It’s 3:30 a.m. when the Hill’s Florist & Greenhouses van pulls up. Eleven years ago I climbed into the same Ford Econoline to accompany Roger Hill on his weekly trek to “The Clock” — the Mississauga flower auctions.
There’s a different Hill at the wheel this time: Sarah, Roger’s daughter, who for the past few years has been the one occupying the Hill’s seat in the auction gallery.
The Drive Down
Sarah greets her bleary-eyed passenger. She’s alert and cheerful, as befits a resilient 26-year-old.
It will be 90 minutes to Mississauga. Lots of time to hear Sarah’s story. I crack open my laptop and there’s just the glowing screen, and Sarah’s voice coming to me out of the van’s darkness.
I already know that Hill’s is not just a family business but a multi-generational family business, started by Sarah’s grandparents, Percy and Madeline, who in 1946 opened a flower shop in the Academy Theatre foyer. A few years later they bought the property on Lindsay Street South, moving into its white frame house and installing greenhouses.
So, what was it like for Sarah growing up around Hill’s Florist & Greenhouses? “Honestly, it was a great play space,” she tells me. Like her father before her, from early on she was involved in the business. As her mother, Deborah, arranged bouquets, Sarah would sit on a stool, watching and adding “filler flowers.” Her first trip to The Clock with her father came the summer she turned eight.
After high school she stepped away from the business and from Lindsay. She tried city living (Ottawa), and took a degree in ancient history and languages. More recently she’s explored far-flung destinations, making solo expeditions to China, the U.K. and Europe.
But by the end of her second year she knew her place was here and in the family business. Her parents welcomed her, though her dad’s rueful comment was, “There are two ways you can work — hard or smart. You’ve chosen hard.”
So now Sarah works alongside her parents all day but maintains a separate life away from work. Well, somewhat separate: she shares a house with her Australian shepherd, Zeus. The house, though, is her grandparents’ white frame home. Her social life takes her to Toronto, but her best friend, Brian, is also in the florist’s trade.
The division of responsibilities at Hill’s is evolving. Her father looks after the garden centre and greenhouses. Sarah and her mother share the work at the florist shop, with Sarah taking on more and more responsibility. She looks after weddings and does designs alongside her mom, and makes some deliveries.
And of course, she’s taken over buying flower-buying. Which is why we’re in the van now.
I look up and am surprised to see we’ve exited Hwy 401 and are pulling in through automated bay doors to park alongside other florists’ vans and trucks.
We unload and return the empty florists’ buckets (which are always green) and head to customer service. Florists have the option of buying some flowers in advance. Sarah’s done this and picks up for the transaction report on those pre-purchases.
Sarah inspects her pre-purchases, looking for bruising, spotting and broken stems, and checking blossom colour (which darkens with age). We go through the cooler space to inspect the hundreds of thousands of cut flowers about to be auctioned. She’s come with a list, but if something catches her eye she can add to it.
As we go she greets by name not just other florists, but almost everyone she meets — even the “bucket boys” who load, unload, and move containers.
It’s 5:45 a.m. and Sarah settles into seat number 171 in the gallery. Embedded in her table is a digital pad for bidding.
Facing the gallery are four large countdown clocks. They’re newish (bought used from the Netherlands a few years ago), and allow up to seven buyers, bidding within milliseconds of one another, to make purchases simultaneously.
There is no auctioneer. Carts of flowers are moved along a track and positioned under clocks. Starting prices are displayed. The clock hand drops from the 12:00 position and as it does the price drops. First to press the buzzer gets the flowers. As bids are registered there’s a beep. Once sales are completed the next cart is moved into place.
Bidding is a fine art. Buzz in too early and you’re paying more than you might need to; wait too long and someone else has the flowers. The aim is to get close as possible to the “buy-back price” (minimum bid). The average transaction takes two seconds.
It’s all very low-key. Sarah’s completely at ease, arranging a side purchase of daisies, schmoozing with neighbours.
Eight minutes in I’m surprised to learn she’s already made three purchases.
By 7:30 am the auction is over. She pays the women in the office. We wheel the purchases out and load up the van.
Happily, there’s still room for me. (If this were near Valentine’s Day, the single passenger seat would be occupied by buckets of roses).
The Road Home
Two stops before we head home. Breakfast, then CanMex Wholesale Flowers to pick up yellow roses, which were unavailable at the auction. The owner, John, welcomes Sarah warmly and offers more breakfast. Sarah accepts a slice of banana bread; John insists I down a slug of Croatian whiskey. (Did I mention it’s 8:30 a.m.?).
As we return Sarah reflects on the challenges and satisfactions of the trade. Challenges include razor-thin profit margins and competition from grocery stores that can offer lower prices, but not necessarily the same quality.
She’s eloquent about what keeps her in the business: “The cut-flower industry has nothing to do with flowers and everything to do with people and relationships. Flowers are about showing people you care. They add colour to life.”
We’re back at Hill’s by 11 a.m. Sarah will unload, and then prepare flowers for the 42-degree centigrade cooler. There’ll be customers and orders to fill. She’s looking at a 15-hour day.
Me? I’m ready for a long nap.
Clearly only one of us has what it takes to be a florist.