From mid-March until early June, the jungle on West 28th Street in New York City was nowhere to be found.
Continue Reading Below
Instead, the boxwoods and hydrangeas that once lined the sidewalks along Sixth Avenue were in storage, the latest victims of the coronavirus.
Like the restaurants, barbershops and tailors forced by New York’s health officials to shut their doors for several months, Ashok Kumar’s Tropical Plants & Orchids Inc. also had to close because of the pandemic.
When the shop was allowed to reopen its landscaping business in June, the first order Kumar received was from the United Nations, whose greenery he is in charge of refreshing every month. The UN’s campus had been without fresh flowers and plants for months and was looking to add splashes of color in this dark time.
Then came the lobbies of hotels and apartment buildings across town, all ready to brighten up again. Kumar was able to open for retail on June 10, but many of his regular clients have yet to return after fleeing New York.
“We have a lot of great customers, but they’re out of the city right now,” Kumar, who took over the shop from his father and uncle in 2003, told The Post. “They don’t want to come back, but they’re still in touch with us and they know we’re waiting for them.”
The span of the lockdown was particularly painful for flower shop owners because it coincided with the all-important graduation season, when clients would normally be ordering bouquets of table orchids for parties and renting giant palms for outdoor celebrations.
“I’d say around 30 to 40 percent of business in May and June is graduation parties,” Kumar said. “We didn’t get any this year.”
And while he’d normally supply flowers to fill party halls for at least 15 weddings each summer, Kumar said that this year he hasn’t done a single one.
The slowdown in business has left Kumar with a huge backlog of inventory. Orders for spring flowers and summer plants were placed in January — well before the pandemic was a concern for most Americans — when the shop was still expecting strong warm-weather business.
“Now our suppliers are calling us and saying, ‘Hey, you still have that order sitting here,’” Kumar said. “We might have ordered 200 plants in one nursery, but we’re telling them we only need 125 or 150.”
The plants that have already been shipped to the 28th Street store are being sold at a discount, with boxes of orchids that might normally cost $65 selling for $50.
“Hotels don’t have guests, so they’re not putting orchids in their rooms,” Kumar explained. “In a month that might be changing, but right now we’re not getting a lot of business.”
Rather than lay off employees, Kumar has shortened shifts to three or four days apiece so that everyone can get some work, and he has come to an agreement with his landlords where he pays 60 percent of rent each month.
But the coronavirus has also presented new opportunities. As New York has embraced outdoor dining as a way to allow restaurants to operate during the pandemic, restaurants have turned to shops like Kumar’s to make their outdoor spaces more appealing.
Tropical Plants & Orchids has decorated the outdoor seating areas of more than 40 restaurants already, including popular Upper East Side bistro Le Bilboquet and a number of spots in Little Italy.
“As long as the restaurants are open that is good news for us,” he said. “I want to see as many restaurants open as possible.”
Indeed, although he describes the past few months as the most difficult the shop has experienced since 9/11, Kumar said that there are signs of life.
“A lot of offices are opening back up,” he added. “A lot of good clients at law offices and doctors’ offices are calling me because they’re reopening and need flowers.”
The coronavirus and its airborne transmission have also seen Kumar get new business from customers with unusual requests.
“People come here asking for snake plants, they want something that can clean the air.”