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Royer’s at 85: From flower grower to importer

Tom Royer (background) discusses production with farm officials in Medellin, Colombia, on one of his many trips to South America.

This is part of a series of occasional blog posts about important events in Royer’s history as the company marks its 85th anniversary in 2022.

In 1937, Lester and Hannah Royer moved their young family from downtown Lebanon to a new home on the outskirts of the city.

Their son Ken was 6 at the time. In his book, “Retailing Flowers Profitably,” Ken noted that the new property provided nearly an acre of land for gardening, “thus my involvement with plants and flowers began.”

That year also marks the beginning of Royer’s Flowers, which Lester and Hannah started from their new home. Decades later, the company would travel far outside the United States to source its flowers.

The elder Royers, who met while students at Elizabethtown College, had each been raised on a farm and knew how to grow vegetables almost instinctively. Hannah also grew African violets on her windowsill. A neighbor sold them at a local garment factory where she worked.

Greenhouses boost production

But starting in 1939, production would begin to far exceed what the neighbor reasonably could sell at her job.

Because that summer, Lester obtained a 10-foot-by-10-foot greenhouse. It was free (“That definitely fit our budget,” Ken noted) but for the effort of dismantling and removing it from the owner’s property.

The greenhouse multiplied the Royers’ production capacity for small plants tenfold, Ken noted. For sales outlets, the family would turn to farmers markets (Ken and his sister working them every Saturday) and eventually open their first store in a converted garage behind their home, adding more greenhouses over time.

“The business remained pretty much the same through the 1970s,” Ken said in a 1991 interview with the Lancaster New Era newspaper. “It was very basic. You grew flowers in a greenhouse and sold them right there. At one time, Lancaster County was the country’s largest producer of carnations.”

But two key events in the late 1970s confronted the floral industry with “vast, profound change,” Ken said.

One was the oil crisis, which caused the price of heating oil to jump from 7.5 cents per gallon to more than $1 seemingly overnight.

“This price change had a devastating effect on the costs of greenhouse operators in the Northeast,” Royer’s included, Ken wrote in his book.

Product now thousands of miles away

Flower production shifted to Colorado and California, the added cost for transportation to the East Coast still less burdensome for Royer’s than the higher fuel costs.

The second event was the realization that Bogota, Colombia, lying on a plateau near the equator, offered the perfect year-round environment for growing flowers, with plenty of cheap labor available for production. Colombian carnations were often superior to what Royer’s grew and lasted longer in a vase.

Other parts of Colombia, such as Medellin, and other South American countries also would gain a foothold in the flower-growing business.

The net effect was that Royer’s had to change from growing flowers to importing them. Around 1980, Ken traveled to South America to begin developing relationships with growers.

“We had to learn how to monitor and control the quality of the product like we did in our own backyard,” he told the New Era, “except the product was being grown thousands of miles away in South America.”

Starting with Ken and continuing with his son Tom and then grandson Geoff, three generations of Royers have made regular trips to South America flower farms. Royer’s may be the only local florist in the United States that makes such visits to check on the quality of the product that will wind up in its customers’ homes and workplaces.

For instance, it has become an annual tradition to visit rose farms in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day to ensure the best quality possible for a florist’s version of the Super Bowl.

Royer’s follows the flowers to Miami, where they pass through customs and are placed on refrigerated trucks for delivery to Royer’s headquarters in Lebanon.

“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.”

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

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

 

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