The business of bloom

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may have a fondness for yellow roses, but it’s always red ones for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), says Charles Hudman of Surroundings flower shop on Capitol Hill. 

And for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)? 

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“I haven’t found out yet!” jokes Palace Florists President Lee Herman. “I’ll let you know when I do.” 

In their own ways, Hudman and Herman maintain two classic Washington businesses that, as the primary florists for the Senate and House, have a special window on how Capitol Hill — and the city at large — functions. 

For Herman, on the House side, this means tracking the progress of the legislative season. 

“We’ll send in for customers when a bill passes. An association or organization will call us and say, ‘We got our bill through! Send 10 arrangements to this person,’ ” Herman says. “And when they do, I generally know what image they want to convey with flowers. They have their styles.” 

It also means weathering the down periods that come throughout the year. 

“When you have an election, there is nobody here,” Herman says. “Same in the summertime. All the congresspeople are out — the senators, the staffers. Now, what do the lobbyists do? They leave town. So that business goes by the wayside, and we adjust. We transition just like everybody else.” 

Hudman sees a similar impact on the foot traffic to his shop near Lincoln Park. 

“As soon as the first warm day hits, people are out, and in the wintertime, they hibernate,” said Hudman, who maintains his store with business partner Francisco Sorto. “But when the weather is nice, it’s not unusual for us to see lawmakers jogging around the park or stopping by.” 

The Surroundings flower shop has always been a Capitol Hill establishment, beginning 10 years ago near the northwest corner of Stanton Park and moving more recently to its current location adjacent to the gourmet P&C Market on East Capitol Street SE. 

“We are thrilled with our location,” Hudman says. “The history and the community feeling is so rich here. Plus, we are only a mile from the Capitol.” 

The Surroundings staff also maintains a warehouse on H Street NE for assembly. The business imports its flowers from Central and South America by way of Miami, Hudman says. 

The Palace shop, on the other hand, has bought from local wholesalers for three generations. 

“The wholesalers are also family-owned,” Herman says. His business started in 1943, when the original proprietor (his grandfather-in-law), Barney Klateman, set up shop at an ice-skating rink called The Ice Palace on Connecticut Avenue NW, above Cleveland Park. 

Klateman later expanded the business by acquiring the florist at the former Statler Hotel, now the Capital Hilton near McPherson Square, where he handled floral arrangements for Republican parties given for President Eisenhower. The Palace team also created the flowers for Frank Sinatra’s gala for President Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration, held at the National Guard Armory.

So who spends more on flowers, Republicans or Democrats? 

“I haven’t seen a difference, myself,” Herman says. “They used to say you could see a trend, but that was in the past, when the economy was different.” 

In the intervening years, Palace tried a few other locations, eventually settling into its current one — a block south of Dupont Circle — in 1985. 

Since then, Herman says, the business has grown, with the exception of dips in 2001 and 2008.

“Everybody took a beating after 9/11, and everyone’s taken a beating over the last two years,” Herman says. “But being in D.C. is a big benefit to us, most definitely. I know florists all over the country, and their economy is a little lower than ours. We’re typically 7 or 8 percent higher because of the accounts either from or associated with the government. So it’s great to take advantage of that.” 

“We’ve seen it fluctuate,” Hudman agrees. “Everybody has to be tight, and I’m trying to run my business like a tight ship.” 

The other thing that fluctuates, they say, is flower trends — but not so much D.C. tastes. 

“You see a lot of new designers that are doing contemporary, cylinder-vase-full-of-water with the flowers stuffed inside, and it’s beautiful, but it’s done so quickly. It’s very elementary,” Hudman says. “But I really believe that my style is more the Old World — the grandeur of the big, traditional arrangement. It’s just very Victorian, sort of clustery-looking — like a firework right before it goes out.

“The White House, the Capitol, Capitol Hill — these are historic places,” he says. “The neighborhood feels Victorian. So the flowers need to stay with the theme. I’m not set in my ways, and we can do anything, but that more traditional theme is our specialty.”

Herman sees something similar. 

“D.C. is a pretty traditional town, no matter how progressive everybody says it is,” he says. “And on the Hill, they’re pretty conservative. We have standing orders in some places, and if the flower trends have shifted, we might say ‘Oh, let’s try this — something more contemporary.’ And they come back and say, ‘Oh, we like a little more of a traditional look.’ 

“We’re happy to make it work,” Herman adds. “It’s just what you find in D.C.”

For Hudman, his work is the realization of a longtime goal. 

“One of my dreams when I first moved to D.C. was to do flowers for the Capitol, and here I am,” he said. “Sometimes dreams come true. We’re the Senate flower guys. We love it.”