Everyone on West 28th between Sixth Avenue and Seventh Avenue has a story to tell about life on the garden block, but I found one of the workers at Foliage Garden's story to be the most inspiring. "I was raised in the Flower District. My entire life is wrapped up in this street, " she told me. "I invested my life here. " After 9/11, however, she made the decision to move upstate, where she felt safer raising her daughter. Not long after, she came running back to the city at the call of her dear childhood friend. Maryann Finnegan had recently lost her husband and needed help running Foliage Garden, a retail and wholesale market that sells magnificent orchids and a multitude of other plants. The part-time worker at Foliage proudly told me that the shop has been in the same location for over thirty-five years, having opened in 1981. Maryann added, "We are now the oldest plant store on the street. " She then said that what differentiates her from everyone else is, "we have our own greenhouses under glass on Long Island. "Maryann and her team have befriended many of the people who created the Flower District a long time ago. Sadly, her co-worker related that "so many of the old men have passed away. " There are still, however, a few remaining who have wonderful stories to share. "There is so much history on this block, " she continued. "We were once called the Times Square of Flowers. " She described a time when every single storefront was filled with flowers. Today, she is pleased that she came back to Manhattan. "I can put up with anything here because I still love it - it's my passion. "
Where can you get freshly “picked” flowers that won’t trigger your allergies? We headed to W36th Street in the Garment District, to a century-old factory and shop where fabric flowers are still custom-made by hand daily — “blooming” everywhere from movies and TV to high fashion design houses. Opened in 1916 by brothers Morris and Sam Schmalberg, the M& S Schmalberg fabric flower factory is the oldest and last of its kind in the US. It still employs many of the time-honored techniques for handmade flower making, and craftsmanship skills and the business itself have been passed down through the family over decades. Fourth-generation owner Adam Brand walked us through the legacy of the shop started by his great-great uncles. The M& S Schmalberg storefront in the 1940s. Photo suppliedSam Schmalberg. Photo supplied“I grew up here — there are staff members who have been here as long as I’ve been alive! ” said Adam as we chatted amid display cases of beautiful, brightly colored fabric flowers. “My grandparents, dad, mom, brother, sister and aunt have all been involved at some point — it’s truly a family business. There are fun family stories — I don’t know if they’re true or just family lore at this point — that I used to sleep in a fabric box like a crib! ” While Adam started his career at M& S Schmalberg at age five by making flowers for fun — “just for entertainment, not for production! ” he insisted — he began working at the store in earnest between semesters of school. “We were really busy with Sex and the City at the time — Sarah Jessica Parker was wearing our huge flowers in her costumes, ” he recalled. While he worked outside the business for a few years after college, Adam eventually returned to help his father, Warren, and grandfather Harold (nephew of founders Morris and Sam) at the factory. “About 14 years ago, I was kind of just at a place of wondering, ‘What am I doing? Where am I going? ’” said Adam. “One day I said to my dad, ‘Can I come in and help out, and see what happens? You don't even have to pay me, just pay for my train ticket! ’” he added, “and as a New Yorker, you know that’s not cheap! ” Adam's grandmother Renee, aunt Debra and grandfather Harold at the shop. Photo supplied The gig grew, and as dad Warren moved closer to retirement, Adam took on more and more of the day-to-day responsibilities — including the creation of flowers. While M& S’s veteran team of artisans complete the majority of crafting work, Adam walked us through the system he’s come to know after decades of observation. “This basic process has existed for over 100 years, ” said Adam as he showed us the hundreds of vintage irons — some from the factory’s first years in existence — that are still used to press fabric petals into unique designs. First, fabrics are brushed with a starching agent called sizing to eliminate wrinkles in the material. Next, fabrics are stretched and dried by hand before being cut into petals. Designs are arranged into the iron press — once gas, now the factory uses electric power to join petals together. Stems and extra accoutrements are applied by hand before the flowers make their way to a theater, fashion atelier or TV costume designer’s hands. While the team at M& S is well-versed in all aspects of the custom construction, today there are far fewer skilled flower artisans in the Garment District. “In the old Garment District, you could go to the labor union and say, ‘We need somebody for assembly, we need somebody for die cutting, we need somebody compressing' — there were so many other flower factories, ” said Adam. A recent profile of the shop by costume historian Bernadette Banner estimates that in the early 20th century, over 74 percent of flower and feather trade manufacturers were located in the Bronx and Manhattan — many of them in the Garment District. Now, like so many other specialty costume and fashion businesses once occupying the historic neighborhood, M& S Schmalberg is the last of its kind due to ever-increasing offshore manufacturing. Adam said he feels camaraderie with fellow Garment District holdouts, telling us: “I hold all of these manufacturers who produce here in such high regard — because the easy thing would be to ship it out. Continuing to manufacture here instead went from being maybe a questionable business decision to becoming part of our identity. ” Warren Brand with Adam Brand. Photo suppliedThat’s not to say that Adam and his family haven’t taken steps to bring M& S Schmalberg into the 21st century. In addition to updating the company’s website and creating social media accounts, Adam credited his brother with having helped pioneer their presence on e-commerce retailers like Etsy. “Before I started working here, my brother created an Etsy page, ” he told us. “We’d get an email maybe once a month for a $12 flower sale. But I started to get obsessed with amping up our photography and presentation — it took me a while, but I took to it, and now our sales from Etsy and Amazon are as much as 20 percent of our business. ” It’s a business that’s marked not only by the ebbs and flows of the fashion industry, but also the entertainment industry. “I could tell you our biggest customer this year, ” said Adam, “but it's different from the one five years ago and 10 years ago, ” he explained. “In fashion, Vera Wang is one of our biggest clients. We work with Rodarte, Oscar de La Renta, Marchesa, Carolina Herrera. We do flowers for Bridgerton, The Gilded Age and Marvelous Mrs Maisel, the New York City Ballet, Radio City Rockettes and the San Francisco Opera, ” he added. “We had someone come in from the San Francisco Opera and buy five flowers — and that led to an order of over 4, 000 flowers total! ” They also showcased 17 designs on The Met Gala red carpet. “We had an amazing run with the Met Gala, ” said Adam, “My dad came back in that whole week and helped! ”Jenna Ortega, Paris Hilton and Harvey Guillén in M& S designs at the Met Gala. Photos: Instagram Even during the slower periods, the team at M& S stays busy working with student groups from nearby FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology) and Parsons School of Design to show young artists the legacy of the fabric flower industry. “What's in it for us, if you will, is that you now have 15 to 20 students from every tour that are going to go into fashion and now know about us, ” said Adam. “We help them on their final projects. If you're a fashion design student, it’s a great way to really get into and utilize factories and build relationships. ” But whether you’re a budding Calvin Klein or not, the M& S Schmalberg factory is open to you, said Adam. They welcome walk-in tours of the factory for those curious about their unique offering. “Anyone can come in, ” he said, as a couple rang the bell to buy flowers and take a look around. They also welcome those who would like to order custom flowers from a significant fabric like a wedding dress, he noted. “It’s one of our specialties — we have a vintage wedding dress in the back right now that’s getting made into a single rose. ” He hopes that by engaging with the public, more people will know about and turn to M& S for their distinctive artistry. “We try to be very welcoming, which is something my dad started, ” said Adam. “Anyone who wants to walk in the door is welcome to a tour, and if you want to buy a flower for $20 bucks? Great! ” We recommend making the trip to M& S Schmalberg for a free tour of the city’s singular fabric flower maker — and keep an eye out on billboards around town for M& S’s next Hollywood showcase!
Nic Faitos was not always in the flower business – in fact, he started out working on Wall Street. But the financial world just was not right for him. “I fell out of love with what I was doing, ” Nic told me. “I was having my midlife crisis a bit early – I went from being a broker to being a florist! ” Standing in Starbright, it is not hard to see why Nic was drawn to this sector. The space is filled with bright light, and the scent from all the flowers is enough to make anyone fall in love with their job again. Nic started Starbright in 1993, and for the first twenty years, Starbright operated out of a second-floor industrial space on 28th Street, focusing on corporate clients and large contracts. They provided flowers for clients like Ernst & Young and Columbia University, along with several other large corporations and a number of major hotels. In 2015, Starbright moved to its current 26th Street home. Although it was not far geographically, Nic explained “this was a big move for us. ” The new space is twice as large as the old, and, being on ground level, offers an opportunity for Starbright to draw customers from the street in addition to their existing corporate clientele. Nic has been embracing that opportunity by having a floral “happy hour” every Thursday throughout the summer when everything in the store is half price. “There are all these pubs and bars on the block, ” Nic exclaimed, “Everybody’s having happy hour, why can’t we? ”Starbright is by far and away the largest florist that I have come across on a Manhattan side street thus far, and so I asked Nic to tell me a bit more about how his business operates on this scale. I learned that they receive shipments of flowers three times a week, from places as far away as New Zealand, South America, Singapore, Holland, Israel, and Italy. In a given week, Starbright handles twenty-five to thirty thousand stems. I could not imagine what so many flowers would look like, and so Nic said, “I’ll show you! ” and led me to the walk-in refrigerator that keeps their blooms fresh during the hot New York summers. The fridge was fully stocked with flowers in boxes and buckets, each a different color, and all waiting to be arranged by the designers who work at large tables in the main area of the shop. I was content to stay for some time and watch them – each employee was a true artist, combining the flowers as a painter might mix different colors on a canvas. Starbright’s size allows them to bring in many flowers that are not often found at other florists in the city. Nic showed me a few of the more rare blooms, including the deep purple vanda orchid and the trumpet-shaped calla lily. “We donate a lot of flowers too, ” he told me. Starbright often sends its arrangements to charitable organizations like Gilda’s Club and the Ronald McDonald House, believing that sharing beauty is an important way of helping others.
Hailing from a family of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu royalty, Renzo Gracie is not a good man with whom to make trouble. He is, however, a good man to train with, carrying several blackbelts and fight records, including bouts against past world champions. In 1995, while still an active (young) fighter, Gracie moved to New York and opened Renzo Gracie in midtown Manhattan, a few blocks north of its current location. Since then, the gym has moved south, added Muay Thai to its training acumen (as well as comprehensive MMA and boxing programs), and seen more than one world champion come to train.
Arriving from South Africa, Albertus Swanepoel attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, which led him to an apprenticeship and ultimately his own glove-making business. The appeal of gloves, however, was “incredibly limited, ” as most people wear them only seasonally. So, renaissance man that he is, Albertus switched gears and slid seamlessly into the world of hats. Now he is firmly entrenched in his new niche, and has been producing haute couture headwear since the 1990s. Grounding his practice in old-fashioned millinery traditions, but using techniques from multiple fashion disciplines, he is able to approach hats creatively and expertly. This is a must for a bold garment that can fall flat if not done stylishly. “I try to make things that people wear everyday and look cool but not nostalgic, ” Swanepoel explained. And New Yorkers are wearing his high-end hats across the city. Albertus has a very optimistic take on his environment: “I think that’s the great thing about Manhattan. There are so many people living here that you can almost do anything and people will want it. ”
“We wanted to be that diamond in the rough, ” explained Ashley, the co-owner of Blank Slate. When Ashley and Zach, spouses and co-owners, were searching for a location for their restaurant, they wanted to find a neighborhood with a large crowd but not a lot of quality spots to eat. Blank Slate is successfully that hidden gem located in NoMad, one of Manhattan’s up and coming neighborhoods. Blank Slate attracts a crowd full of young, creative professionals who are quickly changing the area. Ashley and Zach established Blank Slate, which opened in November of 2015, in an effort to create the first coffee-shop-restaurant hybrid in New York City. Ashley explains that they were tired of going to places that provided quality coffee but low quality food. She wanted a place that offered superb grab-n-go coffee as well as more formal dining where friends could meet for a long meal. Ashley and Zach’s vision has been realized. Blank Slate serves killer coffee as well as an impressive assortment of salads, sandwiches and even gourmet desserts. Their coffee is proudly served from farm to cup in close to 20 days. They have a sign at the cash register indicating the green date and roast date of the coffee being served that day. My intern, Emily, hesitantly tried their brussels sprout Caesar salad and only had positive things to say about it, even though she usually does not enjoy Brussels sprouts. Blank Slate also has a small but wonderfully curated market located inside the restaurant, which offers primarily locally sourced products such as cookie dough, yoghurts, pickles and a host of beverages. In addition to serving excellent coffee and food, Blank Slate has a fun, creative atmosphere. Ashley and Zach chose Blank Slate’s name because they wanted to convey the idea that people can make or create everything here. While customers wait in line for coffee, for example, there are etch-a-sketches on which to play. They even have Instagram competitions that reward one talented etch-a-sketcher with a free meal. Ashley hopes that Blank Slate can be a space for people to create. She explained that the etch-a-sketch sends a message: the “possibility of everything. "
In the race among Manhattan restaurants to attract customers, simplicity is sometimes lost. But not so in the Mason Jar, a restaurant and bar that keeps it old school with good vibes and great tastes. The southern, barbecue-heavy menu and extensive list of craft beers and bourbons speak for themselves, complete with suggested pairings. Each month, a new craft beer is featured in an effort to support small breweries. If these beers attract a following, they are added to the full-time roster. While visiting with some Sideways members, I had a lively conversation with chef about the different styles of barbecue - our North Carolinian team member swears by vinegar sauce and appreciated Mason Jar’s variety. The food is fresh and not overdone, but at the same time the Chef “puts love into it. ” The high quality meat is treated seriously - specialty ribs are coated with a dry rub, smoked using apple and hickory wood, braised, and mopped with a tomato-based Kansas City-style sauce. Then grilled. The brisket and boneless pork butts are given no less attention. Replete with wood, American Flags, and comfortable seating, Mason Jar also achieves a homey feel to match its Southern style. Many of the University of South Carolina alumni in Manhattan choose this spot as the venue to catch the Cocks football games, and Villanova basketball fans flock here for their games, as well. With the hearty food, good beers, and down-home feel, it is easy to understand why. To put it plainly and simply, Mason Jar was a good find.