I lope with my Tumi backpack east down M Street NW across Connecticut Avenue on a humid August morning in Washington. On the sidewalk in front of me is an eruption of petunias, roses and sunflowers that make me think I am on the way to Emerald City.
“It’s so people know we are open,” owner Phil Caruso says as I arrive.
Caruso, 86, his fist full of roses, plants himself amid the melange and hands out singles to passersby.
“To brighten your day,” he says as he hands a rose to a woman, who performs a balancing act with her coffee thermos and rolled-up newspaper.
His Caruso Florist is a Washington institution, a 114-year-old family business that sells $2 million worth of flowers and fruit boxes each year. Caruso products launch some marriages and rescue others. Their flowers celebrate lives well lived. They grace law firms and dentist offices, taking the sting out of both. Their arrangements add pop to hotels, acknowledge a kindness or repair a friendship.
Political confidant and lobbyist Jack Valenti was laid to rest amid Caruso flowers. Cuba’s Fidel Castro was hidden from view by Caruso green garlands on a 1959 visit. The florist’s all-time customer list has featured Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, the late Mayor Marion Barry, the Washington Nationals, television/radio host Larry King, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, astrologer Jeanne Dixon, civil rights and women’s rights activist Dorothy Height and half the hotels in town.
Florist shops in the United States average about $350,000 in revenue a year and pocket about $50,000 in profit, according to the Society of American Florists. With $2 million in revenue, Caruso must be raking in profit.
“The business supports a lot of people,” said Mike Caruso, 59, Phil’s son who runs the day-to-day operations at the florist. Four Carusos work there; three brothers and father Phil, who is the president. There are 23 full-time employees and five trucks delivering flowers seven days a week. The big expenses are labor and flowers.
The five trucks together typically make more than 100 deliveries a day, dropping off fruit baskets at hospitals, flowers at churches and a dozen roses at a Potomac home. Ninety-five percent of orders arrive by phone and Internet. The business has computer files on thousands of its regular customers.
About 40 deliveries are standing weekly orders for drop-offs at the University Club, a dentist’s office, the hotels and a law office — anything within a 25-mile radius of downtown.
Caruso Florist is known for higher-end pricing and service, with orders from $35 for a basic arrangement to $30,000 to decorate the Hay-Adams for an over-the-top wedding.
Mike Caruso arrives before sunrise every Monday. He spends the morning organizing the day, which may mean unloading 1,000 roses flown in from Ecuador or checking on the Gerbera daisies that just arrived from Canada’s eastern provinces at 6:30 a.m.
“We have five trucks out on the road today,” Mike said last Monday. “Probably close to 100 deliveries. August is the slowest month of the year. Once Congress goes out, things kind of calm down.”
December, February and May make up half the business. There are three weeks of heavy traffic leading up to Christmas. Mother’s Day is bustling. And then, of course, Valentine’s Day.
It’s do-or-die day. The truck fleet grows to 30 just for Valentine’s Day, and the staff doubles.
“We may go up to 1,500 deliveries,” Mike said. “You want to get them all on that one day, but you can only take so many orders. Sometimes we ask them to take the flowers on the day before, or even two days before if they wait too long.”
The Carusos have been selling flowers since Teddy Roosevelt was president. It is one of only a few old-school Washington survivors, along with Ben’s Chili Bowl (a youngster at 1958), Tiny Jewel Box (1944), Cleveland Park’s Uptown Theater (1936) and Wagshal’s delicatessen (1925).
It didn’t take me long to figure out why Caruso is still in business after more than a century.
Two words: asset light.
They own no warehouse. No gardens. No greenhouses. They have zero debt, save for a few thousand dollars on the delivery trucks. They lease 2,600 feet across two buildings separated by a driveway instead of owning the buildings.
“People say, ‘Gosh, why don’t you put a shop in Virginia? Why don’t you put one in Maryland?’” Mike said. “The thing about this is we like to have control over the product and the employees and everyone. That way, you can take care of your quality. If you start branching out more and more, then you have more headaches.”
Boxes of flowers come in the back door, and beautiful arrangements fly out the front. Besides the trucks, they have some refrigerators and a computer.
“With flowers, you want to move those out two, three days after you get them in,” Mike said. “It’s not like food where you can put it in the freezer. You want to keep that product moving.”
The Washington economy does its part.
“You are insulated by being in D.C., between the government, the individual businesses and the law firms,” he said. “We have been at this location since 1968. The rents keep escalating. I try to get in as long a lease as I can. I signed one a couple of years ago for 10 years.”
Mike’s brothers, Tim and Steven, split responsibilities. Tim takes care of technology and billing. Steve handles hard and soft items such as vases and fruit. Phil orders most of the flowers and is the ambassador and face of the company.
Everything about Phil is flowers. He lives in a Montgomery County neighborhood called (I am not making this up) Flower Valley. His house is on Jasmine Drive. He wore a green flower-print Brooks Brothers silk tie when I saw him.
Phil doesn’t take a salary. He and Peg, his wife of 63 years, live on Social Security and stock investments.
“We bought a new truck with my salary [instead],” Phil said. “I like to see my name floating around town.”
As for himself, Phil drives to work every day in a red, Ford sport-utility vehicle with a Marine Corps sticker on the front door.
When he’s not handing out flowers, he spouts jingles from memory: “Pepsi-Cola hits the spot, 12 full ounces, that’s a lot. Twice as much for a nickel, too. Pepsi-Cola’s the drink for you. Nickel, nickel, trickle, trickle.”
Phil starts work at 4 a.m. when he opens the store. By 10:30, it’s time for a morning break, and he sits in his SUV and listens to the sports scores on the news. He finishes each day around 1:30 p.m. and heads home to Flower Valley.
“I’ve been working more than 71 years between this store and the one our family had on 14th Street,” he said.
Phil’s grandparents came to America from Palermo, Sicily, and from Naples. They ended up in the District and settled down in a rowhouse near Capitol Hill, where the Rayburn Office Building is located.
“They started selling flowers on push carts on 8th and F streets NW,” Mike said.
Phil followed his father and grandfather into the flower trade.
The family grew the business and eventually moved to 14th Street and Columbia Road, where it was located until 1968, when its building was burned in the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
After the fire, the Carusos kept the business going for six months from the back porch of the family’s home on Otis Street NE, near Brookland. Phil also sold flowers by the roadside near cemeteries on Memorial Day and Mother’s Day.
They moved to their current location at 1717 M St. NW later in 1968.
Phil’s only time away from the business was 1951-52, when he served in the Korean War as a machine-gunner with 40 pounds of iron strapped to his back.
He survived three close calls, including an unexploded shell that landed right next to him.
“If that one that landed next to me went off,” he said, “it would have cut me in half.”
Now I understand why he is so happy every day.