Merchant Road is a social enterprise business that hosts dining experiences in inner Melbourne. To staff these events, the organisation runs 8-week training workshops for young women from refugee and migrant backgrounds who have experienced difficulty finding work. The business is a closed labour loop – the money that comes in from functions covers the wages for their event staff and goes towards running workshops for a new cycle of trainees.
It’s a fabulous and successful model – but not quite pandemic proof. Founder Jane Marx was pregnant with her second child and on the brink of opening an enormous new hospitality space when the pandemic hit last year. All of a sudden, the whole thing required a radical re-think.
‘We took on a big, beautiful events space in Fitzroy North just a couple of weeks before Melbourne’s first lockdown in 2020,’ she remembers. ‘It was going to be a really huge year for Merchant Road and then overnight just about everything we had in our calendar was cancelled. It was overwhelming and I, like so many, was completely heartbroken; I felt like everything I’d worked so hard on had just disappeared!’
Jane knew she had to pivot, so she looked at industries that had really grown during the initial months of lockdown to get ideas – flowers was one of them. She then revisited her notes from the Merchant Road skills workshops and while scouring through participant feedback discovered floristry was the resounding favourite.
So with the help of friend and florist Mel Stapleton from Cecilia Fox, Jane launched The Beautiful Bunch – a weekly floral service delivering bunches to subscribers and one-off customers. The initiative was the first time she had ever run a retail, florist, or e-commerce business, let alone on that contained all three in a very competitive niche.
‘I knew it was conceptually strong, and also reflecting on the training we’d already done I was certain the girls would love the nature of the work and learn a lot,’ she says. ‘I was also confident that we could create something a bit different from everyone else – bouquets that were accessible to someone just wanting to make a small gesture but were also quite romantic, playful and just really pretty.’
From this pilot program, a fully-fledged business has now emerged. The team consists of Jane; business admin and customer service lead, Asanti; and floral assistants Randa, Bety, Raga and Rhoda. Currently, The Beautiful Bunch takes on four new trainees per cycle, but Jane is hoping to expand it to six in the coming months owing to the popularity of the service.
Which seems surreal considering the dire straits the operation was feeling just 12 months ago. Jane remembers the first day of deliveries – Mother’s Day last year:
‘I walked in to our studio at one point that morning and just saw what had been an empty space for months, finally filled with so many beautiful flowers and the girls chatting and working and I knew then it was going to be the start of something really special.’
And it is!
Order one-off delivery or start your subscription service with The Beautiful Bunch here.
Merchant Road is the only Victorian not-for-profit focused on employment outcomes specifically for young women from refugee and migrant backgrounds. If you would like to participate in Merchant Road skills workshops, email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.