Wichita Wholesale Florists grows into Roots & Bloom

04/28/2011 12:00 AM

04/28/2011 8:06 AM

After watching a big part of his customer base wilt away, the owner of Wichita Wholesale Florists figured he had to do something.

Say hello to Roots & Bloom, as the city's oldest flower and floral supplies wholesaler is now known. More than just the name has changed. Roots & Bloom has been remodeled and revamped to target retail customers as well as the florist shops it's long served. The grand opening is this weekend.

"I had ideas of how I wanted to get flowers back into society, and I figured we are an option to do that," owner Chris Coburn said.

Coburn's grandfather, Charlie Kerr, started Wichita Wholesale Florists after moving here from St. Joseph, Mo., in 1936. At the time, it was the city's only floral wholesaler. The original location was on West Second Street.

"He had a nice distribution cushion," Coburn said. "There were only two in town until the late '70s."

Coburn's father, Ed, took over after serving in the Korean War. Chris did the same in 1999, after his father asked him to look after the business while he was away one summer.

Coburn, who'd studied history and political science at the University of Kansas, and spent quite a bit of time living outside Wichita, had never pictured himself running the family business. "After I got home and involved in the community, I realized I really like it a lot," he said.

But the business was changing. Over the past decade, about 100 florist shops have closed in his 200-mile distribution radius, most the victims of large retailers getting into the flower business, Coburn said.

To sell enough flowers, Coburn said he decided to offer flowers to walk-in retail customers at the same wholesale price he gives to florists.

"We don't have any pricing tier," he said. "Everybody who walks in the door gets the same price."

Becoming a retailer required quite a few physical changes in the current location on South Laura, where orders had just been taken by phone before. The former storage space run has been turned into a showroom with large windows, and an adjacent lot has been transformed into a patio that held about 3,000 hibiscus and other plants this week.

The interior includes a consultation area where freelance designers can meet with clients, as well as a workspace where they can put together arrangements. The shop is also offering storage in its coolers for designers and anybody else working on larger projects.

Coburn says he's not trying to put florist shops out of business. After all, they're still his customers, too. He offers no design services himself.

"I think there are people around town that do an excellent job of that — the Susan's, the Dean's, J.R Koontz," he said. And despite the new patio, he said, "We're not a garden center. Johnson's does a wonderful job with that."

But he said his shop should appeal to "do-it-yourselfers" who now opt to come up with their arrangements for weddings and other events. He said the business' new name "is kind of metaphorical. We've got roots in town and we're blooming into a new future."

One thing that hasn't changed is the experienced six-person staff, which still includes Ed Coburn, packing orders and providing a familiar face for longtime customers.

"I'm our newest employee," Chris Coburn said.

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