On the disastrous day before Valentine’s Day, Tracy Callahan waded into the knee-high snow with a shovel and tried to free the flowers.
“We don’t make money unless the trucks are moving,” Callahan said, chipping away at the frozen wall surrounding the delivery van parked next to Bethesda Florist.
A Valentine’s Day banner flapped in the wind on the store’s awning. “Send Your Love,” it said.
Callahan shoveled. “Normally, on [February] 13th, there’d be 15 vehicles lined up out here,” he said. “It’d be mayhem on the street. But look at it.”
Nobody was there. Nobody was moving. The great Cupid crisis of 2014 was underway.
“Not ideal,” Callahan said.
His family’s shop and florists across the snowed-in Washington region were facing the cut-flower equivalent of the perfect storm: major snowfall the day before Valentine’s Day.
Americans are expected to spend nearly $2 billion saying it with flowers during the holiday this year, according to a National Retail Federation survey. It’s one of the industry’s three biggest sales periods, along with Mother’s Day and the December holidays, according to the Society of American Florists in Alexandria.
Flower shops are always humming around Valentine’s Day — except when they aren’t: On Thursday, two-thirds of Bethesda Florist’s employees were at home. The delivery fleet was grounded. The phones were ringing only sporadically.
“The snow is probably gonna lop off about 15 percent of our sales,” said Callahan, whose dad opened the shop on St. Elmo Avenue in 1959. “Commerce is just dead. People are digging out or watching the news. They’re not thinking about calling us. They don’t even think we can make a delivery.”
Boxes of flowers were stored in a makeshift cold room — an enclosed space with minimal insulation. There were dozens of dozens, with many more en route. Eventually.
A local distributor had called to say that a big order of flowers, vases and other supplies might not make it on Thursday, as originally scheduled.
Callahan shrugged. The snow had muddled his own delivery network, which was shut down Thursday because of road conditions.
“We may only get half of our deliveries made tomorrow,” he said.
About 300 orders went out Wednesday, many of them moved up a day by the store’s staff, which predicted Thursday would be a bust for deliveries. An additional 800 or so bouquets and orchids and other orders are still on deck, Callahan said. Deliveries probably won’t be done until Sunday. “We’re now calling it Valentine’s Day Weekend.”
The phone rang. Callahan answered before it could ring again.
“Experience the beauty of Bethesda Florist, this is Tracy,” he said, in suddenly dulcet tones.
The man on the line wanted to know if he could get some flowers delivered on Valentine’s Day.
“I can’t guarantee it,” Callahan said. “It may go Saturday, and it may even go Sunday. It all depends on the remoteness of the address, and the roads.”
“Is it better if I just come in?” the man asked.
“You can definitely come in,” Callahan said.
It was a familiar refrain and scene at flower shops all over the Washington area. At the Willard Hotel in downtown D.C., Greenworks was open, but only for walk-ins. The delivery service used by the florist was taking a snow day.
Manager Aki Ebrahimia hoped the flower-delivery fleet would be moving again by Friday. But, she said, “we don’t even know if the federal government will be open. It’s going to be a big mess.”
Some of Bethesda Florist’s orders, bound for the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, have been rescheduled for Tuesday, when everybody is expected back to work.
“Most people understand,” Callahan said. In 2010, when back-to-back February storms socked Washington just before Valentine’s Day, Bethesda Florist only got four or five complaints about late deliveries, he said. “People just want the flowers.”
But many roads may be impassable for days, he said. “I don’t want my drivers to get stuck.”
In his office, his socks and high-tops were drying near a space heater. They’d gotten soaked during his 40-minute slog to the shop from his brother-in-law’s house, where he’d slept during the storm. (He feared getting snowed in at his home in Darnestown, Md.)
In the back of the quiet, 1,900-square-foot shop, where the shift schedule for the day said, simply, “EVERYONE,” Kyleen Hamilton sifted through stacks of order tickets, which were sorted by type: red dozens, pink dozens, multiples, specials. A printout near the phones listed the going rates: $95 for 12 long-stem red roses, $65 to $150 for Valentine’s Day arrangements.
Jennifer McCausland, a new employee at the store, stripped thorns and unattractive petals and leaves off of 120 roses for a culinary academy’s order. Vases were filled, roses were unwrapped and arranged.
Callahan got antsy, then got up.
“I’m gonna see if I can plow the truck out a little bit and knock out a few of these close deliveries,” he said. “Anything I can do will help. If I can knock out 12, that would be huge.”
He went outside to clear a path for the van.
Dig, dig, dig.
“We have to try and attack this day,” he said. Paper hearts, heart balloons and teddy bears were visible through the store window. “It just is what it is.”
He moved the snow, then moved the van, then put two arrangements in the back, then took off for the Whitehall condominium building on Battery Lane.
“I have a delivery for Laura Oremland,” he said to the concierge. He went to the 10th floor and knocked. The door opened.
“Are you Laura?” Callahan said.
“I have a delivery for Valentine’s Day,” he said, presenting the arrangement of roses, tulips, hydrangeas, lilies, larkspur and the like.
“Oh, wow,” she said.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” he said.
Oremland beamed. The flowers, she reported upon reading the card, were from her family in Arizona. “I’m totally shocked,” she said.
“We’re here to please,” Callahan said.
Abha Bhattarai and Amrita Jayakumar contributed to this report.