If you're going to San Francisco

Caught out by an unexpected redundancy during the heady days of 1980s America, a corporate Kiwi couple fought back by putting flowers in more than their hair

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco (image care of San Francisco Travel).

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco (image care of San Francisco Travel).


It's 4.00am in San Francisco and most of the city’s inhabitants doze under a duvet of fog.

Inside a chilly open-air warehouse on the corner of Sixth and Brannan Streets, against a backdrop of scurrying forklifts and under the glare of fluorescent lights, Kiwi businessman John Beattie is deep in conversation with a high-profile wedding planner.

They’re on the phone talking roses. The flamboyant planner wants the best possible quality at the best possible price. He needs 2,500 bunches. And he needs them pronto. 

“No problem. But I’ll need at least two days,” replies John in an appealing yet odd mix of Kiwi and American that’s taken more than two decades to refine. 

John knows the perfect white bud. The Ecuadorian tineke is firm and its colour and head size consistent. He understands that each 80c stem has a job to do. It must convey love, respect and unity and, perhaps, most importantly of all, please a high-society bride.

Later, he’ll phone a trusted supplier in Southern California, who, fingers crossed, will have the roses boxed and on a refrigerated truck before the day’s end.

The planner is satisfied – and lodges his order. Both men hang up – each with an epic day of organisation ahead of them.

Welcome to the San Francisco Flower Mart, the almost century-old wholesale flower market located 1.6kms from the city centre. 

For one Kiwi couple – John and Barbara Beattie – the market’s been both their meal ticket and an all-important portal into American life. It’s here, among the wooden trestle tables, enormous cold stores and congested concrete isles, that they’ve spent the past 22 years of their lives.

San Francisco cable car (image care of San Francisco Travel).

San Francisco cable car (image care of San Francisco Travel).

“Would you believe it all happened by accident?” posits Barbara from her Californian-ranch style home. “It certainly wasn’t planned. When we set up shop in 1988 we’d no experience in the industry. My background was teaching and John’s was marketing and sales. I guess you never know what life’s going to throw at you.”

In 1987 the fates conjured up an economic storm that was to leave the world’s stock markets in tatters and hurl John’s plum job, executive salary and twice-yearly trips home down the gurgler. 

By November that year, John and Barbara faced a serious dilemma:  either they find another way to make a living or they call it quits and go home.

Barbara recalls how packing up their two children, Kent and Nicole, after two years overseas was never really an option – particularly for 13-year-old Kent, who had muscular dystrophy (a muscle disease that would end his life four years later).

“He’d cry and say I don’t want to go back. We couldn’t do it to him. At the time, New Zealand was an awful place for kids in wheelchairs. In America we could take him skiing.  He belonged to a baseball team. He loved that Americans actually looked him in the eye.”

That’s when Barbara started to think seriously about the flower industry. “I kept saying to John what about flowers? I noticed my neighbour’s dinner tables were laden with them. The bought kind. Not the kind that come straight out of the garden.”

The diminutive former high school teacher reckons it took time to bring her husband round to her way of thinking. But convince him she did. And, not long after turning in one night, the pair were soon dragging themselves out of bed again to check out the markets first hand. It was time to test Barbara’s instinct.

San Francisco neighbourhoods (image care of San Francisco Travel).

San Francisco neighbourhoods (image care of San Francisco Travel).

From their living room in Lafayette, one of San Francisco’s wealthier suburbs, John and Barbara still marvel at the market they came across that day. 

For starters, there was little variety in the flowers sold – carnations, roses and snapdragons typically. Pretty much everything was sourced from local growers. Stalls were handed down from generation to generation or bought and sold through exclusive (mostly Italian) family networks. Outsiders couldn’t get a look in – or so they were told.

Yet, on that first-ever trip, the former Hawke’s Bay couple had one of those chance encounters that changed the direction of their lives forever. 

They met a stall owner with a Kiwi connection looking for a way out of his business. They got talking. Before long, John had struck a deal. He’d work for the stall owner, for free, for two months. In exchange, the stall owner would teach John everything he knew and give the Beatties first dibs on the stall if ever the owner wanted to sell.

By May 1988, John and Barbara had made history. They’d become the first (and only) Kiwis to buy into the San Francisco Flower Mart (calling their stall Highlight Imports). More importantly, to them at least, they’d found a way to keep their young family exactly where it needed to be.

Looking back, says John, he didn’t really think about the challenges involved in selling flowers for a living or take time to weigh the risks.  In typical Kiwi fashion, he just got stuck in. With that frame of mind, and plenty of know-how about marketing and sales, he went about changing the way things were done.

He beefed up the presentation of his 90m2 shop front, gaining a reputation for having the best-dressed stall and, over time, prompting others to follow his lead. He opted to sell only the best quality flowers at the highest price. He began bringing in flowers from all over the world – French tulips and oriental lilies from Holland, peonies and hydrangeas from New Zealand and gerbera daisies from Israel to name a few.

“By-and-large people hadn’t seen this approach before.  It may have existed, but it wasn’t the norm. It really paid off. I’d empty an overflowing cash register three times a day! Nowadays, it can take a month.”

John and Barbara agree the following decade – thanks to the dot-com boom – was exciting and the market itself a stage for never-ending human drama. 

“We’ve seen every slice of life. We’ve seen fights and brawls. We saw, tragically, AIDS nearly wipe out every gay man in the industry. One week we’d see a buyer with a lesion or two on his skin. The following week he’d be dead,” says John.

Gay pride parade, San Francisco (image care of San Francisco Travel).

Gay pride parade, San Francisco (image care of San Francisco Travel).

“We’ve met some of our dearest friends through the market, too,” says Barbara. San Francisco’s best-known event designer, Stanlee Gatti, is one who stands out. 

Through Stanlee, the couple supplied flowers to romance novelist Danielle Steele’s wedding to Tom Perkins in 1996 and to parties hosted by musician Elton John and former US president Bill Clinton. Once they supplied $US90k worth of orchids to a single Gatti-inspired event. 

Once they supplied $US90k worth of orchids to a single Gatti-inspired event

Yet the Beatties agree the industry’s hey day has passed – at least from a wholesale seller’s perspective.

Barbara explains: “We’ve had the perfect storm. September 11 cooled people’s appetite for celebrating. The latest recession dampened that further. Today the market’s more open and competitive. People can go online and buy direct from anywhere in the world. We’ve survived it all.  But it’s much harder now. 

So, what’s next for John and Barbara – the warm and charismatic couple who first crossed paths as students on Massey University’s Palmerston North campus?

Right now, they’re revelling in being first-time grandparents to Harper, their daughter Nicole’s 11-month-old baby. You’ll still find John at the market three days a week – and on the golf course for the other two.  Barbara, meanwhile, enjoys combining weekly hikes on nearby Mt Diablo and running her own merchandise rental store, also based at the market.

They travel home to New Zealand several times a year and were thrilled to achieve American citizenship prior to the 2008 presidential election and a cast a winning vote for Barak Obama.

Undoubtedly Barbara hankers for home. But it’s a yearning she can live with. “Besides,” she says, “This is where Kent lived the happiest years of his 17-year-old life. To me, his spirit is still very much here and that’s the most compelling reason to stay.”

This story was first published in New Zealand Life & Leisure magazine.

Tips on fresh flowers

  • Barbara’s favourite flowers for the vase are New Zealand-grown double-peonies. “Put them in water as closed buds and watch them burst open – that transformation is just delightful.” South American roses rate a close second.

  • John’s top tip for keeping fresh-cut tulips upright in the vase for longer: Take a sharp knife and make a small nick under the tulip’s head, at the top of the stem.

  • Enjoy locally-grown hydrangeas as much as you can, the couple agree.  “They’re undoubtedly the best in the world.” Add a little bleach to your vase water before adding flowers, advises Barbara. It’ll keep the water clear and help your blooms last.

San Francisco flower market wares (image by Jacqui Gibson).

San Francisco flower market wares (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Tips on surviving tough economic times

  • Acknowledge the warning signs. “Before the 87 crash, people were spending a lot of money and renting big offices before actually selling anything. Living the high life. The signs were there. We were caught out when John’s employer went into receivership. But we weren’t really surprised,” says Barbara.

  • Think outside the box. “A career in flowers for two Kiwis with no experience? Who would’ve thought it,” says Barbara. Enough said.

  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Importing a container-load of lavender, thinking it was lilac was a bit of a clanger, admits John. “But we sold it all in the end!”

  • Look for opportunity. John explains: “We were the first to import roses from Ecuador. It caused quite a stir. Other stall owners thought I was mad. They thought no one would spend the money. In the end, one of my biggest critics shut down his local greenhouses and got into selling Ecuadorian roses himself.”

  • Surround yourself with good people. John and Barbara say one of their most trusted suppliers is fellow Kiwi Stephen Arnet, general manager of Flying Fresh International. Theirs is a relationship that’s lasted more than 20 years.