Kathy Dudley, The Bloomery
Eighteen years ago, Kathy Dudley got a phone call that changed her life: She was living in Tuscaloosa and working at the University of Alabama when her mom called from Butler, Pennsylvania, to tell her the local flower shop was for sale.
“I thought it would be so fun to own,” she recalls.
Dudley inked a deal to purchase the business, packed her bags, and moved back to the East Coast to start her new life as a florist. The Bloomery opened in 1998.
Although she loved working with customers to create beautiful wedding bouquets, funeral flowers and special event arrangements, Dudley often had trouble finding certain blooms and, when she was able to order the flowers she wanted, the stems arrived wilted or damaged.
To improve the quality of the flowers she sold at The Bloomery, Dudley worked out a deal with her parents, local vegetable farmers, to rent a plot of land to grow her own cut flowers.
“My first goal was to grow products that, as a retailer, I couldn’t get,” she explains.
Dudley focused on growing flowers that were too seasonal or didn’t ship well along with unique specialty blooms. Her first cut flower harvests included parrot tulips, upright fuchsia, succulents, and herbs like mint, sage and basil for cut foliage and filler.
“We’re not growing 10,000 sunflowers a week,” she says. “We do grow sunflowers, of course, but we’re more of a boutique type of farm.”
Until 2010, Dudley juggled the retail shop and the flower farm, working overtime to make sure both endeavors thrived. The stress proved—well, stressful, and she made the decision to close the retail shop and focus on the farm.
Sowing the Seeds of Success
Becoming a full-time flower farmer opened up new opportunities for The Bloomery.
Dudley expanded the farm, growing cut flowers ranging from dahlias, celosia, lavender and larkspur to kale, broomcorn, grasses, and grains. She rented additional space, growing flowers on a half-acre field, a 2,500 square foot greenhouse, and a 5,000 square foot outdoor space to grow flowers in pots.
Growing more flowers—and having more control over what she was growing—proved equal parts gratifying and frustrating.
“I look in the seed catalogs and see all of these beautiful things and want to grow everything and I just can’t,” she explains. “As a retailer, any flower I wanted, I could get. If I wanted tulips in July and I was willing to pay the price, I could import them from Holland. Here, I have to wait.
“When you’re growing flowers, you have to learn to respect nature and the calendar,” she adds. “It’s a great lesson in patience.”
When it came to building the business, Dudley did not wait around.
The Bloomery operates a small CSA with up to 25 subscribers per session. In the beginning, it was a 20-week subscription that ran from May to September. Over time, it morphed based on customer feedback and currently operates as four seven-week sessions; there are also options for aloe plants and a dahlia package in August and September.
Dudley also sells flowers to Whole Foods Markets and, thanks to relationships she developed through the floral shop, began supplying flowers to wholesalers. Perhaps the most surprising supporters of the farm are other retail florists.
“A lot of flower shops in the local area didn’t want to buy from [the farm] when I owned the retail shop because I was competing with them,” she says. “Now, florist retailers are more receptive.”
Business in Bloom
But building The Bloomery hasn’t been easy.
Dudley, who has an MBA in business strategy, notes, “My business background is one of the strongest assets I brought into this. It’s given me confidence.”
For starters, Dudley understood how to calculate the cost of goods and manage budgets, which was helpful as she transitioned from retail to wholesale sales and had to adjust her pricing to reflect the new business model.
“I can’t charge a premium price to sell to brides but my costs are lower,” she explains. “My time is equally valuable.”
Running the numbers also helped her understand that her costs were lower without the overhead of a retail shop.
Behind the scenes, the dollars and cents made sense but Dudley had to make sure that the public perception of The Bloomery remained positive. Her experience with branding and customer relations was invaluable when she shifted her business from a retail floral shop to a farm—and having a unique name helped, too.
“The Bloomery is a name that could be applied to anything and it has very good brand recognition,” she explains. “It helped make the transition seamless.”
Having farmer parents also helped ease the transition to full-time cut flower grower.
“There are so many nuances to understanding soil, pests, weed management, fertilizing and the nutrients plants need to thrive and it can be overwhelming,” she admits. “My parents are my constant. I can ask questions and get answers; if I didn’t have them, I’m not sure I would have
been able to make it.”
But Dudley did make it and The Bloomery is thriving.
“I used the retail store as a stepping stone,” she says. “Being a grower isn’t just about picking beautiful flowers; it’s about what goes into the business before and after the flowers are harvested; for me, as a grower, I think my time is better spent now. I’m happier.”