‘Oh yeah, it’s flowers’.  I remember when I first started, someone ordered 12 coloured roses. To get 12 coloured roses sitting beautifully and the colours all complementing … I spent hours on this bouquet, these 12 roses, and I delivered it and (the woman) just took the bouquet and threw it on the couch. Oh, I was just absolutely devastated that someone had just thrown this bouquet on the couch.

“I put my heart and soul into them. And I think that’s what Debby teaches us too – when you do flowers, we’re selling the emotion and you don’t do it unless you can do it properly and emotionally and we take the time to ask our customers, ‘Do you think she’d appreciate the pinks and purples? Or would she really like the reds and yellows?’ So, we take the time and, yes, I know that that’s time as well, but I know that’s why Biloela Florist is good at what we do because we take the time to ask our customers what they like and what they don’t like. And then you make it with that passion and that love for that person.

“You’re giving a lot of yourself when you make your flowers, so, in that respect, yes, we’re exhausted when we go home, but incredibly satisfied.”

Leicha agrees. “That sense of achievement because you’re like, ‘Yes! we did it! And it just all worked’. But we do have a great crew out the front that help us. We wouldn’t be able to do it without the girls out the front,” she says.

It’s not just the girls though. There’s also Grant…

“Grant’s been fabulous,” says Chris with a smile. “He’s been my backbone the whole way through this.”

While music is his first love, he still spends many hours working at the shop and delivering flower arrangements, and he’s there again this weekend helping out (when he would dearly love to have watched their daughter Izzy playing rugby for the Queensland Country Orchids!).

Floristry is an art. It takes talent and dedication and hard work to bring it all together. So, if you are lucky enough to have Cupid (or Grant!) knocking on your door on Tuesday with an armful of stunning flowers, know that they were, most definitely, made with love.

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