Episode 603: A Rose On Any Other Day : Planet Money The logistical miracles and wild risks behind getting red roses to your doorstep on Valentine's Day.

Episode 603: A Rose On Any Other Day

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ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Hey, it's Robert here. Before we start the show, I want to recommend a podcast called How To Do Everything, with two very funny guys, Mike and Ian. It's modern life lessons NPR style. You know, if you have a question for them, like you need to find a date or somehow figure out how to find water in the desert, Mike and Ian will answer your question. It's called How To Do Everything, now at iTunes.com/npr, or on Stitcher, or however you listen to your podcasts.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

I met a guy who thinks about Valentine's Day all year long. He's not especially romantic. He's not newly in love or anything like that. His name is Jan Ooms and he owns a flower shop called Roses and Blooms in Manhattan. And Valentine's Day is how he makes a lot of his money.

JAN OOMS: If you really make a big mistake with Valentine's Day, it will cost us so much money that we will not be able to make it back up for the rest of the year. So we have to really carefully plan this holiday.

SMITH: Perhaps you can tell from the accent, Jan Ooms grew up in Holland. His father grew tulips for a living. And Jan's owned this flower shop in midtown Manhattan for 25 years.

VANEK SMITH: Jan is this tall, lean guy. He's full of energy and he's always smiling - except when he talks about Valentine's Day. When he does that, he gets very serious because for him, it comes down to a very simple calculation.

So how much is a dozen roses on February 14?

OOMS: It's about $80.

VANEK SMITH: And how much is it on February 15?

OOMS: It's $48.

VANEK SMITH: So that's - that's almost double.

OOMS: That's almost double, yes.

SMITH: Roses are this unique product because they're a commodity that's worth double the price for just this really short 24 hour period before February 14. And this huge demand during one day - during Valentine's Day - this demand is the incentive for a logistical miracle. A miracle that gets millions of roses from farms in South America and Africa and Europe to your doorstep almost overnight.

VANEK SMITH: A lot can go wrong. Roses are living things. You can't just manufacture more of them for this particular day. If you want to cash in on Valentine's Day, you have to figure out how to make millions of roses bloom exactly the right amount at exactly this one moment in the middle of February.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Today on this Valentine's Day show, we bring you a bouquet of Jan's perfect red roses.

VANEK SMITH: And we tell you the story of the crazy acrobatics and wild risks that people take to get those flowers to your doorstep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSES")

MARY J BLIGE: (Singing) It ain't all roses, hey, flowers imposing, hey. Said it ain't all candy, hey.

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SMITH: Our flower shop owner, Jan Ooms, has made some serious mistakes before. A few years ago, Valentine's Day was on a Sunday and he didn't take that into account and he bought way too many roses. He was stuck with fridges full of them. In fact, he tried to - after Valentine's Day - dry them out and sell those. But in the end, he had to throw a lot of them out.

VANEK SMITH: And last year he had a different problem. It snowed the day before Valentine's Day here in New York. Delivery trucks could not go on the roads and Jan ended up having to hire 40 people to deliver thousands of roses by hand to everybody's doorsteps in New York. He said they were delivering flowers until 11 o'clock at night.

SMITH: So this year, Jan is not taking any chances. He started to plan for Valentine's Day last November. First of all, he pre-ordered all of his roses - 25,000 red roses - from a flower farm in South America. And then he was obsessive, relentless about checking in on those roses every week.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

OOMS: Hey, Juan. How are you?

JUAN TORRI: Hello, Jan. How are you doing?

OOMS: I'm doing good.

VANEK SMITH: Juan is Juan Torri, the rose grower. His farm, Cananvalle farms, is in the Andes Mountains near Quito, Ecuador. This call was from the beginning of January. It was a cold day in New York, but it was sunny and 75 on the farm.

OOMS: So everything is OK?

TORRI: Yeah everything is OK with the production now.

OOMS: Perfect.

TORRI: This year I think we will arrive on time.

OOMS: Perfect.

VANEK SMITH: It's 36 days until Valentine's Day.

SMITH: And Jan Ooms has bet everything on this one farm to deliver the goods. And it's actually pretty unusual in the flower business to do this. I mean, normally a flower shop will wait until February and will basically go to one of these big flower distributors - say what have you got? What are your prices? But Jan says the problem is you never know what the answer is going to be.

VANEK SMITH: Jan wanted to avoid all that, so he locked his price in early - $1.40 per rose. But that also means that his entire Valentine's Day is resting on one farm 4,000 miles away.

OOMS: You know we cannot be too optimistic yet, 'cause the last four weeks are very critical.

VANEK SMITH: Do you get nervous?

OOMS: Yes. Absolutely. Yeah, it's nerve-racking 'cause not only is it hard to get the roses, it's also hard to get them out and, you know, get them all on time and get all the work done.

SMITH: In this business, anything can happen. And this year, unfortunately it does. After that phone call, the temperatures started to drop in the Andes - started to get chilly there. And thunderstorms rolled in, which meant the roses were in danger.

VANEK SMITH: I got on a plane and went to Ecuador to see what the farm was going to do about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Welcome to Quito.

VANEK SMITH: It's 21 days until Valentine's Day. The Cayambe Valley is at the foot of a huge volcano. It's incredibly lush here. Everything is bright green. These huge mountain peaks surround us. And this is where Jan Ooms's roses are growing. Here we are.

OOMS: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm met at the farm by the owner, Juan Torri. He was the guy on the phone who said everything was OK. He's a little more nervous now. Just looking at the roses - he shows them to me - they look fine. They're really deep - this deep blood red, and they're all covered in these little mesh socks, which they put on the roses to hold the petals together.

TORRI: Right now we are looking at the red roses. We are looking at the production that is coming for Valentine's.

VANEK SMITH: And how many roses are here altogether?

TORRI: For Valentine's we would produce around 3 million roses.

VANEK SMITH: Wow that's a lot. That's a lot of roses.

TORRI: Yes, that's a lot of roses.

SMITH: What you should know is that cold weather doesn't kill roses, it throws off the timing. There's this whole art to picking a rose at just the right time for the optimal amount of blooming. And apparently, like every country on earth likes their roses slightly different. In Russia, they like the petals to be really wide, a big open rose. Europe prefers those little tiny tight rosebuds. And in the U.S., of course, they want something in between. They want a rose that is just peeking open.

VANEK SMITH: And any other time of year, you can just wait until the roses are perfect for their destination and snip, good to go. But Valentine's Day season, there is this really tight schedule. You have to harvest before February 6 in order to get those roses shipped off. There's very little wiggle room.

TORRI: Not sure that the rose will bloom in time. It depends a lot on the weather.

VANEK SMITH: And this is the moment when they call Hector.

HECTOR BACHA: (Speaking Spanish).

VANEK SMITH: Hector the plant engineer. Twenty years of experience growing roses.

BACHA: (Speaking Spanish).

VANEK SMITH: Hector is this nervous, wiry guy. He wears an enormous watch that keeps track of moon cycles and weather reports. He can actually look at a rose and tell exactly how many days it will be until it blooms. He shows me this. He points to this super tiny little red bud.

BACHA: (Speaking Spanish).

VANEK SMITH: So in eight days, this will open?

(Speaking Spanish)

VANEK SMITH: You're sure? Totally sure?

BACHA: (Speaking Spanish).

VANEK SMITH: Hector has all of these crazy tricks that he can use to speed the roses up or slow the roses down. For instance, if it's too hot and the roses are ahead of schedule, Hector can turn on huge fans and block the roses from the sun to cool them down a little bit. If the roses are behind schedule, if they're not opening fast enough, Hector will use plant hormones and potassium to speed the roses up.

SMITH: But there is a limit.

VANEK SMITH: There is a limit. Hector says using all the tricks he has, he can speed the roses up or slow the roses down by four days.

BACHA: (Speaking Spanish).

VANEK SMITH: So has it ever happened that the roses haven't been on time?

BACHA: (Speaking Spanish).

VANEK SMITH: 2008. It was a really warm winter and the roses were growing way too fast. They were ten days ahead of schedule. Hector worked all of his magic. He kept the sides of the tent open, he put on huge fans to cool the roses down. He did everything he could, but in the end, the roses opened five days early. And for Hector, this was awful. He just had to sit there and watch all of these roses open and then get cut and sold at these super bargain prices - less than half of what they normally would've gotten. And a lot of them were just thrown away.

SMITH: This year, everyone on the farm is worried about the opposite problem. It is too cold. The roses might bloom too late. But the owner of the farm, Juan Torri, says the result is just the same as in 2008.

TORRI: We will throw away the roses. It will be a disaster. It's like we have sacrificed five months of work.

VANEK SMITH: While we're talking, you might have heard the thunder in the background. This cold wind starts to blow through the rose bushes. Workers start running along the sides of the greenhouses, rolling down the plastic walls to keep the roses warm.

So is it going to rain? I heard rumbling.

TORRI: Yeah, maybe. Yeah. It's - I think it could rain.

VANEK SMITH: Is that good or bad?

TORRI: Yeah. That's not good.

VANEK SMITH: While I'm standing there talking to Juan, Hector, the plant engineer, takes off running in a total panic. It's the last time I see him, actually. I have to go back to New York.

SMITH: We checked back in with the farm eight days before Valentine's Day, and they blew their February 6 deadline. But Hector had been working his magic, and they managed to get the roses to just the right level of bloom by February 7. They were one day late.

VANEK SMITH: Back in New York, Jan Ooms is really relieved to hear this. A week is enough time to get the roses to New York. But of course, Robert, the hurdles have just begun. Twenty-five thousand roses still have to be transported 4,500 miles to New York.

SMITH: You know, I'd always thought that all of the roses got here in these giant cargo planes that probably smell really good, packed to the rafters with roses. But I guess, apparently, they have to be a little bit more flexible than that. You're never sure when there roses will be ready or how big the orders are or where they have to go. So they came up with a really novel solution. The roses travel the same way we do - on commercial flights through Miami.

AMY STEWART: If you fly out of Quito or if you fly out of Bogota, there's going to be boxes of roses alongside your suitcase in the passenger jet.

SMITH: Amy Stewart is the author of "Flower Confidential." She says that going commercial, it's fast, it's flexible, but it is also risky because those flowers can get bumped from the cargo hold if people check too much luggage. She says that roses get bumped one out of every five flights, and then there's the possibility of bad weather and delays.

VANEK SMITH: But this year, finally, Jan Ooms lucked out. The roses catch their scheduled flight on February 9. They arrive at JFK on February 10 at 2 a.m. By 6:30, the huge boxes are stacked in the middle of Jan's store.

Good morning.

OOMS: Good morning. How are you?

VANEK SMITH: Good. How are you doing?

OOMS: Good.

VANEK SMITH: It's early.

OOMS: It is definitely early. Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: T-minus four days until Valentine's Day. Jan Ooms drags the first box into the back room.

Do you get nervous before you open up the boxes of roses before you see them?

OOMS: I always am, yes. It's a lot of possibility if anything goes wrong.

SMITH: Although Jan solved all the logistical hurdles, he still doesn't know what the flowers look like. There's anything that could've happened out there. The roses could've been left on the tarmac in Miami, got all wilted.

VANEK SMITH: They could've frozen in the delivery truck on the way to the shop.

SMITH: And I hear sometimes customs agents looking for drugs or whatnot go into the boxes of roses and - what? - they just toss them everywhere.

VANEK SMITH: They, like, bash them on a table seeing if drugs or little bugs fall out.

SMITH: So you can imagine the drama as Jan watches one of his employees pull out a ceremonial box cutter to open the box.

VANEK SMITH: This is it. The moment of truth.

What do you think?

OOMS: They look good.

VANEK SMITH: And you're happy with these roses?

OOMS: I'm very happy with the roses. They look good. They look really, really good. I'm a happy guy.

VANEK SMITH: Jan and his staff quickly get to work. They trim the stems of the roses, and they immediately put them in this hydrating solution. It's amazing. These roses have traveled thousands of miles. They haven't had any water at all for days, and they look beautiful. They look really good.

SMITH: And this right here is the reason why we give roses on Valentine's Day. And I know I always thought that it was some sort of tradition that went back hundreds and hundreds of years. But as we talk to people, they're like, oh, oh, no. You know, people on Valentine's Day used to give things like sweet violets; these little, fragile flowers that were grown locally.

VANEK SMITH: Right, except for once Valentine's Day became a big business, flower shops needed a flower that they could order in bulk. And because it's in February, they needed a flower they could order from the other side of the world. And there aren't that many flowers that can stand up to that kind of abuse.

SMITH: Roses were the perfect choice' pretty much indestructible. We didn't just set up this global transportation chain in order to get this traditional flower, roses. We actually started to like roses because they were optimized for the global transportation chain. They were the flower that worked best with the planes and the boxes and the farms.

VANEK SMITH: Once Jan got his roses, once they'd been through all the planes and boxes and everything, they cost him about $4.30 cents each. And that's a good deal this year because it was so cold, there aren't that many roses on the market. Jan says he saved about 30 percent per rose.

SMITH: There are still a few more hurdles before he can sell these flowers. The roses came in late so it means his staff will have to work overtime to get everything finished.

VANEK SMITH: Actually, he's rented a hotel room so that he and his employees can take little cat naps in between preparing bouquets.

SMITH: And one day before Valentine's Day, T-minus one, they were ready for customers.

KEN STURM: How much - are they just all the same price? There are dozens, and they're priced the same?

VANEK SMITH: Ken Sturm comes into Roses and Blooms to get a bouquet of flowers for his wife. He's checking out all these roses in the big refrigerator there. And he's a little shocked by the $80 price tag. That's how much it is for a dozen roses this year. But he says he doesn't really have a choice.

STURM: If you bring home anything else, you're seen as a cheapskate.

SMITH: Of course, he could've explained to his wife all the logistics that went into the flowers or that the roses are this beautiful sign of brilliant plant engineering and transportation efficiency.

VANEK SMITH: But really, Ken is just hoping to hear one thing.

STURM: So I might get - oh, they're beautiful. That beautiful kind of embellishment. That's what I'm hoping for.

VANEK SMITH: That's what you're hoping for from your wife?

STURM: I am.

VANEK SMITH: The beautiful.

STURM: Yes, exactly.

SMITH: Yep. Jan is about to spend a very long Valentine's Day weekend in his store. It is already snowing in New York. And for once - for once, he would like this to go smoothly.

VANEK SMITH: Do you ever wish that Valentine's Day were not in February, that it were like in like June or July or something like that?

OOMS: That is in my biggest wish of my whole life. (Laughter). It's the worst. Valentine in July. That would be the best.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSES")

BLIGE: (Singing) Hey, said it ain't all roses. Hey flowers imposing.

VANEK SMITH: Send us an email with your thoughts.

SMITH: Or your Valentine's greetings.

VANEK SMITH: Or your Valentine's greetings. We'd love to read those - planetmoney@NPR.org.

SMITH: Also, NPR recommends the podcast How To Do Everything - literally everything in this podcast. Join Mike and Ian. It is a funny exploration of stuff you don't know - itunes.com/npr or on Stitcher or however you listen to your podcasts. I want to thank our producer today, Phia Bennin. I'm Robert Smith.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacy Vanek Smith. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSES")

BLIGE: (Singing) I know some of y'all go through it too 'cause it ain't all roses. Hey, flowers imposing. Hey, said it ate all candy. Hey, this love stuff is demanding, yeah. Hey, said it ain't all roses. Flowers imposing. Hey said it ain't all candy. Hey, this love stuff is demanding.

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