Driving south on 19th Avenue, usually in an effort to escape the fog, I’m tempted to stop and sometimes do, at the floral stand on Quintara where the Brothers Papadopoulos hold down their family business, founded in 1979.
“Me and my brothers took over in 2006,” said Taso Papdopoulos, who started working at the stand part-time when he was 13. With his brothers Kosta and Toli, he keeps the florist shop open from dawn until after dark, serving customers, placing orders and fashioning their chosen blooms into bouquets seven days a week.
“It’s the three of us, and sometimes a college kid,” said Taso, who was wrapping roses, interacting with customers, and gently turning down at least one hopeful job seeker looking to gain floral experience on an otherwise slow Friday afternoon.
“Had you come on a regular day, all we do all day is prepare bouquets,” he said. “This time of year, everything’s easy. I can order flowers for an entire week with two 20-minute phone calls.”
Summer flowers are abundant, more so than spring, when life in the flower business is at its most hectic.
“That’s when you have all your flower holidays,” explained Taso. “It starts to get busy in January, leading up to Valentine’s Day. No one wants to sell you flowers and you have to go looking,” he said. “Two weeks after that is International Women’s Day and that’s a big day for Eastern Europeans, many who live in the Sunset and Richmond buy flowers for that day. After that, there’s Qingming, a cemetery holiday,” he said.
The rush continues through Easter and culminates with Mother’s Day. This year there was a flower shortage which had Taso pulling 80-100 hour work weeks.
“The imports are shipped directly to us,” he said. “The South American product comes in at night. We have to cut them and put them in water so they drink because they’re thirsty.”
Other flowers are sourced locally, “Mostly in Santa Cruz County and some in Colma. I go right to the farm and pick them up myself,” he said, mindful of trends and customer demand.
“Dahlias are a thing, I used to sell four or five bunches a day, now they go quickly,” he said.
“Sunflowers are popular. But last year I sold twice as many sunflowers as this year; I don’t know why,” he said. “A flower that’s been trendy the past few years are peonies. For 50 weeks of the year they’re really expensive then at the end of the season, the price drops,” he said, which is why you won’t often find the much-desired early summer flower at his stand.
“In the ‘90s, carnations were big, we used to sell more carnations than roses,” he said. “Then in the 2000s, nobody would buy carnations. All the carnations are imports, none are grown in California, and the prices have gone up a lot,” he explained. “Over the past five or six years, they’re trendy again and I sell three times as many as I did 10 years ago,” he shrugged. There doesn’t seem to be much accounting for changing tastes, though he tries his best to cater to them, and his roses, often priced at $10 a dozen, are a perennial.
“Fifty percent of my customers get roses,” he said. “I don’t jot down data, but a lot of men tend to buy roses, maybe because they don’t know flowers but they know roses.”
As if on cue, a man rolled up and chose three bunches of red and white roses. As Taso bundled them in green tissue and brown paper, the customer asked, “What is this flower?”
“That’s a dahlia,” said Taso, with surprising cheer and patience, given he’s likely answered the same question several hundred times.
“At least half of our customers are people from the neighborhood, on weekdays it’s even higher,” he said. “Others are from Marin County, driving to the peninsula. They come a couple of times a week or once a week. I remember some customers since I started working here,” said Taso.
The Papadopoulos family established its first floral businesses downtown and on the peninsula in the early ‘70s.
“My grandfather came to this country in 1973, and like new immigrants he tried things…restaurants. Flowers ended up working for them.”
Taso was born in Greece and arrived here at age 1.
“Both my parents were very traditional, he said, “I didn’t speak English until I was 7 or 8,” though he didn’t grow up within the wider Greek American community here.
“I made more Greek friends in my 30s than I ever did growing up,” he said. “It seems like their families came either at the turn of the 20th century or during the ‘60s and the ‘70s,” and rarely did those communities and generations of immigrants meet.
As Papadopoulos noted, florists, flower stands and restaurants, as well as candy stores and shoeshine stands, were traditional businesses for Greek immigrants to enter. But the Greeks who settled South of Market, then crossed Market into the Tenderloin would ultimately scatter to the outer neighborhoods and other parts of the Bay Area. San Francisco’s once vital Greek community largely exists in memory, commemorated with a plaque at Third and Folsom streets, though The City’s beloved corner stores and coffee shops are part of the legacy of Greek immigration as are two mayors: Greek-born George Christopher, the country’s first Greek American mayor of a U.S. city, serving from 1956-1964, and Art Agnos, a son of Greek immigrants and mayor from 1988-1992.
“There used to be a lot more floral stands at Union Square,” said Papadopoulos of his relatives and their start. “I think my dad acquired a stand down there but he was young and let it go and they opened up their own stores, traditional indoor florists on the peninsula.”
“As early as I can remember, we weren’t working, but I was hanging out with my dad and uncle, we’d go to Santa Cruz or the Flower Mart, which isn’t what it used to be,” he said. “I learned the business by watching, and by trial and error. I think this was the third place the family started,” he said, referring to the brothers’s lean-to, a bright spot on an otherwise murky 19th Avenue.
“We’ve been strangely lucky,” said Taso. “With the COVID shutdowns, we were only closed for seven weeks until outdoor businesses could open. We used to be classified as retail, but all florists were classified as agriculture, so if there’s another shutdown, we’re free to be open.”
In a long season of bad news, uncertainty, and perpetual change, and despite shortages and changing tastes, it’s good to know there are some things here that haven’t changed much at all.
“My uncle came to talk to the landlord and said, ‘Look I want to open before Valentine’s Day,’ and the landlord said ‘Sure, but only for six months because I’m building apartments.’ They still want to build housing, and in the last 10 years, some plans got approved and they included us,” said Papdopoulos. “We’ll have the corner storefront with flowers outside. It’s a good relationship; 42 years later, we’re still here.”
Denise Sullivan, an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions,” can be reached at denisesullivan.com and @4DeniseSullivan. SF Lives/Live Talks are live streamed at 10 a.m. on the second Sunday of the month from birdbeckett.com. On Sept. 12, the guest is art historian and curator Kathy Zarur.