PEDDLING PETALS Rose supplier getting ready for Valentine's Day


Craig Falanga's business is flowering this week.

The 27-year-old entrepreneur is working ankle-deep in rose petals and thorny stems and logging 20-hour days to ready 250,000 roses for Valentine's Day.

Mr. Falanga's company, Rose Express Inc., is one of the largest suppliers of individually-wrapped red roses in the country. From a warehouse near Golden Ring Mall, workers rush to trim, package and ship the roses so that they will appear in 3,800 drugstores and 7-Elevens by tomorrow.

"It's a madhouse for nine days. And rose petals are everywhere," said Mr. Falanga, nudging a petal on the floor of the salesroom.

Preparation for the Valentine's Day rush began in early January when Mr. Falanga ordered the roses from vendors in South America. The first roses were cut from the fields Feb. 1 and arrived in Baltimore Feb. 3. Other cuttings were made Feb. 3, 4 and 5.

Mr. Falanga hired 38 temporary workers to help his 11 full-time employees prepare the roses. The roses are put into water tubes, wrapped in cellophane, bundled in groups of 50, boxed and loaded onto trailers. A good worker can wrap 700 roses an hour.

During the nine days Mr. Falanga has to ready the flowers for shipment, timing is everything. During the rush, he arrives at work at 5:30 a.m. and stays until midnight. Saturday night, he didn't go home at all.

With all that, roses are not even the main source of business for Mr. Falanga's company. About 80 percent of his $1 million a year in revenue comes from the sale of Mylar balloons.

Mr. Falanga, who grew up is Essex, started out helping his parents at their Severna Park nursery. A small part of their business was selling cut flowers on Mother's Day and Memorial Day. When Mr. Falanga was 16, his parents turned that operation over to him. Throughout college, he continued in the flower business, buying roses from a wholesale distributor, wrapping them individually at home and selling them on the streets in East Baltimore.

When Mr. Falanga graduated from Loyola College, he decided to turn flower sales into more than a part-time job. He opened a retail store in Golden Ring Mall but soon decided that retail was not what he wanted.

Opting for the wholesale business, he began to supply roses to local 7-Elevens and Rite-Aid drugstores.

Even as he was succeeding as a rose supplier, he recognized that roses posed certain business risks. Prices fluctuate almost by the hour, making budgeting difficult. Bad weather in South America could destroy his supply. Looking for a way to diversify, he began to market Mylar balloons as well. His company inflates 3-, 6- and 9-inch balloons and provides retailers with equipment to inflate the larger helium balloons.

Rose Express supplies balloons and roses in 40 states. The main customers are Rite-Aid, Thrift Drug in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey, and Hook-SupeRX, which operates in the Northeast, Midwest and Tennessee.

This Valentine's Day, its roses are selling for $1.99 each or $15.99 a dozen --far less than what roses cost from a florist.

Some florists have started to grumble about the intrusion into their territory, but Paul Raimondi, president of Raimondi's Florist in Randallstown, said he doesn't believe operations such as Mr. Falanga's are hurting his business.

The roses sold in convenience stores and 7-Elevens are shorter, have smaller blossoms and don't last as long as the premier roses he sells at his shop for $47.50 a dozen, Mr. Raimondi said.

He said he also will sell the cheaper roses for $29.95. The difference between buying the roses at his shop and buying he roses at the 7-Eleven, he said, is that Raimondi's will put the roses in a box, add greenery and baby's breath, and deliver them.

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