Maybe it's the resorts, maybe it's the mountain views, maybe it's all the bluebloods and their money. Whatever the reason, Stowe is the unofficial Wedding Capital of Vermont. According to the Stowe Reporter, the town hosts 500 weddings and more than 60 civil unions annually. And it's not unheard of for brides, grooms and their families to spend $120,000 on a matrimonial event in Stowe. That money pays for rooms, meals, music, massages and outrageous, elaborate flower arrangements.
For florists Alan Goldman and Wayne Michaels, co-owners of the Stowe-based Wild-flower Designs -- one of two flower shops in town -- these celebrations are big business. Both men moved here from Long Island in the early '90s. Goldman, a stylish, bespectacled man who retains a trace of his New York accent, reports that some clients spend as much as $30,000 on wedding flowers.
With just the two of them on the payroll, Wildflower is a small operation. "We try to keep things a little on the private side," says Goldman. The men don't advertise, and don't have a website, a cell phone or an answering machine. They attract most of their clients through word of mouth. When they opened their gift and flower shop in a yellow house on Mountain Road 10 years ago, the gifts accounted for 70 percent of their business, the flowers less than a third. Today the numbers are reversed, thanks to their first-class work on first-class weddings.
Asked to explain their success, the fortysomething florists point out that Stowe locals, second-home owners and out-of-towners pick Wildflower partly because Goldman and Michaels are perfectionists and partly because these guys love parties, especially weddings. Michaels notes that because of the work and the stress involved, many petal pushers dread The Big Day. "We have a lot of friends that are in the floral business that hate to do weddings," he says, "but we welcome them, and we have a blast."
Walking into Wildflower, it's difficult to tell at first that it's a flower shop. The place is filled with a wide variety of high-end tchotchkes and home decor supplies -- everything from candles to furniture. It's a testament to the owners' organizational and design skills that the sheer volume doesn't quite feel overwhelming. It takes a few minutes to find the actual flowers, which occupy a cooler in the back corner.
But when Goldman puts a modest $40 flower order on the front desk, the owners' true passion becomes evident. The men, casually but neatly dressed in tennis shoes, jeans and tucked-in shirts, take turns picking at the bouquet, an arrangement of Dutch mums, wax flowers, delphiniums, irises and ornamental coffee beans. Their obsessive attention to the flowers appears instinctual, almost subconscious. To my untrained eye, their ministrations make no difference.
While Goldman is answering a question, I notice Michaels -- a blond, broad-shouldered, 6-foot-plus linebacker-looking guy -- pick a tiny, dried bud from the stem of a wax flower. At least, I think that's what he's doing. His hands are moving so quickly that it's hard to tell.
When I ask Michaels to explain what he's doing, he looks up and blushes, as if caught doing something he didn't mean for me to see. "I'm playing," he answers sheepishly. He and Goldman elaborate on this comment a moment later. "That's not far from the truth," says Michaels. "It's actually a lot of fun. I mean, the flower business is a lot of work --" Goldman chimes in, "It's a lot of work." Michaels continues, "You can be here 12 hours a day, cleaning buckets, sweeping the floor." "Picking up the flowers," adds Goldman. "But when you actually get to do an arrangement," concludes Michaels, "it's playtime."
Listening to them describe what florists actually do, I get the sense that these "playtime" moments are few and far between, and I begin to understand why their average wedding bill runs between two and three thousand dollars. "You look at a flower," says Michaels, "and nobody really realizes how much work and energy goes into it."
For example, each flower you see at a wedding may have already been handled an astounding 20 to 30 times, Michaels says. Though their name suggests that they pluck their wares straight from the fields, the guys at Wildflower purchase most of their stock through a distributor in Middlesex. The flowers they use have been fertilized, treated with preservatives, and chilled by the grower, then sold at auction before being FedExed to the distributor, who sells them to the florists.
"We go and handpick all of our flowers from our wholesaler four or five times a week," says Michaels. "Then we come back to the shop, and we have to cut 'em and treat 'em, give 'em preservative, chill 'em again, bring 'em back out, clean 'em, and then arrange 'em. Sometimes we'll get the flowers in on a Saturday morning, and I'll have to actually physically cut each flower Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, to get it to open to the right stage, and then chill it off before I even put it in the flower arrangement."
The arrangements Goldman and Michaels create look time-consuming, too. They keep books of photos showing examples of their work. One picture shows a three-tiered, multi-colored topiary several feet high adorning a table full of placeholder cards. Another shows rows upon rows of church pews decorated with tastefully sculpted bouquets. Goldman points out one of his favorites, a four-tiered wedding cake covered with petals from 1000 white roses. "The cake decoration alone was $1200," he says. "We were impressed."
The florists estimate that 90 percent of their weddings are outdoor affairs, which can sometimes pose a problem given Vermont's unpredictable weather. They've had to batten down the hatches at tent weddings when it's started to snow; last summer they had to move a wedding indoors because of the heat. An arch they'd created needed to be taken down and completely reconstructed when the bride's parents called an hour before the wedding. "We were putting the last stem into the arch as the bride was ready to walk down the aisle," recalls Michaels.
But according to Mary Bogdonovitch, who coordinates weddings for the Stowehof Inn, last-minute reshuffling is rare for this pair. "They're always here on time," she says, "and they take as much time as it needs They're my favorite florists that I deal with." Bogdonovitch says she likes Wildflower because she never worries about them getting the job done. "When you're coordinating the ceremony, music and all the people in the wedding, and the photographer, it's great to have something not to worry about," she says.
Bogdonovitch also applauds the duo's attention to detail. "Wayne's up here tweaking every leaf, every petal of every centerpiece," she says. "They take every wedding so seriously."
Their clients offer similarly effusive praise. Patty Jaqua, a surgeon who hired Goldman and Michaels for her wedding five years ago, can't say enough. She and her husband married at his home in Stowe on New Year's Day, and the florists were there until 2:30 a.m. on New Year's Eve perfecting their work. That included a floral wreath for Cliffy, the couple's 100-pound chocolate Lab. "They were extremely enthusiastic for weeks leading up to the wedding," Jaqua recalls. "They were as enthusiastic about the wedding as my husband and I were."
Goldman and Michaels admit they enjoy getting to know their brides and grooms nearly as much as they enjoy crafting the arrangements. Apparently, the feeling is mutual: They're invited to as many as eight of every 10 weddings they work. One grateful mother-of-the-bride even rented them tuxedos and a hotel room in which to change before the ceremony. And many of Wildflower's former clients keep in touch. "Every once in a while we'll get Christmas cards," says Michaels, "and we'll be like, Oh, I remember them.'"
Has either of these fellows walked down the aisle himself? They'd rather not say. But they make no effort to conceal their pleasure in watching other people get hitched. "It's just something that we really like doing," says Goldman, "and we like to make them laugh, cause it should be fun." "Or cry when they're walking down the aisle, they're so happy," adds Michaels. "Tears of joy."