Lily Floral Designs at 922 E. Fifth Street in Columbus Park is preparing for its grand opening celebration on October 15, when they’ll launch their retail department, officially opening for walk-in flower arrangements and other gifts.
Owners Lily Williams and Betsy Ford are proud to be part of the new generation of women-owned businesses on their block.
The two have run an order-only floral business full time since the beginning of 2020, and moved their studio to Columbus Park at the end of last year.
Although they’re trying to keep the space a secret until the grand opening, they leave their door open as they prepare, which attracts neighbors walking by and visitors to the two businesses that flank the shop on either side – Swoon to the east and Cafe Cà Phê to the west.
“We love when the people who have been here for forever pop in and they’re just like, ‘Oh my god, this used to be this,’ or ‘I’ve lived here, my family’s been in this neighborhood for 100 years,’ and like, you’re instantly their best friend and we just think it’s like the cutest thing ever,” Williams said.
They’ve heard their fragrant flowers can be smelled from the sidewalk, but they’re “nose blind” after working in the industry for many years.
The pair met while working at an established florist in Kansas City in 2012.
“Betsy actually hired me there, which is cool,” Williams said. “After five years working for them, I was like, ‘get me out of here,’ and I went and worked a corporate office job.”
She realized almost immediately that she missed working with flowers, and posted on her personal Facebook page asking if anyone wanted her to do their wedding flowers. She got five requests, and that kicked off her side hustle, working evenings and weekends on flowers, on top of her full-time job.
She had five weddings the first year, 25 the next year, and then 50 the year after that.
“That was a lot out of my studio apartment, and then at the end of that third year, Betsy – who in the meantime had moved to Charleston, which is a huge destination wedding place and she was a buyer and worked for in the wedding department there and she gained tons of experience – decided she was moving back and asked ‘Do you want to do this for real?’ I was like hell yes. I need help. I’m drowning,” Williams recalled.
At the beginning of 2020, they leased a studio space in Brookside and quit their full-time jobs. They were all in.
“We were going to have a grand opening on April 4, and then COVID shut everything down,” Williams said. “And so we had to like pivot major because we had just quit our full-time jobs.”
It’s a day Ford will never forget – her birthday. Her corporate job, which she had one week left at, had just sent her home early.
“I remember I was at CVS or Walgreens or something, and I think we had kind of heard, there was speculation, of we’re going to have a two-week shutdown,” Ford said. “I went grocery shopping to kind of try to stock up on stuff, like obviously I was already being cautious with this.”
When she got home, her mother informed her that the shutdown was official.
“Our hearts just dropped, obviously,” Ford said. “I won’t forget it, and it was just like crazy timing because we had basically started the business the first week of January, signed all of our paperwork, set up our LLC, all of that stuff, and then spent January and February renovating our studio. We did Valentine’s Day out of our studio with no heat, no furniture, nothing.”
When the mandatory order went into place, they ended up with hundreds of excess flowers.
“We just did all these wrapped bouquets and put them out on the street and posted about it in our neighborhood group,” Ford said. “Swarms of people came. It’s like a traffic jam, people honking at each other.”
It was a challenging year for the budding business, but they were able to work with couples who decided on elopements and small ceremonies.
“Our contract, at that point, didn’t include anything for a pandemic,” Williams said. “But then 2021 was insane because of all the postponements and then just people had been holding off during the peak of COVID until last year.”
In 2021, they created arrangements for 250 events – from a single bouquet for an elopement to a 300-person wedding– plus all of their daily orders.
“A lot of the weddings that we had in 2020 that were postponed because of COVID moved to outside of the city limits in 2021 so that they could still have a wedding and not have all the ordinances, which put us in an awkward position of morally we don’t think this is right, but also we’re both single family income homes,” Ford said.
By the end of 2021, they had outgrown their 700-square-foot Brookside space. When they found their space on Fifth Street in November, Cafe Cà Phê wasn’t open yet, and Swoon was doing pick up and delivery only. However, they soon found their niche.
“We also get a lot of calls from people that are downtown and just north of the river because we’re the closest flower shop,” Ford said.
They wondered if they’d get any foot traffic, but in the months since, they’ve been embraced by the neighborhood.
“We love this neighborhood so much and we love Dan [Wayne] and Amy, our landlords, they’re amazing,” Ford said. “We call Dan the King of Columbus Park because he knows everything.”
It has not been an overnight process for Lily Floral Designs, but has instead grown out of years of dreaming and planning and practicing. They recall sketching out designs back in 2014, or drinking wine in Ford’s living room considering a flower truck, talking about how they were going to own their own shop one day.
“We went the long way, which I highly recommend going the long way a lot of times because you have more knowledge that way,” Ford said.
They both started at the bottom of the industry, Ford in 2006 and Williams in 2010.
“Don’t be afraid to do the hard stuff,” Williams said. “A lot of florists think that they can just become a designer, right? But if you don’t start at the bottom of the totem pole, washing buckets and learning mechanics and stuff like that, your stuff is just going to fall apart or die. You’re not going to have the quality… We create beautiful things with flowers, but there’s so much more that goes into it because we’re selling a luxury product that has to last and has to withstand being moved around. You can’t just shove it in a vase and send it out the door.”
If they had one piece of advice for those hoping to start a small business, it would be to hire professionals to do the things that they are not comfortable doing.
“Whether it’s taxes, legal stuff, branding, marketing, stuff like that, know your limits, I guess, and focus your energy on what you are good at,” Ford said.
Opening up a retail business was always a goal of theirs, but weddings and events are their passion.
“We wanted to make sure that we have really good systems in place to sustain that while we focus our energy elsewhere,” Ford said. “Once we got that in place, we were like, ‘We want to offer something that nobody else is offering in this area, and we want to make it easy and accessible to people.’ So yes, we’re opening retail for walk-in, but all that retail is also like add-ons for flower delivery. If you want candles and flowers delivered, we can do that. If you want jewelry and flowers delivered we can do that.”
Working in retail floral in the past, they’ve become seasoned professionals.
“I feel like COVID really helped emphasize supporting small businesses, like, we all knew we should’ve been doing it before, but then when COVID hit it was like your small businesses are literally dying without you,” Williams said. “So I think that that kind of pushed people to be a little bit more supportive of the smaller businesses and we’ve noticed a shift in people.”
While they know not everybody has the budget for a florist and people are always going to buy grocery store flowers or boxed flowers, they’ve noticed that more often than before they’ll at least inquire and give them an opportunity to show off their work.
Lily Floral Designs’ quality, and professionalism, is unmatched, Williams said.
“We do take special orders, we take funeral or sympathy orders, stuff like that where it’s super specific,” Williams said. “We, unfortunately, just had one that was for a baby and so the family had really sentimental thoughts on what the flowers should be, so we always take those things into consideration.”
But for the most part, when they’re creating arrangements for birthdays, anniversaries, or sending them out daily, they really try to encourage people to allow them to pick the most beautiful seasonal blooms.
“We try to buy local when we can, which is obviously a little limited in the Midwest,” Ford said. “But when we are given the flexibility to buy the prettiest stuff rather than, ‘I want this to be absolutely yellow roses and white hydrangea,’ and then maybe those things are not great, the final project is nicer.”
For flowers that will be displayed in a home or office – like their monthly subscription clients – the floral arrangements become part of the seasonal decor.
“Really, we mostly only use premium flowers,” Williams said. “We don’t send out stuff that looks like the grocery store and I think that we’ve kind of built that reputation of only sending out good stuff, so people kind of let us do what we want, and it ends up being prettier.We’re really lucky to have a client base that trusts us to just make something beautiful.”
Building a loyal client base is helping Williams and Ford create the life they want for their families. Betsy has a three-year-old, and Lily had a baby last year. As single moms, growing a small business is make or break.
“When we started I was going through a separation with my kid’s parent, so that was definitely played like it was just me. I was the only one to make sure that it happened for her, so slightly overwhelming and terrifying,” Ford said. “But also such a push to make sure that it is successful, because there’s another option, like, failing is not an option. And if I don’t do this, then what do I do? Right?”
They had both grown weary of working for somebody else for so long.
“We worked for men for so long and watched people miss so many important things in their kids’ lives, even just school pickups or middle of the day programs and stuff like that,” Ford said. “I think it’s really important to both of us to not miss those.”
Their employee Erika also has two kids, and the three of them make it a priority to be there for their children for the big moments and the small things.
“We do this to support our families, but also to have the flexibility to be there when we need to be there,” Ford said. “That’s not to say that we don’t put in stupid long hours at times and we do have to miss stuff sometimes because weddings are on the weekends.”
After they get through the slower winter months, they plan to expand their team.
“In the wedding industry, technically, December through February is like the slow season,” Ford said. “It’s engagement season, so we get a lot of inquiries and a lot of bookings, but we don’t actually produce a lot of events in those months. As much as we want to hire somebody right now, we need to get through those. But I do imagine that we will be adding one to two more people, probably in the spring of next year.”
Williams lived in River Market for 10 years, so she was familiar with Columbus Park before making the move.
“I love it down here,” she said. “It definitely has so much more business and foot traffic than it did five years ago even. It also just feels like so much more of a neighborhood.”
Ford frequents Vietnam Cafe, which has grown to be one of her favorites since she moved to Kansas City in 2008.
Now, in their new home, the three neighbors are a perfect pairing for any gift giving occasion or just because.
“There’s cookies on this side, there’s coffee on this side,” Williams said, gesturing to Swoon and Cafe Cà Phê. “She has tons of sweets over there, and flowers make sense with those things. If you’re buying cookies, you’re probably buying for a special occasion, so buy flowers for your special occasion, too.”
The pair have been embraced by their neighbor Sofia Hudson and her crew at Swoon.
“She has been absolutely amazing,” Williams said. “When we first moved in, she made custom cookies that matched one of our Instagram posts. They took that as inspiration and made these cookies for us with a cute ‘Welcome to the neighborhood!’ We were like, ‘Oh my God, you’ve won us over.’”
The neighbors have since done a collaboration for Mother’s Day and Hudson made space-themed cookies for Williams’ son’s first birthday.
They’ve watched the progression of Cafe Ca Phe, with the first long months being mostly construction, and now they trade weekly flowers for coffee.
“We’ve really only been able to form that relationship with Jackie next door for six weeks since she opened,” Ford said. “We’re obviously super proud of what she has done and brought to the neighborhood because it’s only going to help us, and awareness for the neighborhood. I feel like she really has just kind of put it on the map a little bit.”
Williams and Ford understand the importance of the community they call home, although they deliver anywhere inside the I-435 loop.
“We want to bring accessibility to the neighborhood,” Ford said. “We want giving flowers and gift giving to be just because, not like ‘I placed this order three weeks ago for my anniversary on this day,’ or, ‘I’m calling two hours before I need this to be delivered.’”
They envision people popping by to grab flowers on their way home from work.
“Nobody does that in this neighborhood, and there’s so many people down here that I think would really appreciate that,” Williams said.
Knowing that not every occasion is a happy one, they are honored to be there in the difficult times of life, too. Nobody wants to stress about sympathy flowers, Williams said, and people just want to know it’s taken care of.
“We enjoy the birthdays and anniversaries and weddings and all those celebrations, but flowers are also needed for comfort during the hard times, too,” Williams said. “And I love that we can provide that to people in the neighborhood and anybody, that’s one of my favorite things about what we do is being able to add beauty in a time like that because I believe that it helps people… With our experience, we’re able to provide that to people.”
When Lily was in her studio apartment with the heat turned down to 63, she couldn’t imagine the grand opening they have scheduled for later this month.
“We’ve got food trucks, we’ve got jewelry, we’ve got balloons, a partnership with Swoon for cookies and stuff, which is really great,” Williams said. “It’s from 10 to four. We’re doing a giveaway that morning for the first 20 people that come in.”
After their grand opening on October 15, Lily Floral Designs will also expand its delivery days to Tuesday – Saturdays.To contact Lily Floral Designs, visit their website, lilyfloraldesigns.com.