In a sign of changing economy, an iconic flower company closes its doors
In SummaryThe company will close after 110 years, leaving its nearly 200 employees without jobs, which mostly pay minimum wage. Labor cost is the main reason, owner says.
Each morning, just after the sun lights up the shores of Half Moon Bay, Rosa Manrriquez steps out her door, walks past the neatly manicured flowers lining her walkway, and drives to the Bay City Flower Company, a place she has called a second home since 1979, when she began working there.
But on this October morning, the trip to work is one of her last. On Nov. 10, the family-owned flower operation will close its doors for good, marking the end of an era for a company, started 110 years ago by a Japanese immigrant, that survived the Great Depression and the family’s internment during World War II, and grew into one of the largest employers in Half Moon Bay.
Many area residents fear that the closure, which the company attributes in part to rising labor and production costs, is an ominous sign for the remaining nurseries in San Mateo County, which in recent years have struggled to keep up with a changing economy and the global flower market.
For those who work there, the end of Bay City means the loss not just of a steady paycheck in a coastal community that has seen steep cost of living increases but of a sense of belonging. Nearly 200 workers — on average, the flower company’s employees have worked there for 21 years — will lose their jobs.
“It feels like a milestone in the community is going away,” says Judith Guerrero, the executive director of the nonprofit Coastside Hope. “There are people who have been working in that nursery since they were 16 years old.”
Manrriquez’s history with the company spans 4 decades and 3 generations of company leadership. During that time, she learned how to cultivate plants from hydrangeas to calla lilies, lived through the boom and bust of the flower industry, had 3 children, and earned enough money to buy a house a short drive from the beach.
In just a week, though, she will walk into the white domed greenhouse where she has spent so much time over the years, and say goodbye to it forever.
“I liked the work, I liked the whole situation,” Manrriquez says. “[Bay City] recognized our abilities. They gave us opportunities to grow. Bay City in the community meant a lot.”
In 1910, the company’s founder, Nobuo Higaki, immigrated to the United States from Japan and started a nursery in Redwood City. His was one of a number of influential Japanese-owned nurseries in the Bay Area at the time. But the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor brought a harsh new chapter for the Higakis. They were forced into internment and Nobuo was separated from the family and sent to a camp in North Dakota.
Thanks to a local grower who leased their greenhouses while they were gone and looked after their crops, the Higaki’s nursery survived, and after the war, the family came back to it. Nobuo’s son, Harry, became president of the Bay City. In 1960, the nursery moved to Half Moon Bay and Harry was later succeeded by his son, Harrison, the company’s current president.
“When I first started my job, it was one of the first farms that I heard beautiful stories about,” says Krystlyn Giedt, the president and CEO of the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Bureau. “About how they made it through the war. So to hear about them closing and knowing how it had been a family legacy for them for so long, it’s really sad.”
Workers got word of the closure on Sept. 10, when Higaki announced that the company, which primarily sells potted plants and distributes them nationally, would send out its final flower shipment next month. About 50 employees were laid off, said Victor Gaitan, a management analyst with the city of Half Moon Bay, who is leading job recovery efforts for the workers. In total,195 employees will lose their jobs when the nursery closes, according to paperwork filed with the California Employment Development Department.
In an email, Higaki said the family convened earlier this year. “We realized that it was the time to bring closure to the flower business,” he said. “We prayed that God would provide a buyer for our nursery that would employ more than half our associates, most that have worked with the company for 10-40 years. We also prayed that we could pay off all of the debt owed to our wonderful & loyal vendors.
“With this vision in our hearts,” he added, “we have been actively marketing our properties.”
Higaki said the decision to close was based on a number of factors, but pointed to the cost of labor as the primary driver. The minimum wage in California for employers with at least 26 employees is $12 per hour and is slated to rise to $15 by January 2022.
“Labor is our single highest expense category,” he said. “The writing was on the wall.”
The Half Moon Bay region was once one of the world’s top flower producers, said San Mateo County Agricultural Commissioner Fred Crowder. But beginning in the 1990s, the once thriving industry began to falter. In 1991, to discourage the cultivation of coca plants, used to make cocaine, the US government removed tariffs on Colombian flowers, opening up the market to competition. Then, in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, went into effect, which lowered tariffs and removed trade restrictions between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, making it even harder for local producers to compete.
“With NAFTA and the dropping of the tariffs on South American flowers, that whole industry just got destroyed,” Crowder said. By 2000, he said, the industry “started to decline. And it has declined ever since.”
From 2001 to 2011, the production value of floral and nursery crops in San Mateo County decreased by 45 % when adjusted for inflation, according to a 2015 report by the County Department of Agriculture, the most recent analysis available.
Crowder cited the introduction of online flower vendors and the move away from agriculture and toward tourism on the San Mateo coastline as additional challenges.
“The price of land, labor, commodities, everything goes up,” he says. “So you start losing your irrigation supplier, your tractor repair guy, your farm supplies. Now you have to go to Salinas or Watsonville in order to get services to supply your farm.”
With Bay City’s closure imminent, Teresa Covarrubias, a gregarious employee who has been with the company since 1994, is on the hunt for another job. But she is sad to leave it behind, she said.
Covarrubias said she is “grateful” that the company hired her as a single mom and allowed her to leave work during the day to pick up her three children from school and bring them to appointments. Now, with an uncertain future on the horizon, Covarrubias says she and other workers are feeling tense.
“Rent doesn’t wait, bills don’t wait,” she says. “People are stressed. It’s very hard.”
When Higaki told employees the operation would wind down, she said, “All the workers dropped their heads when he made the announcement. “It was a very sad day.”
The city of Half Moon Bay is rallying behind the affected workers and recently hosted a job and resource fair, which included leads from local employers and booths staffed by service agencies. But many concede it will be hard for all of them to find agricultural jobs nearby.
“Because our agriculture has slipped down so much it’s very difficult to find jobs in the areas that they are the most skilled,” Giedt says. “I think a lot of them are going to have to go out there a little bit on a wing and a prayer and learn some new things.”
Covarrubias would like to stay in Half Moon Bay but knows she may have to relocate if she finds work elsewhere.
For now, though, she’s cautiously optimistic.
“We’ll move forward,” she says. “I think we will be OK but it will be a slow process.”
Erica Hellerstein is a Mercury News reporter who is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.