Tobie Whitman picked the busiest time of year to start her floral business: The week of Valentine’s day.
“It’s the major flower-purchasing event of the year,” said Whitman, 35, who officially opens Little Acre Flowers this week. “As people think about buying flowers, it’s a great moment to ask them to consider a new product.”
Her product is this: A locally sourced flower delivery service that gets its blooms from Maryland and Virginia. Much like the menu at a farm-to-table restaurant, bouquets change every day, depending on what’s local and in season.
Arrangements range from $40 to $100 depending on size, and can be ordered on a one-time basis, as well as weekly or monthly.
“I thought if I can successfully source bouquets this time of year — in icy, freezing February — then I can definitely do this year-round,” Whitman said.
Whitman, a former policy analyst with a PhD in international relations from Cambridge University, has long liked flowers. For many years, she worked part-time in local floral shops cutting flowers, processing them and ultimately designing arrangements for large events. She worked the rest of the time at the Institute for Inclusive Security, a group working to include the voices of women and others in discussions of war and peace.
Last summer, she quit her policy job altogether and began setting up Little Acre Flowers. Whitman invested about $15,000 to get the company off the ground, with most of those expenses going toward its Web site.
“I wanted to do something totally different — something creative, something with colors,” Whitman said. “It was a different world from what I had been working in.”
Whitman purchases flowers from a variety of local farms and fields, most of them within 50 miles of Washington. Bouquets are wrapped in repurposed burlap sacks from Rockville-based Mayorga Coffee. In addition to Whitman, the company has three part-time employees who help prep and arrange the flowers. A third-party pool service handles deliveries.
For Valentine’s Day, Whitman plans to deliver bouquets with pink and red tulips, lilies, hyacinths and blooming branches. (There will be no red roses, though — they don’t grow locally and are too “plain and old-fashioned,” Whitman said.)
“When you buy local, there just aren’t as many options,” she added. “If you’re somebody who has to have purple roses, I’m not the person for you.”
The $30 billion flower industry has changed dramatically in recent years with the rise of international distribution services such as 1-800-Flowers, Teleflora and ProFlowers. As of 2012, 64 percent of fresh flowers sold in the United States were imported from other countries, according to the Society of American Florists in Alexandria.
“A lot of the things people associate with flowers — freshness, nature — aren’t represented by a lot of the flowers they are buying,” Whitman said.
Although it’s too soon to tell, Whitman says she expects about 200 orders this week. She currently runs the company’s day-to-day operations out of Allan Woods Flowers in Woodley Park along with three her part-time employees, but has plans to expand into her own space. She hopes to be profitable within a year.
“We really want to simplify the flower-buying process,” she said. “Most people don’t care about having 50 different options, they just want something beautiful. They want something seasonal and fresh.”