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From South America with love

Come mid-winter in Pennsylvania, the thought of soaking up the sun’s rays and 70-degree temperatures in South America sounds like a great vacation.

But for Tom Royer, traveling to Bogota, Colombia, is work.

Tom is senior vice president and chief operating officer for Royer’s Flowers, which his grandparents, Hannah and Lester Royer, started 76 years ago. For the past 30 years, Tom has been making regular visits to flower farms near Bogota.

One of those trips comes every year in advance of Valentine’s Day, which is the floral equivalent of the Super Bowl. Royer’s may be the only local florist in the United States that visits South America in order to check on the quality of the product that will wind up in its customers’ homes and workplaces.

“It’s a product of the way we do things,” Tom said. “We’re very detailed about a lot of things we do. Flower-buying is just one of them.”

Up until the 1970s, Royer’s grew its own roses (and many other flowers) in greenhouses at its headquarters in Lebanon. But when the oil embargo hit and the price of crude oil spiked, it became cost prohibitive to operate those greenhouses.

At the same time, Colombia was offering a better product. Bogota sits on a plateau, giving it year-round fall temperatures that are ideal for growing flowers.

Back in the early days, Tom remembers, construction of a bridge was cause for celebration in Bogota. Roads leading to the flower farms would wash out. Today, much to Tom’s delight, Bogota is a modern city.

Then as now, the purpose for going to Bogota is simple.

“We want the best possible flowers we can find,” Tom said.

By visiting the farms, Tom can inspect the latest crop in the field. He makes sure that the farms cut the flowers at the right maturity. He always carries his measuring tool to ensure that he’s getting the right length and head sizes for the flowers that Royer’s buys.

Tom’s work doesn’t end in Colombia. After several days on the farms, he then flies to Miami, where the flowers will arrive via cargo plane from Bogota. Until the flowers clear customs, they will be stored in refrigerated warehouses. Tom will inspect the flowers again to make sure that they fared well on the flight.

Finally, the flowers will be loaded on a refrigerated tractor-trailer destined for Royer’s distribution center in Lebanon, which will receive a quarter-million roses and slightly more carnations, among other flowers, just for Valentine’s Day.

With so much fragile product involved, Royer’s has its schedule down to a science. Flowers can’t arrive too early, lest they wilt before the holiday. They can’t arrive too late or Royer’s won’t have enough time to create all of the arrangements that will be needed.

When the tractor-trailer arrives from Miami, it will be unloaded immediately, the flowers cut under water to maximize their moisture intake. Vans will arrive from Royer’s stores, which have employees geared up to make arrangements. Many more arrangements will be made at the Lebanon complex to supplement what Royer’s stores can make, the demand being so great.

“The goal is trying to eliminate any product issues when the flowers arrive in Lebanon, because we cut the schedule tight,” Tom said. “We have it very well orchestrated.”

It’s that tight schedule – and Royer’s control of it from farm field all the way to consumers – that ensures the best quality possible.

The big online retailers can’t say the same thing. They don’t actually make their arrangements, instead contracting out that work. The result is much longer lead times – and a commensurate variation in quality – when compared with Royer’s.

“And from a competitive standpoint, we have to do that better,” Tom said. “That’s the way I look at it, is that we have to be better than anyone else. We have to have fresher stuff. It has to be much nicer.”

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