Flowers of Lisle celebrating 40 years on Main Street
When Flowers of Lisle owner Bob Kendall began delivering flowers in 1972, he never imagined that someday he would own the whole business.
As a teen attending Lisle High School, Kendall took the $1.65-an-hour part-time job to earn a little spending money and put aside some for college.
"As the time got close to graduation, the owner Pete Gravendi offered to pay for me to go to floral school if I agreed to work for him for a year after I finished," Kendall said. "I liked the business, so I agreed."
When Kendall became a floral designer, his salary moved up to $2.35 an hour, which was a little more than minimum wage at the time. When he took floral orders in the store, he liked to interact with customers, to understand their wants and to offer suggestions.
Gravendi, the original owner, also grew up in the floral business, working as a teen in his mother's flower shop in Westmont. When it came time to expand to an additional location in Bolingbrook, Kendall proved ready to become the Lisle store's manager. Then in 1990, Kendall, who had learned all aspects of the business, was ready to purchase the business that now celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Kendall believes the business's longevity is the result of a commitment to customer service, word-of-mouth referrals and customer loyalty.
"Our customers are not strangers," Kendall said. "People feel very comfortable coming in here."
Kendall knows many of his customers by name and enjoys working with his team of employees. Over the years, his personal growth from delivery boy to local flower shop owner reflects the tremendous changes in the industry, even though the shop's location at 4728 Main St. in Lisle remains the same.
The building grew with a 25-foot addition to the back end of the store that allowed the showroom to gain 12 feet and the cooler's size to double. The store recently updated its front elevation.
Main Street itself has taken on several renovations. However Flowers of Lisle along with other business neighbors such as Leo's Cleaners and The Book Nook, now called The Nook, remain Main Street staples.
A flower shop sees people in their best times and during the worst times.
"Yes, we see people for their weddings, births, homecomings, proms, anniversaries, birthdays and happy times," Kendall said. "We've done their children's wedding flowers and now are doing the grandchildren's flowers."
The business also does get-well and funeral flower arrangements.
Creative arrangements are where Kendall's talents shine.
"We made an arrangement of a guitar all out of flowers for the wake of a musician," Kendall said. "For former (Chicago) Cub broadcaster Jack Brickhouse's wake, we were asked to do a six-foot old-fashion microphone, with the cord symbolically cut."
Over the store's four decades, improvements in global transportation made a large impact on the floral industry.
"Illinois was at one time a cut-roses state with huge greenhouses in Berwyn and Oak Park growing flowers year-round," Kendall said. "But then it became too expensive to heat and the property itself became too valuable to sustain the business."
It used to take five days to deliver flowers from California aboard an ice-packed railroad car; today flowers come into O'Hare International Airport and, through haulers, arrive at the Lisle shop within 24 hours of being cut in fields in Ecuador, Columbia, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and California.
"It is amazing how quick and fresh the flowers arrive," said Kendall, who estimates the store uses 1,000 stems during a typical non-holiday week. "We are now able to get tulips and irises all year long."
The worldwide reach also affords different kinds of flowers such as the large, dense Proteus from New Zealand.
The floral industry's year goes from one holiday to the next starting with its busiest one-day event, Valentine's Day. Its biggest weeklong holiday is Mother's Day. The wedding season is in June, July, August and September, and then it is on to the holidays of Sweetest Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Little breaks between holidays afford times to freshen up the store and update skills and trends with classes offered by the American Institute of Floral Designers and the Society of American Florists.
Some business customers purchase flower arrangements at regular intervals to freshen their lobbies and offices. Standing orders are in place to send to hospitalized employees or in case of a family's member's death.
To personalize its service, Flowers of Lisle will add a box of candy, fruit or other requested items to its floral deliveries.
"We'll go out and handpick what our customers request to complete an order," Kendall said.
Flowers of Lisle keeps up with all the latest floral trends whether it is traditional, country, contemporary or novelty items.
"People send a lot of our floral birthday cakes to offices," Kendall said. "It is popular right now and the piece holds up very well."
Other floral trends include the use of tropical flowers and hydrangeas. According to Kendall, terrariums and silk flowers are making a slow comeback.
Like all businesses, the impact of technology over the past decade has been incredible.
"Forty years ago, people would make a purchase and put it on their account," Kendall said. "We'd send out 150 to 200 statements a month. Now with access by computer, an inviting Web page and credit cards, people order online at all times of the day and night and we no longer have concerns about a check bouncing."
Kendall soon will add a blog to his website at flowersoflisle.com. He says the blog will be similar to a chatty newsletter addressing customer questions and offering ideas. In fact, it is completing the circle of interacting with customers.
"The blog should work out quite well for us," Kendall said. "We are very happy to still be here after 40 years in the business. We look forward to people coming into the store to say 'hello.' "
• Joan Broz writes about Lisle twice a month in Neighbor.
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