Since starting her iconic Fitzroy flower shop in 1989, Cherrie Miriklis-Pavlou has grown Flowers Vasette to be one of Victoria’s most loved florists. But after losing a huge portion of income overnight, Cherrie had to rethink her offering to protect her staff and save her business.
Cherrie’s response? Go back to basics. As the daughter of a greengrocer, she was better equipped than most to diversify Vasette’s output from flowers to fresh produce boxes. In the short space of six weeks, Vasette has transformed into a fruit, vegetable and flower box delivery service, and the orders have been streaming in. And Cherrie, who thought she might be retiring soon, is right in the thick of it all.
Hey Cherrie! What was it like in those first few days when you realised your whole business was going to have to change?
Luckily for Vasette, there are different parts to our business – we have retail, online and events. Obviously we had to relook at that model – all of a sudden we started to get these cancellations of events and we realised a huge part of our income each week would be gone. I said ‘okay, what are we going to do about that?’
During the March season we had up to 50 people employed, so we had to regroup. Some people have chosen to step down and be with their families, but there were others that really wanted to work. Flowers were no longer going to be our main source of income, so we had to diversify. We had to innovate. We had to think about what’s important to our customers right now – and that was putting food on the table.
All I could hear was that the supermarkets were running out of things, there was a lack of this or that in the fruit shops, and I thought, well that’s what I’m good at. That’s where my roots come from. As a greengrocer’s daughter, I was trained to know what good produce looks like. Luckily my husband used to be a Coles buyer so he knows produce like the back of his hand as well, and I was able to be introduced straight away to the right people at the fruit and veg market.
It was a matter of finding that niche market to satisfy my customer. And it’s been a great education process for all my staff, as well as the customer.
How was the process of switching your business model overnight? What needed to happen in order to do that?
I had to educate my staff and teach them about handling produce, about the quality, and to identify the different vegetables. I had to be at the forefront doing ridiculous hours from about 2am to 6-7pm five or six days a week. And the orders just kept increasing! We started with 20, 30, 40 boxes, and the orders just kept flooding through. It was overwhelming! Just over Easter, we did almost 1000 boxes. Over that weekend we got everyone to help – it didn’t matter if you were qualified in accounts managing, you were coming downstairs to do boxes! It was all systems a go. We were rushing to meet demand!
So what do these crazy workdays look like for you now?
Here I am thinking I’m going to retire soon and instead I’ve done the complete opposite, I’m in at the markets six days a week. I go to the flower markets on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, so I have to get up and be there at 3-3.15am, do my flower buying, and then quickly run over to the veggie market across the road. And that place is HUGE – it’s a buzzing metropolis. Normally people are going around in buggies and for the first few times, I’ve had to walk. Sourcing, looking at the quality, I’m very fussy!
It sounds like despite the difficulties, that you’ve been enjoying it in a way?
I have! I’ve loved it. Especially all those characters at the market. For me, going to market teaches you a lot about people and personalities, how to read people and connect. It’s the same with our customers. And that’s what we’re all about.
Why do you think you were equipped to take on this massive change so quickly?
Mum and Dad had a small business, so work ethic was instilled within me from an early age. We were brought up in this environment to give us an appreciation of education – to work smart, not hard, as I saw with the struggles of Mum and Dad. But I’m still working hard!
Certainly growing up on Brunswick Street in the 1970s and ‘80s was an eye opener. I also lost my Dad at an early age and was one of his primary carers, which taught me not to take life for granted, but be grateful and appreciate family and loved ones. So being resilient and self-made has helped me adapt to the current economic climate. Overcoming those challenges has made me the person I am today.
Do you feel like Vasette is going to be able to weather this storm?
It will, but it will take a while. I’m not too sure what the wash up will be, and what funds people will have to spend. And that’s why going back to basics with the fruit and veg and cut flowers for people to have in their homes is important. That’s how I started my business – when I started back in 1989 there was a recession, and Vasette wasn’t about events. It was about buying happiness, buying a bit of colour. I remember as a kid you could never buy flowers, and a lot of things were out of our price range. My mission back then was to make flowers affordable and put them on that staple list.
Because I’m getting fresh produce continuously there’s not much wastage. A lot of resources were going into setting up the shop and making it look beautiful, people don’t realise. Now I buy flowers in buckets, we move them on, and there is a good turnover of product.
I feel like I’m going back to basics. And now we’re a fruit shop! My Mum and Dad would be very proud of me. This has been what COVID-19 has brought me back to.
What are you hopeful will emerge from this time?
I think we needed to have a correction. We were just living in this excessive, materialistic world – it was beyond a joke. Hopefully, this will bring back production in Australia, it might boost our manufacturing rather than being so reliant on overseas. I think we needed this wake-up call to say, ‘listen, we’re hurting the planet, we’ve got all this stuff, do we need it all?’
It’s not unknown now that the oceans are cleaner. The air is cleaner. All these issues are coming to the surface and we’re all going to benefit – the planet is. I think there will be some positives coming out in that regard.
What’s inspiring you right now?
My team – they’re incredible. When I first started shifting into gear and they could see I was exhausted and pushing myself. The messages I’d get at night from those guys would bring tears to my eyes. They’re the ones that keep me going.
The sense of family I grew up with in the 60s and 70s is coming back. People are home growing and getting back into their garden and cooking, that’s beautiful. I hear the excitement of people sharing recipes and what they’re doing with the food boxes, and that’s just amazing.
Our customer’s voices as well and their beautiful messages – that’s what’s inspiring me. If people are appreciative and grateful – that’s enough for me. I’ll work hard and do my darndest to get the best of the best.
What lessons have you learned over the last couple of months?
There are lessons to be learned in business, and this is something we can take on as a positive and learn from it. My business is pretty much online for now, but for some of the other industry players who are purely events based, it would be really hard for them. I can see that.
It’s important to have diversification up your sleeve I think. Not that we expected COVID-19 to happen in 2020, but you need to understand what the other options are. You’ve got to be constantly evolving and changing and innovating