This is the latest in a series we call PLANT PPL, where we interview people of color in the plant world. If you have any suggestions for PPL to be included in our series, tag us on Instagram @latimesplants.
Juan and Susan Sanchez had their daughter Sofia in mind when they opened Frida Pickles, a plant, flower and gift shop on Leslie Drive in San Gabriel. The Sanchezes make a point of hiring people with special needs and people with disabilities.
The store’s slogan – Thrive on Flowers – is more than just a motto printed on the store’s awning. It references the owners’ mission to use the store as a way to employ residents with special needs, like Sofia, 13, who has autism.
“Just like people, all flowers and plants are different. And we all deserve a chance to thrive. That has always been our mission statement,” said Susan Sanchez.
Juan is a seasoned restaurateur and has worked in the hospitality industry for over 15 years. Susan is a sustainability professional who has worked in both the private and public sectors, including for the City of Los Angeles. She has studied botany and plant and garden design for more than a decade.
Her shop is named after her dog, a 3-year-old Tibetan Terrier with fluffy white bangs and a wide smile.
The lush storefront opened in May 2019 and features a variety of plants, flowers, lawn ornaments and more. In fact, the store even sells pickles once they get approval from Sofia, who is the chef pickle taster.
In a recent Q&A, Juan and Susan opened up about plant matters and the impact of the pandemic on their small business.
Let’s start with the name Frida Pickles.
Juan: I always thought if I had a second daughter her name would be Frida. I’ve always liked the name Frida Kahlo – my childhood home is about four blocks from where the late artist once lived [in Mexico City, where Juan grew up]. But instead of a human daughter, we had a puppy dog daughter. The cucumber part is because Susan and Sofia love cucumbers.
We hired a branding agency and spent money on it [trying to figure out what to name the store.] And at the end of the day they said, ‘That’s a great name. That’s a great brand name.”
And Frida Pickles is the mascot.
Suzanne: Frida is not a fully certified therapy dog. But she is a type of breed that is very intuitive, very smart at managing and handling our staff and helping them to get involved. Even if Sofia sometimes walks too fast, Frida is there to guide her, nudge her and help her see in a way where she doesn’t bump into anything. Frida’s breeder did not want this dog [due to a birthmark on her nose, which prevented her from being a show dog.]. And we felt adults with special needs have a really hard time finding a place in the world. And so Frida would suit us. She represents everyone.
Where did they get to know each other?
Suzanne: We were founded in London by a mutual friend. I studied at Imperial College and Juan lived and worked there. I studied taxonomy and advanced biodiversity.
Juan: I worked as an assistant manager in a brewery.
How does working together as a couple work?
Juan: We have our challenges just like any other couple. It’s challenging but wonderful. It helps to have something in common. Helping others is something I have in common with my wife. Of course we put ourselves first, but we still want to help others.
For example one of our neighbors, her husband is in the hospital and she has dementia and we always make sure she is okay. Delivering food and flowers to the hospital for the husband. You know, that kind of kindness has to come from your heart.
Is there a secret how everything works?
Suzanne: Knowing what you’re good at and admitting what you’re not good at. And you have to admit what you’re really not good at. And just admit it right away. Because it’s a partnership and it’s like a marriage. It’s perfectly okay not to be good at everything. And also really, really trying as much as possible, stepping back many times and giving each other that space. It’s a very small room. I’m only there on weekends at the moment. And it’s also a crazy but beautiful thing to do with your spouse. And the fact that this is our third deal just proves that we’re both crazy and in love.
How is your store staffed?
Suzanne: We work with partner organizations [including LIFT and the Institute for the Redesign of Learning] and the workability programs in high schools and community colleges that are already working with adults with special needs and are looking for opportunities to train and hire them. Not only do we believe these partnerships are important to strengthen how and where we can help, but they also provide us with support, onboarding and management.
And I should say all employees are paid. They are actually paid above minimum wage. So that’s really important to us. But really, we didn’t have a playbook or template to follow.
Are you based on your own experiences?
Suzanne: Our child has special needs and developmental disabilities and is neuroatypical. Therefore, it is very important to us to let our own experiences flow into the cooperation with our employees. And every person is different. So we really modeled the program. For example, some employees are very stressed if it is more than a short shift. So a longer shift wouldn’t work [for them]. Or if we massively turn off the lights for some [employees who are very sensitive to light] and keep the spotlight on the plants on the wall.
Want other companies to do the same?
Suzanne: We realize that there is such a need for employment. I had parents with special needs [employees] saying, “Oh, thank you,” or parents sitting outside in their car [while their child works]. And they’re so worried because [the children] did not leave home to do such a thing, nor were they truly separated from their parents.
If you are a special needs parent I can say that you are not just a helicopter parent you are like a stealth force jet like you always think people are trying to get over you and yourself worry about your child. I know many of these parents and we both know how to handle some of the children.
How have you fared during the pandemic?
Suzanne: I think during COVID the rules with wearing masks and some of them were hard to follow [the parents of the young adults working here are worried] about the Delta variant now. So we have a very small staff and we make it work. We feel we cannot offer full-time employment, but going forward we can be a stepping stone, we can be something on a resume and actually be a comforting environment.
COVID took our wind and bank account and sadly we lost loved ones as a result but it didn’t break our spirits.
We’re really creating a community, and we also feel like we want to be a voice for these kids and spread the word. … I think if we can be a kind of domino effect, that’s why we do it. We want that one day hopefully Sofia will be great at running this place. Maybe not, she might just be into something else.
What were some of your favorite Frida Pickles experiences?
Juan: One of our best customers is battling cancer and we make him soup every week. And we have become a family because of this place. Unfortunately my parents died in Mexico from COVID and so did this couple [who are customers at the shop], they were so supportive, they were like my parents reincarnated [in] You. And it was so magical because kindness comes in different shapes and colors. They just show me that these stores give people hope.
This is important: people are like a fool, they contribute to the success of a retail company. But it’s so sad when you go to the supermarket or the pharmacy. Now they sell flowers and plants. How can you compete with that, and you have these loyal people who tell you, ‘I want you to leave the light on.’ And that’s why I say I don’t want to close, because these people need us.
Do you have any advice for people who are just getting started with plants or for those who want to start a business?
Juan: When you start your business, don’t lose your faith. It’s what you just don’t want to lose because whatever you’re praying for, be it a spirit or a religion or whatever, it’s to help us stay optimistic. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Everything takes time and you have to be persistent, you have to be there. And you have to be resilient.
And one of my favorite flowers is the dandelion because it’s migrating from another place it didn’t belong to and for some people it’s becoming something they want to eradicate. The dandelion is actually … used [by some healers] used as medicine and its leaves in salad, but people unfairly dislike them. Well, that’s our resilience. And to run a small business, you need to be a dandelion to survive.
How do you see your company developing?
Suzanne: the [other] The reason we didn’t give our store a memorable plant store name is because we want to expand this to other franchises and other industries, which we see as an extension of our inclusive employment mission. And because Juan is also an incredible restaurant entrepreneur, he kind of downplays that, but before we launched Frida Pickles, we wanted to do a restaurant and a flower shop at the same time. And then COVID struck. Stay tuned.
We always end our Q&A with the same question: What are your favorite plants?
Juan: As well as dandelions, I’m currently a fan of the rare philodendrons and polka dot begonias that are currently in the store.
Suzanne: I can say that lately I’m a big fan of this plant, this is it Chinese money plant. It’s one of my absolute favourites. It’s hard to spread. The language of the mother-in-law is that of Sofia [favorite] and I’ve propagated in the background – we actually have a small nursery in the background. We do a lot of our own propagation and call it the Plant Hospital. … Also sunflowers. They are beautiful. Happy. love the yellow