Honoring their roots
How a passion for social justice led two Loyola grads to found Local Color Flowers, a community-focused flower shop that sources directly from farmers within 100 miles of Baltimore
Ellen Frost and Eric Moller always knew they wanted to help people. The married Loyola grads (Eric received his bachelor’s degree from the university in 1994, while Ellen completed her MBA in 2004) are the co-owners of Local Color Flowers, a Charles Village-based floral shop that sources all its flowers from farms within 100 miles of Baltimore.
The pair met in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) in 1994, where they discovered a shared passion for environmentalism and community service.
Through a series of life changes—and a well-timed class in entrepreneurship at Loyola—they realized that starting Local Color Flowers was a unique way to give back to the world and to their adopted city of Baltimore.
There’s a lot of synergy between doing right for the earth and doing right for your community and your employees.
“It’s funny when I think about the path life takes,” says Frost. “When I joined JVC, I never thought it would turn into owning a flower shop. But the same things that I cared about then—social justice issues and fair wages and equal rights for women—still translate to what we do today.”
Finding their passion
For Frost, that path began in Buffalo, New York. She attended Canisius College for her undergraduate degree before joining the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in San Jose, Calif. That’s where she met Moller, who was also stationed in San Francisco.
The pair hit it off and ended up staying in the Bay Area and working with nonprofit organizations: Frost for an affordable housing developer and Moller with the Saint Anthony’s Foundation, a nonprofit that offers services to people experiencing homelessness. After six years, the couple decided to move to Baltimore to be closer to Moller’s family in the D.C. area.
Frost continued to work in the nonprofit realm and eventually decided to enroll in a graduate program in the Sellinger School of Business and Management.
“I was hoping to gain some business experience at school and then take that back to my nonprofit job and advance through the nonprofit world,” she explains.
But the plan didn’t progress exactly as she expected. While studying for her MBA and living in a small rowhome in Butchers Hill, Frost became increasingly interested in gardening. She ended up taking an extension gardening course through the University of Maryland’s Master Gardening program.
“I learned about gardening, but I also started meeting people for the first time who grew things for a living,” she says. “Farmers, nursery people—it all seemed so interesting to me, so I got a part-time job at a farm in Baltimore County growing vegetables and nursery plants.”
Eventually, she began designing flowers for friends’ weddings and made efforts to work with the local farmers she’d met.
These friends had the same ideas I did; they cared about dining local and they cared about the environment, they cared about Baltimore,” she explains. “It seemed crazy to buy flowers that had been shipped from so far away when we knew farmers who grew them right in our community.
Still, she treated floral design as a fun hobby… until she took an entrepreneurship class with professor Jeffrey Robinson, Ph.D., as part of her MBA program.
“It was just this one-off class,” she remembers, “but that was really the first time my eyes were opened to the possibilities of entrepreneurship. I had been brought up in Catholic schools, with a strong service tradition, so I always thought I would work in a service industry. Doing nonprofit work made sense. I never considered that you could own a business and do good in the world.”
The class helped Frost realize that businesses don’t need be big and inaccessible; they can be used to help directly serve the local community.
She turned to her husband, and the pair started batting ideas around for their own business. They toyed with the idea of opening a vegan bakery before realizing flowers were the perfect way to combine their passion for gardening while doing some good for the environment and engaging the local community.
“We started in 2008 with the idea that we would provide locally-grown flowers to people getting married,” Frost says. “We thought we could be the bridge between farmers—who are mostly in rural places where urban people don’t always go—and people who might want local products.”
A budding business
Our shop has really become this neighborhood meeting space.
Local Color Flowers eventually expanded beyond weddings, and today the store has six full-time employees in addition to Frost and Moller. The business spends half its efforts on weddings and events and the other half on single orders (including quite a few orders to the Loyola mailroom).
Local Color also hosts floral design classes, a nature-themed book club, a flower club, and other community gatherings.
“It has really become this neighborhood meeting space,” says Frost.
Despite the company’s growth, the owners remain committed to sourcing all flowers from farms within 100 miles of Baltimore, including from a few right in Baltimore City. That’s a stark contrast to the typical floral industry in the United States, says Frost, which sources about 80% of its flowers from countries like Ecuador, Colombia, Holland, or Kenya.
Unsurprisingly, that commitment doesn’t come without its challenges.
“Local growing is unique, and in the beginning, we only worked field months: May to October,” she explains. “We had to spend a couple years figuring out winter growing and making connections and building relationships with winter growers.”
Local Color Flowers sources flowers directly from the farms, rather than going through wholesalers, which means the shop could be working with a dozen or more farmers directly to place orders during a given week. “That means driving to farms or having farmers come to us or meeting them at a farmers’ market where they’re selling—or even the side of the road halfway between where we happen to be that day. The logistics of sourcing this way can be a little more complicated.”
Another key component is educating consumers on the benefits of buying local.
Unlike food, local flowers aren’t on people’s radar as much. So a lot of what we do is educate people about where their flowers come from and why we choose to source locally and why that’s important—and why that also means that we don’t use roses [85% of which are imported from other countries, mainly Colombia and Ecuador] or we don’t have tulips in October or we don’t have peonies year-round.
This presents a unique opportunity for the shop’s designers, who are forced to be creative since they are rarely working with the exact same flowers each day.
Frost says the team throws celebrations for flowers when they’re retired for the year.
“When ranunculus or peonies are done for the season, that’s it,” explains Frost. “We have a little celebration for that species, and then we move on knowing they will be back again next year.”
For Frost, the work is rewarding and her path fulfilling.
“I love a lot about this job,” she says. “We get to use our hard-earned dollars to support people in our own communities and to protect farmland. We get to be that bridge between farmers and customers. To be able to tell the stories of where the flowers came from and how they grew and see our customers get excited about local flowers is really, really rewarding.”