“If you’d told us a year and a half ago that we’d be opening a plant shop we’d have laughed,” says Milli, owner of The Flower Cup café and its off-shoot (pardon the pun) and plant shop in question, The Violet Palm. As the name suggests, when The Flower Cup opened in November 2016, selling flowers alongside the cake and cappuccinos was always part of the long-term plan. However, at that point plants really weren’t on the agenda. “When everyone started going crazy for cacti we decided to stock a few, and then the boom really hit so we kept adding more and more plants to the point they started taking over.”
Milli and her husband have always wanted several different businesses, not just multiple versions of The Flower Cup. So, when the unit next door became available they animatedly discussed the possibilities. By this point, the existing business had evolved to include flowers, plants and floristry classes but the extras were proving difficult to manage within the café. “We were getting more and more orders for weddings, but struggling for space and having to do everything after hours. We even ended up borrowing next door’s garage!” The opportunity to expand their portfolio and allow the two elements to grow and develop was too much to resist, and so The Violet Palm was born.
Plants will no longer be available for sale in The Flower Cup where the focus will be on providing an excellent service to the brunchers of Chester. However, Milli recognises that the plants are an important part of the café’s identity and intends to make the most of the opportunity to use it as a showroom for The Violet Palm. Customers who spend their time eyeing up the plants and pots on display while enjoying their coffee will be directed next door to indulge their botanical urges. I can testify to the fact that this approach works having succumbed to their three cacti for a fiver offer after staring at them for half an hour over my delicious latte!
A key aspect of The Violet Palm will be using the shop as a creative space as well as a retail outlet. I get a sneak peek a couple of weeks before the opening; inside and central to the space is a large rustic wooden table, built by Milli’s husband, around which workshops will be held. Floristry classes have already been a feature at The Flower Cup, but these will now be developed further, extending into aspects of houseplant care and display such as terrariums. The workshops are seen both as a way of attracting customers into the shop and providing opportunities to learn about plants and flowers with other like-minded people. “We get lots of people who are interested in flowers and plants and want to learn more. It can be hard with a full-time job, and there aren’t a lot of night classes available in floristry, so it’s something we can offer.”
I ask about the negativity which is seen on social media about Chester in light of a number of high profile chains either leaving the city or downsizing. “We’re expanding and other independents are opening, so I’d like to think that it’s the rise of the independents. People are realising that they need to support local businesses and that’s what makes the city different. We’ve shown that you can thrive even if you’re off the beaten track.”
It’s a commendable feature of the local independent scene that the different businesses are highly supportive of each other and Milli is keen to involve local creatives and suppliers wherever possible. The shop will stock ceramics, botanical themed prints and macramé plant holders all produced by locally based makers. A striking piece of interior design is the large-scale mural featured on the rear wall of the shop, which can be seen from the outside through the large bay window. This too was created by local signwriter Hairy Mitten, who did the lettering and then brought in another independent graphic designer to paint the leaf design. All in all, it is a great example of a mutually supportive business environment which has significant benefits for the city.
Such distinctive design details are intended to tap into the positive aspects of social media which allow small businesses to promote themselves to a wide audience. “When we opened The Flower Cup I wanted to make every part of the shop look like pictures on Instagram because that’s the way it’s going, and it’s worked because people come in for coffee and spend all their time taking pictures instead of eating their food! We’ve designed The Violet Palm in the same way because you know it’s going to go on social media and that’s free advertising.”
A key challenge for any small business is how they can compete with the larger chains. Milli notes that with houseplants currently being so popular in chains such as Wilko and B&Q, they’re stocking an increasing range. It’s impossible to compete on price with the buying power of the chains allowing them to sell their plants more cheaply than a shop like The Violet Palm. Instead, the focus will be on stocking more distinctive varieties and providing a high-quality service and experience. Plant care information will be provided with the plants so that people know how to look after them once they get them home. The shop is also partnering with other businesses such as local supplier Dandy’s Topsoil for the provision of bespoke growing media, as well as plant food specialists, Growth Technology. Overall the aim will be to provide a one-stop-shop with plants and pots along with appropriate compost and plant food all available together. An online shop and delivery service will also be launched later in the summer, so watch out for The Violet Palm van doing the rounds across the city!
As for how the business will develop in the future? “I don’t like to say because you don’t know. With The Flower Cup, we opened, we’ve changed it, we’ve evolved it and I wouldn’t have predicted that it would have ended up how it is but you’ve got to go with it and see what people react to.” Sounds like an excellent approach both to business and to life.