Today we meet the floral designer and owner of Les Fleurs, a beautiful French inspired floral shop based in Andover, MA. Sandra first discovered her love of flowers thanks to her mother, who shared her talent for floral arranging with her from childhood. Then, while living in Paris for 18 months as a professional figure skater, Sandra would spend her free time visiting the many beautiful floral shops in the French capital city, dreaming of opening up a flower shop of her own.
In this interview, Sandra shares about how the dream of Les Fleurs began, her favorite florals to feature during the spring/summer seasons and an inside look at her beautiful floral workshops that she’s hosted both in the States and in Provence with her kindred spirit, Sharon Santoni of My French Country Home.
When did your love of flowers and flower design begin?
My mom was a floral designer and both my grandparents on my fathers side immigrated from Italy and he (my grandfather) would make these gorgeous cakes. My family is Swedish on my mother’s side, and my grandmother had the most gorgeous garden. Over the years I helped my mom in her own garden.
Growing up my dad worked for Nabisco and my mom Madonna, I always say she was the first Madonna, and every time my mom and dad would go into grocery stores, my dad told her that she should bring some of her arrangements into the grocery store. So, she asked one of the store owners, and he wanted 200 arrangements for Mother’s Day. So we ended up converting the garage into a floral workshop and my mom would show us how to make the arrangements and we would help her. This continued on for years and years.
She eventually decided to start doing weddings… and she was amazing at it. I would help her when I could during high school and college. After my freshman year in college I was invited to be a professional figure skater and we were based in Paris and would tour all around Europe. During the day (in Paris) I didn’t have much to do, so I would just migrate to all of the French flower shops and they sort of adopted me and they would teach me their designs and techniques.
What I loved the most about them, is they would have all the flowers out like a flower bar. They wore black aprons, their shops were small, but so beautiful. So, I called my mom and told her that we needed to open a flower shop. There was a shop that was near where I lived (in Paris) called Les Fleur, and I knew that was what I wanted to call our shop.
After 18 months of being on the road, I was homesick and my mom had come out of remission, so I knew it was time to come home. I went back school at Boston University and I would go home as much as I could to help my mom out.
During your time living in Paris, you and your mom would talk bout your dream of opening a shop together. Tell me about how you found the spot for your flower shop, Les Fleurs in Andover, MA.
It was 1989 when we were looking for a shop, and we found one 20-25 minutes north of Boston. We signed a lease for a year and it was the cutest little shop and we opened in January and my mom passed a month later. I was 23 and I had a flower shop for a year with no formal business training. I was more like my mothers apprentice up until that point, but I decided I was going to make my mom proud.
Back then there wasn’t websites or social media, but I did hear about a bridal show and I decided to make bouquets and have business cards made. I showed up in Boston and made my booth look as French as possible, and I ended up booking 38 weddings! People often asked me how did I know that I wanted to keep the business going, and it was because I figured what was the worse that could happen. I knew I would figure things out.
I started falling in love with the whole process of playing with flowers everyday and the connections I had with the brides. After that I started doing baby showers, bat mitzvahs and it sort of grew from there. We grew and grew and then I decided that I missed my French roots, so I started finding French containers to add plants to and started bringing in only French products into the store. We are sort of known as a French flower shop with all sorts of goodies. When you come in and see things that have been loved and used in past eras, it’s kind of cool.
You used to begin each day at the flower market in Boston and now you import your flowers via the Dutch Exchange in Holland. Tell me a bit about the original Boston flower market, and what it’s like importing flowers from Europe.
When I used to go with my mom (to the Boston flower market) it was all owned by families. In the late 1800’s a guy would show up with the roses he’d grown in his rose hoops to sell. Others joined and it was called the Boston Flower Exchange and the families and their kids would work there. It was this really amazing place, but as years went on developers kept wanting them to sell the land and some of the children and grandchildren didn’t really want to do it anymore. So they had a vote and sold the land about 4 years ago and broke up this really old institution. Generation after generation had been there, and a few families opened up a new location but it’s not quite the same.
Flower buying is so different and now most it is done online. We order through the Dutch Exchange and they tell you about what farm that is selling the flowers to the size, color etc and it’s packaged and sent overnight. The flowers come from all over, with Holland being the hub.
I also try to buy from local flower farmers that grown gorgeous blooms, but being in the Northeast the growing season is much shorter. So they can’t necessarily fulfill the needs for our larger orders.
How does each day in the shop begin, and what do you enjoy the most about working together with your staff to create beautiful floral arrangements?
Years ago I used to be more laid back, but as time went on, I knew I needed to have systems in place. We break up into departments (design, wedding team, store managers etc) and each set of people has their own skills and they know what to do. The floral designers check the orders/deliveries and there is a plant division who check the plants (making sure they have enough water and the plants are talked to) and the floral designers have to have the flower bar set up before we open each day. There are days that flowers have to be cut and set aside for events as well. We are really good about having systems in place, if we didn’t it would be chaotic.
The best part, is it’s so great to be creative and you are in this space and everyone has a different style and it’s nice to bounce ideas off each other. Our greatest joy is when people walk in and they are filled with joy because they’re surrounded by flowers and pretty things.
I had a woman come in the other day and she didn’t look herself and I asked her how she was. Her mother had just passed that morning and her favorite thing was tulips. So she came to get tulips to reminder her of her mother. I was so happy I could brighten her day in a small way. We bring a lot of passion to this business and I feel like my mom is always watching over us.
What are some important things to remember to help fresh floral arrangements last longer?
People always think it’s so funny when they come to the workshops and I give them homework. Here are some of the essentials that I share with them to keep their floral arrangements looking fresh.
- Flowers like clean water (room temp, not cold, not hot)
- They need three components — sugar (flowers are like kids), a little bit of bleach (takes down the bacteria), an acidic water (this is why people drop aspirin or a penny into the water… If the penny is from before the 1980.)
- Cut at a slant, to help the flowers absorb water better (flowers are all about hydration)
- Changing the water is very important, tulips especially like to get moldy
- Put your flowers in a vase versus an oasis. (It’s not great for the environment. We do use it for some of our wedding arrangements, but we don’t like to use it since it cuts down the shelf life of the flowers/plants.)
Here’s a homemade formula if packets aren’t included with the flowers you buy…
1 quart of water
1 tbsp of white vinegar
1 tsp of superfine sugar
3-5 drops of bleach
Another question I’m often asked, is how to stop hydrangeas from wilting. The thing about hydrangeas is they start healing themselves the moment you cut them, so we recommend you get some alum from the spice section at the grocery store. We cut the hydrangea, add the alum and put the flower into water.
With the arrival of spring, and spring florals, what is one of your favorite flowers to feature?
I love really cool tulips with a frill. I love peonies and I grow all sorts of peonies in my own garden. They’re my favorite. I’m a big gardener and I grow a lot of stuff for the store that we can’t get otherwise, like lambs ear. (I like putting them cocktail glasses for brides.) I also love my David Austin roses that I treasure and lacecap hydrangeas. I’m always growing this and that in my garden.
One of the things I love most when planning spring table decor is the flower arrangements. What color schemes do you like to go with when you entertain guests during the spring/summer seasons?
I definitely migrate towards the softer palette. I love pale whites, pale creams, but I have a thing for pale peach. I’ll add Juliet roses and sometimes I’ll pop in peach or salmon ranunculus. I also tend to decorate in a soft palette in my own home. During the holidays this year I had lots of white amaryllis…. I’m not huge into reds. I’m a softer palette girl.
In addition to stunning floral arrangements, garden design services which include small container gardens, window boxes and planters, your shop also offers French bath and body products, items for the home (kitchen & garden), books and more. Tell me a bit about one of your French buying trips.
I started going back and forth to France about 15 years ago and I would go to different brocante fairs and I would talk to the different vendors… I’m not fluent in French, but I’m pretty good. I was Instagramming in France one time and a friend was also in France taking one of Sharon Santoni’s tours and we ended up being only 30 feet away from each other at the same market.
I had the chance to meet Sharon and we had coffee and exchanged information and I told her I would like to go on a buying trip with her. I later found out that we had so much in common. We talked about how great it would be to do a flower workshop in Provence. It was about 4 years ago that we did our first tour together and we were so excited and it was so amazing on so many levels. There is just something about arranging flowers in a beautiful chateau in Provence. As women, we often don’t take time to do things like this for ourselves, and why shouldn’t we? Our husbands go on golfing trips, so why not go on a tour of Provence? (While it’s mostly women on our tours, men can come too.) On the tours we do flower arrangements, perfume making, it’s five days of pure fun and our trip sell out almost immediately every time we list them. It’s really empowering.
What is one of the most unique discoveries you’ve made while on one of your visits to France?
I was in Avignon, in the South of France and I saw it out of the corner of my eye… an antique iron stone tureen that could be used for floral arrangements, it even had a flower grid made made of iron stone. Iron stone is sometimes known as the poor mans porcelain. The tureen was my prized possession, but when I came home one my customers saw it and said if you ever want to sell it, I want it. I was so happy she loved it that I sold it to her just a few weeks ago.
Another thing I found were these amazing Chanel buttons from the 1960’s. I just thought they were so cool. Who doesn’t love Chanel? They weren’t crazy expensive 20 euro each and I have a friend whose sister is jewelry designer and she made the most gorgeous necklace for me with the vintage Chanel buttons.
Les Fleurs offers both group and private workshops with yourself and the Fleurettes. What can attendees expect from a group workshop experience?
I think the whole experience is so special because I always remember how my mom was my first teacher and she was so patient with me. She would say to me, “If you love flowers as much as I do, Sandra, you will love it.” You let your creativity come out, don’t look at what the person next to you is doing.
For the workshop I try to have a notepad and pen for the attendees and we serve little cupcakes with flowers on them. I also always have a theme for each workshop. Our most recent workshop was the Dutch Masters Tulip Workshop and I imported all sorts of tulips from Holland. During the workshop I tell them about my store, what they need to use in their floral arrangements, flower techniques etc and then at the end, I have this huge flower bar set up, and they get the chance to create an arrangement that is all their own. Everyones arrangement is different and they just light up and say, “This was the best afternoon” or “I never thought I would be good at this.” It’s so much fun, and I love teaching and giving back. After all if my mom never taught me, I would never be where I am now, so it’s all thanks to her.
Keep up with Sandra and Les Fleurs through the following links…