What do you get when you cross two savvy business woman who have a knack for putting together stunning flower arrangements, and a dilapidated corner business that needs a major facelift? Sunflower Flats, a charming brick and mortar store that carries a variety of hand-picked and local home décor, an online presence, and county-wide delivery service of fresh flower arrangements. They specialize in weddings, funerals, “I’m sorry” arrangements, happy birthday, and just because bouquets. I sat down with Natalie Rieger, the daughter half of the dynamic mother-daughter duo (with Cindy Gardner being the mother half) who owns Sunflower Flats. We chatted over a cup of coffee (what else?) about their beginnings, the emotionally charged side of a flower shop, and how her degree in business administration was the perfect fit.
I love to ask about business names. Everyone has a story behind their business name, and it frequently tells something significant about the business owner. I had always assumed that Sunflower Flats was, well…a flat of sunflowers. Not surprisingly, it’s more significant than that. “Sunflower Flat is actually a sunflower filled valley in Eastern Oregon,” Natalie explained. “My mom went there with her sister on a horse ride a year before we opened. The scene was etched in her mind.” The decision to name their shop Sunflower Flats because of the sentimental value, is an indication of how they run their business: with thoughtfulness and a love for helping others create special memories. In the summer of 2001, when Tillamook set up their first farmers’ market, Cindy was invited to split a booth with a friend. She decided to sell flowers from her garden, much to the delight of market goers. When many people commented that she should
do more with her flowers, she and Natalie hatched a plan. Cindy and Natalie had their eye on the corner shop that had been vacant for years, and saw the potential to take Cindy’s love for flowers and Natalie’s sharp business sense and turn that shop into a Tillamook treasure. At the time, Natalie was attending Portland State University. “I was on my way to take my last class in Portland and I called my mom while I was on the Terwilliger curves, completely at a standstill in traffic. I told her we should go for it. I didn’t want to live in Portland.” She moved to Tillamook and got an 8-5 job with the county and worked on Sunflower Flats on the side. They opened their doors just three short months after their decision to start that business.
“There had always been a flower shop there called Leedo Floral, but it closed down. We always loved the location, so we bought a few equipment items, gutted the space, and invested our own money in a building we didn’t own because we knew it had to be done.” The green grass indoor/outdoor carpet came up, the window seats were torn out, paint was rolled on and light fixtures were replaced. They did all the research they could, talked to people who worked at flower shops, and connected with the Portland Flower Market, a wholesale market that services the entire Pacific Northwest with fresh flowers that come in from all over the world. They got their licensing so they could shop there for their flowers and supplies. Natalie was working full time, and running the business end of Sunflower Flats in her off time. When she had her first baby, she decided to quit her job with the county and work full-time at the shop. She put a pac n’ play in the back of the shop, brought in an exersaucer, and worked the business. She answered phones, delivered flowers, and did all the nuts and bolts back work. It was three years before they were able to take a paycheck. They were bolstered by family and friends, even having Natalie’s newly retired grandfather as their first delivery person.
16 years later, their doors are wide open, and they employ an average of eight people, depending on the season. They deliver 15-20 arrangements every day in a 60-mile stretch of highway 101 from Manzanita to Neskowin and have a thriving market with destination brides. They offer a rich variety of arrangements for any occasion, that it’s no wonder that they’re busier than ever. One of their best sellers is a famed candy bar bouquet.
Cindy and Natalie really are a dynamic duo. Natalie handles the bookkeeping, ordering, and keeps the wheels behind the scenes turning smoothly, while Cindy tackles the creative side of the flower business. Together, “We make one whole person based on our talents and the things we like doing. Not everyone could work with their daughter, and not everyone could work with their mom, but it’s worked for us for 16 years.”
Together, they’ve navigated the emotionally charged side of the flower business. From high strung brides who are at odds with their own mothers about what their flowers are going to look like, to the heavy grief that accompanies funeral services, to the people who just need something to make their apology just a little sweeter, they’ve answered the call with grit and grace.
With all of Natalie’s “free time”, she works behind the scenes for her husband’s logging business, Rieger Logging, LLC that they started in 2006. Bookkeeper, parts picker-upper, truck shuffler—Natalie knows what it’s like to work hard for a business that you’ve grown from the ground up. She grew up in a household where her parents owned a local business for 20 years, so she’s no stranger to the ups and downs that come with being a business owner. It’s no wonder that one piece of advice she has for a new entrepreneur is to be sure that your business is “your passion and that you’re willing to work on it 24/7 at first when you’re trying to build [it]. If it’s your business, you need to be the one to be there.” If someone calls in sick, or is late, or quits, it’s the business owner’s job to step into that role.
Her other piece of advice? “Know what wise investments are and be willing to evolve and adjust your business to fit in with that. Do it well, and do it right.”
Before we parted ways over our long-empty mugs, I asked her what she’s reading and what she’s eating (my two favorite things). Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist (she’s working on implementing the things she learned in that book), and blogs. “I’m obsessed with [Pioneer Woman]. I used to stalk her blog on a daily basis. I found other bloggers through her.” She loves blogs about lifestyle, fashion, children and parenthood. As for eating: “Meals that can be prepared ahead of time, like lasagna and chicken enchiladas.” Her family loves to eat at Fisherman’s Corner in Garibaldi (“really good food, family friendly”, she says), and it has all you can eat fish and chips. When they’re in Portland, they love to eat the best mozzarella sticks at Claim Jumper.
Photo of Natalie, and photo of Cindy and Natalie: Xiomara Gard