Before the pandemic, we were waiting tables. Now we’re florists with our own shops
Off Suriya, Kwan Rujira and Nas Neufeld met while working at the popular Entertainment District restaurant Pai. When restaurants closed in March of 2020, Suriya, Rujira and Neufeld focused their attention on their side hustle, Thyme Studio, an Instagram floral boutique. Since then, business has boomed and they’ve opened two brick-and-mortar locations. Here’s how it happened.
—As told to Isabel B. Slone
Nas: “I immigrated from Thailand to Canada in 2015, after graduating from a Bangkok university with a degree in communications management. I was looking for work in advertising but I desperately needed some income, and a friend suggested I apply to Pai, where she had previously worked.
“I got a job at Pai soon after. That’s where I met Kwan, who was also a server. She trained me, and we instantly bonded. Pai was always mind-blowingly busy, and we both worked very efficiently. Most days there were massive lines and we had to turn around tables quickly. Sometimes the lineup for a table wouldn’t taper off until late at night so we were serving our butts off until after 11 p.m. But we made good money. Our coworkers called us the ‘Tall Girls’—I’m five-seven and Kwan is five-nine. It was hard work but everyone at Pai was kind, and it was a positive environment.
“In 2016, my boyfriend and I got engaged. But he had just moved to Canada and we didn’t have a lot of money so we decided on a small civil ceremony in Toronto, and a larger wedding in Thailand a year later. I researched floral bouquets online and couldn’t find anything I liked. I complained every time I got to work. One day Kwan said, ‘I’ll just make one for you.’ On my wedding day, she walked in with a bouquet of white peonies, baby’s breath and green fern. It was simple, classic and beautiful. And it went great with my outfit: white pants and a pair of Converse. I was shocked that Kwan had this hidden creative side—it was a part of her I never got to see at work.
“The next year, while still serving at Pai I started working full-time at a marketing agency. One of my co-workers mentioned they were looking for a wedding florist. I instantly suggested Kwan. The wedding was at Airship 37, and we posted some photos with the location tag on a new Instagram page under the name Thyme Studio. People started reaching out about floral arrangements, and we slowly grew our service. It was more a hobby than a business back then. We usually had one or two weddings booked for the summer months.
“Over the next two years, our Instagram floral boutique continued to grow, and we had a few hundred followers. I quit my job at the marketing agency to handle the business, Kwan did the arrangements and Kwan’s boyfriend, Off—who had also worked at Pai—did the design and branding. Whenever we had a wedding, we just booked that time off from Pai.
“I was serving a table at Pai when Trudeau announced that restaurants were going to close in March of 2020. It was a totally surreal moment. I knew I was about to take a huge hit financially. Rather than focus on the negatives, I took it as an opportunity to devote my time to Thyme. We launched floret boxes—DIY arrangement kits—for Mother’s Day, and they sold really well. Then, a former marketing co-worker suggested we take out a lease at Stackt Market.
“Each Stackt shop is housed in a renovated shipping container on Bathurst Street, with Wi-Fi, a Square point-of-service machine and a garbage system. It’s appealing for new business owners because the rent is cheaper than a normal retail space—about $2,400 for 320 square feet—in exchange for Stackt’s 12 per cent revenue share. Even if we didn’t sell anything at all, it would only be $800 out of pocket monthly for each of us. We thought, Anything can happen. We’re in a pandemic; we need to take a chance. We got our keys in July of 2020 and opened up shop six days later.
“The unit came empty so we had to build shelves and buy a floral fridge. Our goal with the store was to accommodate people at every budget. You could come into Thyme and buy three flowers for $10, or you can go all out and Kwan can put her magic touch on a huge $125 bouquet.
“We had no idea what we were doing; none of us had operated a storefront before. Kwan and Off had a vision to make the store look like it was filled with flowers, but our inventory couldn’t even fill half of it. The store looked so empty. So, I brought in some decorative pampas grass that Kwan had used for insulation in the bouquets to fill up the space—and people started asking if we sold it.
“We realized that people were interested in dried flowers. After that, Kwan started playing around and made her first dried floral arrangement, which we priced at $25. Someone walked in and bought it almost immediately. So we added dried bouquets to our inventory. They’re one of our most popular offerings.
“When the province shut down non-essential businesses again last November, we were scared about not being able to pay rent, but in the end, we used the extra time to grow the business. The shutdown forced us to launch our website so people could order flowers via curbside pickup. We took over the retail floor and turned it into a workshop, giving Kwan space to experiment and create a variety of arrangements. She created the Twilight bouquet, a mix of fresh and dried flowers, which is now a very popular item. I also had more time to focus on building the long-term business—when the store was open, I would have to stop everything I was doing as soon as a customer walked in.
“Last Valentine’s Day, we got so many orders that we barely had enough space to fit them in the store. Our business had grown beyond the shipping container, and we needed a second location. While we looked, our neighbours at Stackt—the bubble tea shop Bean and Pearl—were kind enough to let us take over their space and put some flowers in their store.
“I’ve lived in Leslieville for a few years, and Kwan and Off just moved to the neighbourhood, so we wanted to open our second location there. After a year of operating one store, we knew what we needed to look for in a second location: a space for all of us to work, a space to store our inventory, and a space for retail. When we first walked into the 1,800-square-foot Riverside location, we knew it would fit our needs perfectly.
“We got the keys to our new location at the end of May and opened to the public in the first week of July—exactly one year after opening our first location. We created dried and fresh flower bars on opposite walls. Off built all the tables and the shelving with his own two hands in about two weeks. He doesn’t have any training in woodworking; he just completely winged it. There were a couple of shelves he had to redo but for the most part, he did a great job. We hired one full-time and four part-time workers to help us out at both locations.
“We’ve been incredibly busy at Riverside. It’s so gratifying when customers come in and tell us how beautiful the store looks. It gives us the energy to say, ‘Okay, we can do this. People want to see what else we can create.’ We’re not quite making the same money we were at Pai because we put everything we earn back into the business—we buy more inventory to experiment with, or a lighting set-up to make our photography look professional. We’re not thinking of adding a third store anytime soon. Next year we want to be able to take some time off and enjoy what we’ve built.
“It’s important to me that we treat our employees well. At Pai, everyone who got hired ended up working there for years because it was such a positive environment. Kwan and I talk about going back to Pai all the time. We’d be down to make some cocktails and serve some pad Thai. We made so many great memories and friends.”