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Gary floral design blooms along ‘upside-down’ path as founder pivots from camper pop-up

DATE POSTED:November 27, 2021

Even when a side hustle grows organically, it still takes a creative mind to arrange a meaningful and worthwhile venture, said Jessi Levine, whose drive to pay homage to her father led to an eye-catching floral design business.

Photo courtesy of Jessi Levine

Photo courtesy of Jessi Levine

The journey to her subscription floral service has been admittedly “upside down,” she said.

From the outside, the theme for Gary floral design studio initially might have appeared closely tied to a 1969 Shasta camper — previously converted and used as a grilled cheese food truck before Levine bought it to haul inventory and sell floral arrangements at pop-ups.

“The camper became an identifier from a brand perspective at that point,” said Levine. “I didn’t have a ‘business plan’ so much as I had an idea and a vision. The camper wasn’t originally in my mind, but when I found it, I knew it fit.”

She launched the small business on Mother’s Day 2019, scheduling bookings for the camper at weddings, pop-ups, and other events. Levine chose to not do pop-ups during the pandemic that could attract a crowd, and event bookings subsequently diminished. The studio managed to remain busy.  

“The camper is important, but it’s not at the core of what I offer as a service. I initially got a lot of interest in my floral design. I have a pretty solid customer base,” said Levine. “One customer rotates vases with me every week for weekly flowers arranged by me for a month.”

Pivoting to floral subscriptions became a winning tactic, especially during the pandemic, she said.

Click here to explore Gary.

Levine now offers contactless pickup for one-time purchases and subscriptions from her porch in Brookside. Subscriptions start at $35 a month for once-a-month, small hand-tied arrangements, and increase in price based on the client’s budget and requests. Delivery of non-subscription orders is available for a fee, depending on mileage. 

Jessi Levine and Gary Levine; photos courtesy of Jessi Levine

‘I trusted my gut’

The idea for Gary blossomed from Levine’s close connection to her father, Gary Levine, who once owned LeVine Urban Flower Market in Waldo.

Two years ago, Levine wanted to open and operate her own business on the side. She works by day as an associate creative director in the internal creative team at Storable, a tech company that produces facility management software for the storage industry. 

Jessi Levine, Gary floral design studio; photos courtesy of Jessi Levine

Jessi Levine, Gary floral design studio; photos courtesy of Jessi Levine

“I knew I wanted to do something creative outside of my industry and was drawn to floral design,” said Levine. “I was thinking about a way to honor my dad while he is still living and felt like this concept would fulfill a different side of me creatively.” 

She was a youth when her father opened LeVine Urban Flower Market to sell flowers, wine, and art. He later sold the shop.

“I grew up sitting at the counter there, helping process flowers, taking deliveries and anything he needed me to do,” said Levine. “Once I graduated college and came back to Kansas City, I’d sit at his counter at least once a week to share lunch and stories with him.”

As a break from her career as a copywriter and creative director, Levine initially intended to open a brick-and-mortar sandwich and flower shop. She steered plans in another direction to self-fund the business after assessing the high startup costs of a physical space. 

“I wanted to operate a business with no overhead. Having something that I could pay for with cash, and the ability to work out of my house, sounded more interesting and feasible at the time,” said Levine. 

Armed with a business name and vision, Levine briefly explored formal business development planning. She applied and was accepted into the UMKC Entrepreneurship Scholars program, but soon decided she was already prepared enough to make the leap.

“That just kind of revved me up to get going. What was I waiting for? I just trusted my gut when it came to starting this business,” said Levine, who left the program early. “My career certainly informed the way I started Gary, I started in the most upside-down way possible — with a name, a tagline and a logo before I even had a solid business idea.”

The brand tagline for Gary stemmed from personal insight. “I believe that to truly understand who we are in this world, we have to revisit the place where it all started. That’s how I came up with Gary’s tagline: ‘Always wander home.’ [It’s] a reminder for people to not forget the foundation (good or bad) that allowed them to be living the life they have now,” said Levine.  

Levine worked with a colleague to develop the look and feel of the Gary logo. 

“We concepted together and ended up choosing a font that used my dad’s actual handwriting in the design,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Jessi Levine

Photo courtesy of Jessi Levine

‘An art piece in any space of your home’

Distinctive floral design is at the heart of Levine’s business, a one-woman operation where she handles orders and creates floral arrangements herself.  

Jessi Levine, Gary floral design studio; photos courtesy of Jessi Levine

Jessi Levine, Gary floral design studio; photos courtesy of Jessi Levine

“My floral design is different from other things you see. I follow Swedish design principles that place just as much importance on the white space as the filled space,” said Levine.

Swedish design principles don’t technically apply to floral design, Levine elaborates. She’s drawing from her background as a creative director. The graphic design principles put equal or more emphasis on white space (what is not there) in relation to what is there.

“As a creative director, I strive for my team’s advertising and branding designs to follow this principle. It felt natural for me to figure out a way to translate it to my floral design,” said Levine. “I think there is beauty in simplicity. You can buy a vase full of too many flowers for too much money, or you can buy something airy, unique, and modern that becomes a sort of art piece in any space of your home from me. I think that’s why a lot of my clients stay with me. You can’t find this style of floral design just anywhere.” 

Her work as a creative director involves constantly presenting creative solutions and work to clients, receiving feedback, and revising the work. In contrast, floral design provides its own reward. 

“My vision for the business was to bring people joy. I love the idea of creating unique floral arrangements that people would love instantly. That’s been pretty fulfilling for me, too,” said Levine. 

Looking ahead, Levine will continue to provide floral design for new subscriptions and one-off customers. She hasn’t formulated significant plans for growth next year. 

“Gary is my side-hustle. If the demand is there, I will pivot,” she said. “I’ve learned in my advertising career [that] is the only way to stay viable.”

This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.

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