This week we’re featuring the town of Vian, Oklahoma (pop. 1,466) and sharing some of the stories of rural revival happening here! Today’s guest blog post is from Heath Eubanks, owner of Stem & Leaf, a retailer of exquisite botanical creations. Stem & Leaf specializes in unique designs that look fresh from the garden. They offer silk floral design, gifts, and home decor...but their passion is fresh flowers. Welcome, Heath!
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The year was 1993. I was seven years old, and I found myself trying to keep busy in my parents’ business in downtown Vian, OK. Toys were not my thing. I was spending the majority of my free time in an electronics and movie rental business, and there was a seemingly limitless number of things I could tamper with to get myself into trouble. One day I decided, like all six-year-old kids I’m sure, that I should be making some money. I had a storefront at my fingertips, a customer base just waiting to be solicited, and a hefty amount of determination. It seemed obvious, I needed to sell lemonade.
That is where it all began. I asked for a “small loan” of ten dollars, and, after asking permission, walked to the nearby grocer to purchase lemonade mix. In an effort to keep it authentic in appearance, I bought some lemons to slice and drop in hoping nobody would be able to detect the familiar Country Time flavor. I was hooked. At the end of the day I paid back my loan and counted my profits. “This is the life,” I thought.
Fast forward about twenty-five years. The very building where I had my first entrepreneurial experience was soon to be vacant. I had been working part-time at Morning Sky Boutique (Downtown Vian) for several years, and I knew I was wanting the opportunity to have my own piece of the downtown landscape. A florist was something that was missing from Vian. We had a florist for most of my life, but in recent years with a declining economy we had been left to turn to our larger neighbor, Sallisaw, for floral needs. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to practice something I love while filling a needed niche.
With a full-time job as an educator, I knew this was not something I could accomplish on my own. I called my sister, Lisa, and told her what I was thinking. Without a drop of hesitation, she was on board. Within just a few weeks’ time we were getting started.
The question remained, if another florist had previously decided the business wasn’t lucrative, what would be any different for us? That is a question that is still under review, but it is also the founding principle on which our business was built.
Enter, Stem & Leaf: a Floral Design Co. Our mission from day one has been to be anything but ordinary. Small town florists are plagued with a stigma. When ordering from a small florist a person typically expects limited, traditional, offerings. We wanted to create just one more reason for people to come to Vian...to discover unique floral artistry! And in that, we have succeeded.
People have questioned the method. And, I certainly admit, it isn’t foolproof. It is like operating two different businesses. On one side we have our traditional everyday business, our bread and butter. On the other side we have the opportunity to create the exquisite, interesting, and unique. An opportunity to show off and take the spotlight. Both are amazing, and both are important!
Operating a floral business in a rural town is no simple feat. Doing the aforementioned while working a full-time job 40 miles away is just another layer of the proverbial onion. However, we had a plan! My sister had never arranged a flower before in her life, and from day one she would be the shopkeeper. It was a tough start; we found that most people call to place orders the moment they need them filled. I’d call it a hiccup in the plan. With much determination, and more than one FaceTime call on my lunch break to help with flower arranging from afar, it has all seamlessly come together. I’ve watched as my sister has grown into an incredible floral designer. She never ceases to amaze me, and I absolutely couldn’t do it without her! She is the glue that holds us together.
As the business is growing (we recently celebrated our two-year anniversary) we are starting to see opportunities come to fruition. We have clients from Tulsa and Oklahoma City (Oklahoma’s two largest metropolitan areas) order our arrangements. Just two weeks ago we had the opportunity to do flowers at one of Oklahoma’s premier wedding venues. Possibly my favorite story is that of a client who made the trip from Tulsa for a consultation on flowers for a rehearsal dinner...in TEXAS. She was referred by one of our dear locally rooted customers, and she came armed with a vision. There are countless florists of outstanding quality she could have used in the DFW area, but she trusted her order to us, made a pit-stop in Vian on the way to Dallas, and we couldn’t happier to have her as a new client.
And speaking of visions, we never shy away from a challenge. From floral hot air balloons to hanging flower pendants and from “Enchanted Woodland Forest” tablescapes at the county barn to designing flowers for a bicycle basket, we love every opportunity to create the unexpected!
The key to making it work is passion and determination. Have we reached all of our goals? Not even close! Has it been easy? Not at all! Is the to-do list ever empty? If I get the list to under a dozen items, I take a big sigh of relief! (And that doesn’t happen often, ha!). And, most difficult to admit...are there times where it seems easier to throw in the towel? Every. Day.
This evening as I made a 45-minute trek into the back country of a neighboring town to deliver a bouquet, I was ready...I had already designed the business for sale ad in my head! When I called the instructor teaching the 5:00 class at The Field House (gym in downtown Vian) to ask if I could hire her to re-teach the class at 5:45 (because I’ve decided reserving at least some time in my life for me is vital to staying sane) I thought: “Wouldn’t it be easier to just lock the door and walk away?” The answer is yes. It would be easier.
But at the end of the day nobody starts a business thinking it is going to be easy. A business must be founded on an undying desire to succeed. In an effort to find success in a more lucrative fashion, I recently toyed with the idea of relocating the business to Fort Smith, AR. I ran the numbers, and it seemed that things would surely be easier in a larger city. Money speaks volumes, and when you’re not making much of it, dollar signs can look awfully lustrous. As I became more and more enamored with the idea it felt more and more unsettling. The thing is, I knew when we began it would be difficult. The passion stemmed from a strong desire to be a part of the revitalization of my hometown. Moving would be taking the easy way out. I knew it wasn’t the right decision.
Reflecting back on the past two years, it has been amazing. There have been ups, and there have been downs. There are times of joy and times of difficulty. Looking forward there are decisions to be made. This was never intended to be a permanent side job. I recently listened to a podcast that referenced the age-old adage “If you want to take the island, burn the ships.” What does that mean for the future of Stem & Leaf? That remains unanswered for at least a little while longer. Life decisions are difficult, and trusting a hobby business as a full-time means of support is a huge leap of faith.
There is one thing I have come to know for sure...there is no place I’d rather be than downtown Vian. Getting to work every day next door to great friends is an incredible experience. Visiting with life-long friends, neighbors, and acquaintances as they come in to shop is always a delight. And sharing those experiences daily with my sister (even though I can be a bit “grouchy” from time to time as we have come to call it) as we have braved the road together in the very building that was such a huge, defining, part of our childhood has been one of the best experiences of my life. The grass may look greener in the big city, but the April showers are coming down in rural America. We rest assured the May flowers are going to be incredible!
Stem & Leaf
Find out more about the rural revival happening in Vian, Oklahoma here: