Petals and Roots

R enowned horticulturist Luther Burbank (1849-1926), creator of the popular Shasta daisy and hundreds of other cultivars, reportedly wrote, “Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul.”

That’s certainly true, especially at this time of year, but for an in-demand florist, they’re also a source of stress. West Haven’s highly regarded Fitzgerald’s Florist, a family business now in its 67th year, takes up the challenge every day. They’ve provided all the fresh flowers and plants sold at the gift shops of Yale New Haven Hospital and St. Raphael’s (now a campus of YNHH) daily for 30 years. They work closely with several funeral homes in West and East Haven, Milford and North Branford and provide for major events held at Yale, the University of New Haven and SCSU—all of whom have up to 20 departments requesting service.

No wonder Maggi Suraci, daughter of the shop’s founder, Judy Fitzgerald, says, “There’s no such thing as a normal day here. We come in every Monday, and by noon we’re overrun with orders.” Her son David adds, “We’re pretty much fully booked every day we’re open.” The pressure to perform comes as much from within as without. “We don’t let anything leave the shop that we wouldn’t want in our homes,” David says. Moreover, every design is fully guaranteed, Maggi says: “If there’s a problem, we solve it. We never say, ‘We can’t.’ If someone is unhappy, we refund or replace.”

Despite all of that, Fitzgerald’s has the homey feel of a backyard workshop—which, it turns out, is exactly what it is. The Fitzgerald family home stands in front facing Campbell Avenue, accompanied by a sign that has confused people into thinking the house is actually the business. (Fortunately, a doorbell camera helps Maggi and David capture all comers.) Wandering around the rustic space, I came across buckets and coolers of flowers in a rainbow of colors—roses, carnations, daisies, peonies, lilies, alstroemeria—delivered daily by the shop’s wholesalers.

Two special projects were near completion. The first was a collection of white and ivory flowers cuddled in dodecahedron vases for Yale’s latest Chubb Fellowship Dinner—arrangements meant to evoke soccer balls for honoree Jill Ellis, who coached the US Women’s National Team to consecutive World Cup titles. These were fashioned in the Modern style—low and tightly clustered—as opposed to the taller and wispier Classical or European styles. Usually, “Modern is preferred because it’s not overwhelming,” David says. The second group of flowers consisted of a dramatically tall focal arrangement of peacock blues and greens, accompanied by vases of single blue roses nestled in baby’s breath. These were the shop’s donation to an evening fundraiser at The Breakwall benefitting Connecticut Department of Corrections nurse Kori Wilkerson, who was critically injured in an I-91 accident last month and had worked as a bartender at the West Haven restaurant.

When it comes to public events, the Suracis handle most of the creations and deliveries themselves, even though they sometimes employ a handful of extra designers and drivers. A hands-on approach is crucial, Maggi says, at affairs with 50 tables or more: “You want to make sure everything is set up properly and be available if something goes wrong.” They prefer to receive large orders a month or more in advance, though they’ve occasionally had to come through in a pinch. “One day, I got a call at 4:45 p.m. from a client we work with closely who… forgot to place the order for a dinner starting at 5:30,” David recalls. “We didn’t end up creating the most intricate arrangements, but at least we got something on the tables.”

Fitzgerald’s was born in 1957 when Maggi’s mother, Judy Fitzgerald, turned her private passion for plants into a public enterprise. “Initially, she had my father build a greenhouse just for her, but people started stopping in to buy plants occasionally,” Maggi says. “Eventually, she was told that she needed a tax number to do sales.” After a few years, Judy started studying the art of floral arranging. Fitzgerald’s finally became a “full-fledged flower shop” in the late ’60s once Maggi and her sister, Rosemary—who studied horticulture and floral design at the University of Connecticut—joined the staff. “From then on, we were 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

David, on the other hand, had to beg to join the family business. “I talked my mom into letting me work here as a college student, just to make money, but I had to ask three times,” he says. “Then I got my degree in business management and worked in finance before coming back and expanding the event side of our services.”

Surprisingly, weddings aren’t a large part of their business. “That’s a very saturated market,” David says. “So many people are planning home weddings these days, and there are florists who focus exclusively on those.” However, Fitzgerald’s is benefitting from an uptick in other kinds of home-based parties and events. “Last weekend, someone hired us for a house party and ordered corsages and boutonnieres for the guests as well as floral arrangements. Next week, we’re working with a client who’s hosting a 20-table breakfast in memory of her late husband, rather than holding an official memorial service.”

Spring is the shop’s busiest time of year, not just due to Easter or Mother’s Day but because it’s commencement season. “There are weeks in May when we’ll see 200 to 300 arrangements leave the shop every day,” Maggi says. Work at such times may be a blur, but customers seem to take note, as per stellar Yelp and Google reviews. “People have told us that they can’t believe how long our arrangements last. And we’ve heard that our designs are distinctive and easily identifiable, even when mixed in with other florists’ work.”

To see for myself, I’ve just placed my first order with Fitzgerald’s—a Valentine’s gift for a friend. I didn’t give many specifications, just that it be Modern and colorful. I’m not worried how it will turn out.

Fitzgerald’s Florist
281 Campbell Ave, West Haven (map)
Mon-Sat by appointment
(203) 934-0522

Written and photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

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A former senior editor at Connecticut Magazine, Pat Grandjean is a cultural omnivore who loves everything from Beck and “Doc Martin” to Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino. She currently spends much of her free time volunteering at the New Haven Animal Shelter and cleaning apartment closets.

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