Stories abound online about landlords demonstrating generosity toward their tenants in COVID-19 times. Vivian De Leon thought she was going to experience the same thing.
Then she got the lawyer’s letter demanding on-schedule payments.
De Leon, the owner of the recently opened Vivian’s Flower Market on Sierra Highway in Canyon Country, has been able to come up with the rent despite not having much business in the first nine weeks of the county’s safer-at-home order.
She said business has been looking a little better, but the insecurity remains.
“The letter was demoralizing,” she said.
De Leon, a Canyon Country resident and single mother of a 6-year-old, said it was a dream to open a flower shop, and she sunk her life’s savings into it. The Feb. 1 opening, in time for Valentine’s Day – one of the two biggest days of the year for flower shops – was one of the happiest days in her life.
“It’s a different concept than your normal flower shop,” she explained. “In most flower shops you have a florist who does 10-15 arrangements and puts them in refrigerators. We’ll have just two or three. When I get called by someone, I get their idea and get to know who they are and what kinds of flowers they like. We personalize their arrangement, even if it’s a bouquet.”
She knew from watching the news that San Francisco was ordering a lockdown. She called her landlord, Mo Monfared, to ask what would happen if the entire state shut down. She said he told her that he would call her back.
The next day, the entire state shut down. On March 16, De Leon had to close her doors. She again called Monfared and pleaded for patience while she tried to get the money. She said he told her that she was like family.
The cancellations poured in: four weddings. The flowers were ready, but with no celebrations, she had to get rid of them. It was March 26.
As she went to throw them out, she saw a letter attached to her door from attorney Marcelo Di Mauro, addressed to “Dear Tenants.”
“This is to inform you that in spite of the difficult times we are living, contracts are still valid and business transactions continue as normal, therefore, we expect our business relationship to continue as it has been and per the terms of our agreements,” it said.
The rent is due on the 5th day of the month. On April 5, Monfared called about the rent. Fortunately, De Leon has another job, as a property manager. She used money from that job to pay her full rent: $3,000 a month.
“The day I dropped it off, he cashed it,” she said.
Calls to Monfared and Di Mauro went unanswered.
The irony was not lost on her: She made deals with many of her tenants to make payment plans.
“I’m telling my 123 tenants they don’t have to worry about it,” she said. “ ‘I’d rather you have food on the table.’ ”
For several weeks, Vivian’s was closed, like so many businesses. De Leon said she didn’t apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan because she didn’t meet the requirements.
“I had to start paying out of pocket,” she said. “The profit margin was small. We’re trying to get our name out.”
But it’s hard to get your name out when your business is closed.
De Leon said the first month of the closure, people were afraid to leave their homes. She spent time at the shop making sure the refrigerators were still working.
“We didn’t get a single order for five weeks,” she said.
By the sixth week, people started ordering arrangements, so she started ordering fresh flowers again. Normally, she gets deliveries every two days.
Fortunately, she was able to reopen three days before Mother’s Day – the other of the two biggest days of the year for flower shops.
It was a challenge. By the time she reopened, distributors didn’t have flowers, causing her to scramble and pay higher amounts, though she insists she wasn’t gouged. She had bought some furniture, which required moving things around to fit it in. Unfortunately, one refrigerator’s temperature had accidentally changed during the moving, causing 500 rose stems to freeze. She had to throw them out.
Because her philosophy is to custom-make everything, she couldn’t prearrange. But since she was the only flower shop she knew to be open on Mother’s Day, she had 10-15 people trying to get flowers at the last minute. She had to complete pre-orders before tending to the line.
“A lot of them were patient. They were willing to wait an hour,” she said.
She was able to pay the rent in May and fully expects to pay on time this month because business is looking up. So will the rent in the fall, to $3,900 per month.
“People are coming, and they’re happy we’re hanging in there,” she said. “We’re glad we could hang on.”