A celebratory look at some of our floral industry compatriots who have been in business as long as—or longer than—us.
By Andrew Joseph
It’s fun as a parent to watch the kids grow up and become adults. For our purposes, it’s even more fun when they take over and grow the family flower business—generation after generation after generation.
To be in business for more than a century takes a lot of family commitment, hard work, an ever-changing master plan, excellent leadership and a wee bit of luck, quite frankly, combined with growing and adapting alongside the customer base’s demands and needs.
Founded in 1897, Florists’ Review magazine this year celebrates its 125th anniversary of bringing the floral industry news and stories, trending floral design and helpful business management tips to our loyal readership. To celebrate, we thought it would be fun to chat with a few others in our industry who have maintained family-owned flower businesses for at least a century. While we would love to have included everyone who fits our parameters, space constrictions have limited the depth of our probe, so please forgive us if you are not part of this article.
We begin our past, present and future look into the American floral industry with a company whose roots make it the oldest continuously run family-owned floral retail business in the U.S.
Yup, the oldest family-owned flower shop in the U.S. is Imlay Florists, Inc., of Zanesville, Ohio, currently presided over by Dave Imlay, the fifth generation of Imlay to run the business.
Florists’ Review attempted to contact Imlay Florists for a more in-depth and personal context on their history and how things have changed and grown for them, but we were unable to connect in time for this article.
However, using data compiled from a Y-City News online article from February 2021 that celebrates Imlay’s 180th anniversary, as well as an article from five years previous, from the Zanesville Times Recorder, we have gathered the following historical information.
“Go west, young man” has long been a uniquely American adage, and one that William Smith Imlay took to heart when, as a 13-year-old in 1834, he drove a team of horses from New Jersey westward to Ohio, which had received its statehood only 33 years previous. For context, when William arrived in New Concord, Ohio was still home to a large Cherokee nation where violence between the two cultures was a common occurrence.
In 1841, William started a tree nursery in New Concord, growing it slowly before moving the business 16 miles west to Zanesville where he opened a greenhouse—which was still on the outskirts of what is now a modern-day city. It was William’s son, John Dillion Imlay, who cut flowers from the family greenhouse and then ride his bicycle into Zanesville to hawk them. John then began to transform the family’s wholesale flower business into a retail flower shop in the burgeoning city.
Growing from having space in a newfangled drug store where one could by medicines for the body and flowers for the soul, John moved the flower business into a one-room building he purchased. When that building was razed in 1906, he rented property nearby to continue—until that building, too, was razed and replaced with a new three-story one, from which Imlay Florists operates from to this day.
In 1912, a third-generation Imlay, Manning Vincent “Cap” Imlay, attended the Massachusetts Agriculture College, becoming the first in the family to gain a formal floriculture education. He assumed the mantle of shop manager two years later, holding onto the leadership position until his passing in 1969.
John David Imlay (fourth generation) took over with son and current owner, Dave, learning at his feet. Dave began his apprenticeship at age six, sweeping floors, watching and sometimes just hanging around the shop to learn every aspect of the business from his dad. Aside from a few years spent away at a wholesale job, Dave has spent the rest of his time at Imlay Florists.
It’s not a given that the sixth generation of Imlays will take over the shop once Dave retires although they do continue to help out when they can. Dave believes there is a strong possibility that Imlay Florists will skip a generation and assume grandchildren-ownership.
Working from the single Imlay Florists retail shop that continues to serve the city of Zanesville and surrounding area, Dave and his wife also own a Christmas tree farm, which they purchased 10 years ago in nearby Blue Rock, Ohio. For the Imlay family, that 70-acre tree farm is a symbol of how the family business was started as a tree nursery by William Smith Imlay—a circular reminder of when present meets past.
NANZ & KRAFT FLORISTS
This flower company continues a fine family tradition, now up to seven generations deep. Headquartered in Louisville, Ky., Nanz & Kraft Florists has been in business since 1850, with the Kraft family an integral part of its day-to-day operational success.
Although it’s web of ownership is twisty, it is intriguing, according to the sixth generation of ownership by brothers Eddie and David Kraft in an interview with Florists’ Review. The co-owner brothers take annual turns as leader of the company—a sharing ability that was foisted upon them by outside professionals as much as their parents; more on that later. Their brother, Michael, had also been a company co-leader but unfortunately passed away in April 2019. Seventh-generation Kraft talent also exists in Kraft-lings who work for the company during breaks from university.
Getting existential for a moment, every moment in the present owes its reality to the past, and the flower entity that is Nanz & Kraft is no exception. Henry Nanz emigrated from the then-agrarian Stuttgart, Germany, in 1850, to Louisville, Ky. Why? Because at that time, Germany was rife with contentious religious and political issues and even hunger riots. Political prisoners were released if they agreed to go away to America. A large influx of those German immigrants settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, and spillover of the immigrants soon found its way down to Louisville, Ky., 100 miles away.
While not a political prisoner, Henry decided to avoid the choice and made his own, arriving in Louisville in 1850 and set up his flower business—as noted by a historical account from the company’s 1896 catalog: “… in a humble way, with one little greenhouse, size 10 feet by 50 feet. At that time, flowers were in little demand, and the wants [of the populace] were supplied from this small establishment.” His business sold shrubs, ornamental and fruit trees, cut flowers, and hothouse plants, and like florists in the latter half of the 19th century, Henry operated greenhouse facilities to grow all the company’s plants.
Henry’s eldest daughter, Sarah (Sallie), married Henry A. Kraft Jr., a former Prussian native and butcher by trade, in 1869. At this time, Henry Kraft Jr. did not become involved in the flower industry, preferring instead to continue in the wholesale butcher business.
One year later, in 1870, Henry Nanz acquired business partners Alfred and Carl Neuner—from the same area in Germany as himself—renaming the company as Nanz & Neuner’s Florist, Farm & Greenhouses. The entity sold flowers and bouquets for everyday requirements, as well as floral wreaths and crosses for other ceremonies, vegetable and flower seeds, bedding plants, fruit and ornamental trees, and roses.
Roses—some 500 varieties—were offered by Nanz & Neuner, with historical sales estimates bragging of millions of units, customers from all over the nation and 25 working greenhouses. By 1880, the firm owned 30 acres of land for growing plants, including 31 greenhouses on 2.5 acres of this land; employed 16 men; and considered themselves wholly involved in the wholesale and retail flower industry.
After Alfred Neuner abruptly left to begin his own floral concerns in 1896—and Carl Neuner’s previous departure—the original Nanz company lists son-in-law Henry A. Kraft Jr. as its president and founder Henry Nanz as secretary and manager. The title of president was provided to Henry Kraft Jr. after he provided financial salvation to Nanz following Alfred Neuner’s departure. However, Kraft and sons did continue as “silent” partners, preferring to focus on their butcher concerns and leaving Nanz to operate the day-to-day of the flower entity.
However, following Nanz’s death in 1914, the Kraft family assumed full control of the company, with grandson Edward A. Kraftnamed its leader in 1918, continuing as such for several decades and his son—Edward A. Kraft Jr.—taking over from him. In 1958, with a nod to the past, the company was renamed Nanz & Kraft Florists, with ownership passing to Edward Ramsey Kraft in 1967. After fire destroyed what was then its second location for the singular shop in 1976, temporary space was used until the physical business was rebuilt a year later with a new 20,000 square-foot footprint.
“Nanz & Kraft are no longer operators of our own nursery,” says current co-owner Eddie Kraft. “Nor do we grow all of our plants from seeds or cuttings, and roses are no more a specialty than at any other retail flower shop. “But,” he continues, “we do have 35 full-time staff and a part-time staff of 45, and we hire additional employees for holidays to handle all of the flower orders and special floral designs.”
Now with one branch location serving the southern Louisville area and its main shop serving the rest of the city and surrounding area, current co-owner David Kraft told Florists’ Review that the main store—in the same location since 1872—has a showroom, design room, sales office, gift shop and a 20-foot-by-80-foot greenhouse on its second floor for holding plants and flowers.
“We also have a room for preparing fruit baskets and wreaths and have additional refrigeration and cold storage space,” David explains. “And we continue to provide our customers with a full range of services, including cut flower arrangements, fruit baskets, wedding planning, plants, permanent botanicals, as well as a wide range of giftware.”
Eddie adds, “Houseplants are a big part of what we do, as are gourmet fruit baskets. We also have a liquor license and sell/deliver wine and spirits.”
Online sales compose a stream of revenue that was not around during Edward R. Kraft’s tenure as company head. “Online sales account for about 50 percent of our sales,” David notes, “and COVID-19 appears to have provided us with a four-year jump in sales because people still wanted flowers and were content to order via our online portal.” Eddie and David note that the manner of advertising also has changed since their father’s era—no print now; only digital advertising.
The Kraft brothers bought out their father in 2007, but Edward R. continues to work on the design floor creating arrangements. Even though no Nanz has been a part of the company in more than a century, Eddie and David realize—as did their dad—that the Nanz & Kraft name and brand carry prestige in the community and any attempt to alter it could confuse and lose a customer base.
David says that since he and his brothers knew they were one day going to take over the company, their father—and others in similarly built businesses—suggested they get some professional help. Yes, a psychologist and business advisor were involved, but it was a series of meetings that taught them how to share and tolerate family better within the business environment, without taking anyone’s contributions for granted.
It’s why the brothers share the leadership of the company. When Michael was alive, it was always a best two-out-of-three votes, but with just Eddie and David remaining, each year, a different brother will hold de facto decision-making power, with David holding sway in 2022.
In Eddie’s and David’s younger days, their father placed the brothers in different departments in the company, to work and then eventually lead, which Eddie suggests helped each brother respect the talents and know-how of the other, allowing each to focus on his own job.
Another nod to their father was delivered by David: “Forty years ago, our father decided that our flowers would be delivered by our staff wearing our uniforms, to provide a clean, professional look, and we rigorously maintain that to this day.”
As for what the future brings, the brothers say that the lessons learned during the pandemic should continue to be part of any equation moving forward, citing the increase in e-commerce. “The supply chain and employee labor issues are also concerning,” says Eddie. “But now that government financial aid has stopped—across all economic sectors—the labor force is returning. It’s only very recently that we have been able to have the full staff we need.”
David ponders the world of Amazon and its fast deliveries and autonomous driving vehicles, and asks, “How do we fit into that model?” Recognizing the right questions to ask will help this company keep it stepping toward the future as it maintains a healthy grounding in its generational past.
MT. EDEN FLORAL CO.
San Jose, Calif.
A premier wholesaler of flowers, supplies and décor, Mt. Eden Floral Co. opened its doors in 1906, in San Francisco, Calif. Like the other flower enterprises in this article, it was built by immigrants. Unlike the others who arrived from European countries, Mt. Eden’s proprietorship owes its origins to Japan.
While some Japanese and Japanese-Americans worked the railroads and laundries, others plumbed gold mine operations and others chose to grow produce, plants and flowers. While everyone of Japanese descent was prohibited from owning agricultural land in California from 1913 through the end of World War II, they could lease small parcels of land for three years at a time. Many chose to grow crops that had a shorter growing period, which is why many chose to grow flowers.
Led by the four Domoto brothers, who established the first commercial flower growing business in Northern California, in 1884, immigrants learned the flower business from them and were encouraged to start their own. Zenjuro Shibata was one such person, opening a nursery in 1906 in Oakland, Calif. That was the year of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, which destroyed the city. Across the bay, the city of Oakland was also affected, but it survived relatively intact because no fires broke out there.
After marrying, Zenjuro and the Shibata clan moved south to Hayward, Calif., in 1918 and established the Mt. Eden Nursery. Son Yoshimi was born shortly before the move, and an older son died in an accident in 1920.
Even during the 1930s and The Great Depression, the business of flower growing bloomed, as Zenjuro and family increased output with more and larger greenhouses. And because its market now far exceeded its San Francisco area, Mt. Eden needed to be in constant communication with its wholesale customers.
It all came to a head not long after the U.S. entered WWII in December 1941. After a group of flower dealers formed to charter a weekly truck to move Mt. Eden flowers down to the Japanese wholesale flower market in Los Angeles, Yoshimi traveled there to ensure all was well. However, because of Pearl Harbor, Japanese and Japanese-Americans were initially banned from traveling more than five miles from their homes, so to get around this, Yoshimi borrowed a badge from a Chinese-American buddy that read, “I am Chinese” (people of Japanese ethnicity were quickly becoming persona non grata in the U.S.).
Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, Yoshimi saw armed soldiers at the train station checking passenger documentation. Emboldened, he walked up to a soldier—still wearing the badge—and asked where the flower market was. Perhaps the question and the badge alleviated suspicions because Yoshimi’s credentials were not checked, and the soldiers provided him with directions. It was all for naught, however, because upon arriving at the flower market, Yoshimi discovered it shut down because the owners were Japanese and not American citizens.
During the war, Yoshimi’s family leased their land and “voluntarily” relocated to Marysville, Calif., before being sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center, a Japanese internment camp. Perhaps because of his long-achieved good standing as an upright Californian citizen and entrepreneur, Yoshimi was declared loyal to the U.S. government, granted indefinite leave from the internment camp and allowed to move to Des Plaines, Ill. After the war, Yoshimi married Grace Eto and had three children: Naomi, Robert and Michael, all of whom would work at the reclaimed nursery.
Yoshimi lived to the ripe old age of 99, passing away in 2015. During his storied lifetime, he had many accomplishments and achieved many successes. He was awarded the “Order of the Rising Sun, Fourth Class” medal by the Japanese government in 1987 for his pioneering work in the floral industry, and in 2015, he received the “Distinguished Service Award” from the California Association of Flower Growers and Shippers. The award was in recognition of Yoshimi having created a co-op of rose growers in 1949, which made Mt. Eden one of the largest growers and marketers of the flower in the U.S.; developing a chrysanthemum breeding and propagation business; partnering with the Sumitomo Corporation of Japan in 1989 to further develop a carnation breeding and propagation enterprise; helping create and set airfreight standards for flower shipment with the Civil Aeronautics Board, a former U.S. aviation agency; and assisting with efforts to consolidate trucking logistics from the West Coast to the East Coast.
Other notable achievements by Mt. Eden under Yoshimi’s leadership include being one of the first growers to use precooled boxes for shipping, opening its own wholesale stores for vertical integration, selling flowers to supermarkets and fulfilling orders for online flower retailers. Mt. Eden was also an early adopter of purchasing imported flowers to supplement its own production, establishing a partnership with Visaflor to bring roses from Mexico to the Los Angeles Flower Market.
Nowadays, based in San Jose, Calif., with a satellite facility in San Francisco, Mt. Eden is one of the country’s top wholesale distributors of cut flowers, plants, floral supplies, and event and holiday décor. The company is currently led by Yoshimi’s son, Robert (“Bob”)—the third generation of Shibata—with Robert’s son, Alex (fourth generation) also now working at the company.
TIPTON & HURST
Little Rock, Ark.
If it sounds strange that a floral business begun 135 years ago, in 1886, hasn’t changed all that much in 2021, then welcome to Tipton & Hurst of Little Rock, Ark., currently operated by third-generation owner Howard Hurst. To be fair, however, the company operates as a 21st-century ever-evolving company that, as Hurst notes, continues to be built on innovation and the foundation of family to provide local area consumers with a high standard of excellence.
According to Howard, he has in his possession a contract between founders David Tipton and his grandfather, Joseph Hurst, from 1886. The affable Howard explains, “Tipton received some money to construct some greenhouses, and although my grandfather was a railroad man and lent him the money, it wasn’t long after that the Hurst family opened a retail flower store,” Howard recalls. “My grandfather ran the florist and retail operations, and the Tipton family were the growers and ran the wholesale operation.”
Orchids were the big seller for the company then and were shipped by train all over the state. It remains a key floral component to this day, as Arkansas still possesses old-school traditions of debutante balls and dances, with the women adorned with the exotic florals.
Howard says his grandmother ran the business in the early days until his dad, Joe Hurst, eventually took it over and bought out the Tipton family in 1950. The company still has greenhouses—some 20,000 square feet—plus an additional 30,000 square feet of warehouse space for the other aspects of its business model—giftware, home décor, wedding and event props, et al.
Howard says that working at the company has been his first and only job—initially sweeping the floors, processing flowers and taking his little red wagon to deliver plants and flowers to customers. “I realized that I wanted to work with my dad. It was a great brand and most everyone in Arkansas recognized it,” he notes.
Handling weddings, parties and holidays is something that Howard says remains unchanged since his earliest days, but he notes that the business of high-end “gifts”—something that was started by his grandmother—has continued to expand in its scope, with customer-friendly options offering a full gift and bridal registry service online.
“We had three stores when I took over at the age of 26, and now, 38 years later, we have five: two in Little Rock and one each in North Little Rock, Conway and Pine Bluff—each about one hour away from the main store, at the most,” Howard confirms.
Technology has been the biggest change for the company, Howard says, adding that the company now ships its products all over the world. The company’s has some 50,000 “Followers” on its Facebook page, and Howard says the company hosts weekly live shows of floral design and decorating demos. Viewers can purchase the products—DIY kits, essentially—during the shows or at their conclusion.
“Christopher Norwood, AIFD, AAF, PFCI, our vice-president for more than 30 years, is the creative manager and host of our Facebook Live events,” Howard acknowledges. “These events help bring in an estimated $10,000 to $20,000 per show, with about 80 percent of the customers purchasing online and having the items shipped and 20 percent coming into the shop to pick up.”
Hurst is quick to point out that, “My business plan for success has always revolved around surrounding myself with people who are smarter and more talented than me. It’s not about me or one person; it’s about being a team. There are no egos. We all do what needs to be done [Howard was making deliveries during our conversation!], and we take great pride in going above and beyond to make each customer extremely satisfied.”