Duluth News Tribune: Bella Flora in downtown Duluth changes owners

The corner shop at 138 W. First St. in downtown Duluth appears inviting in a number of ways, not the least of which is that on nice days the door is open.

Staghorn ferns and antique tile floors greet a person, and enchantment comes from all corners of the flower shop thereafter. Ultimately, one’s attention is funneled to a rustic workstation in the back.

It’s where Sarah Bjork, 24, and Ellie Just, 27, were found tying, clipping, primping, snipping, jabbing and putzing as they worked side by side, expertly assembling a crate of Bella Flora’s signature seller: the European hand-tied bouquet — a vibrant ensemble of color and petals that came in a jar before jars were all the rage in the flower world.

“It’s been a great 16 years,” said the outgoing owner, Angela Stocke, who left a teaching career behind to start Angela’s Bella Flora in the summer of 2000. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

A dynamo of thought and motivation, Stocke, 43, is blaming a brain that won’t quit for pulling her into a new endeavor — a startup business she’s tabbed Refine Life Coaching. She’s working at the flower shop through August, though, to help the new owners, Bjork and Just, experience a smooth transition.

“On fire for flowers and design,” is how Stocke described her loyal apprentices.

The two new owners got to know one another through the flower shop. With both having risen the ladder to become lead designers, they learned that they complemented each other in the right ways

while both bringing a flair for creativity and style that had become the shop’s hallmark.

“They’re the absolute best floral place in Duluth,” said Suzi Vandersteen, owner and designer at Kitchee Gammi Design Co., who said she uses the flower shop both professionally and privately. “They’re very design-forward in their arrangements. They do things you don’t see anywhere else.”

The shop uses an array of suppliers and is noted for pairing locally grown flowers with exotic varieties from half a world away — Gerbera daisies to go with tropical pincushions, for instance.

Touring around the shop with Just, she admitted that staying current is a job in itself.

“For brides,” she said, “it’s Pinterest,” before later confessing, “We’re not your traditional flower shop. I don’t think we even have any red roses.”

Bjork confirmed it, saying there were no red roses. But there were Free Spirit roses, Bjork noted — ruffles of an orange coral color that were delightful in their own right.

The new owners said they enjoy the chance to shatter long-held notions and can invariably convince a newcomer that there is a world outside of carnations and baby’s breath. It’s a world of moss — “Oh, we love moss here,” Bjork said — driftwood, berries, Green Trick dianthus and other fillers and accents that lend the products added depth and allure.

“I have a giant shell with succulent in it that I bought two years ago and still get tons of compliments on,” Vandersteen said, praising the shop for not only having a strong design sense but for giving secrets away, too. Stocke was noted for her monthly design demonstrations, teaching patrons about holiday or window box arrangements, or what new things they could mix into their own gardens.

“She was never stingy or proprietary with her knowledge,” Vandersteen said of Stocke. “She always shared it.”

The new owners say they will continue to host demonstrations and classes. Simply watching them work as a team is an education in itself. During Stocke’s time the shop has seen some 200 employees over 16 years — but few who took to the business as well as the two new owners.

“I saw their work ethic is the top 5 percent of the people who worked here,” said Stocke, who found peace of mind in knowing her successors are worthy of the shop she’s built.

While taking care of the plants on display in the store, the shop’s resident “plant lady,” Rachel Fitzgerald, said of Bjork and Just, “They’re a well-balanced team; they’re both super into what they do.”

Stocke can relate. There was a time when flowers were her whole life, too.

The origin story of Bella Flora goes that Stocke came home from teaching for Christmas break and wanted to make fresh holiday arrangements for her parents’ home. No shops in the Northland carried blackberry privet. No berries of any kind. What ensued was a 16-year whirlwind of small-business success driven by Stocke’s singular devotion.

“I’m a little bummed,” Stocke said, “but I don’t have a choice. The brain is onto the next big thing.”

Originally published in the Duluth News Tribune, June 12, 2016