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Florist puts heart into family business
Lori Erschen Bahr
Lori Erschen Bahr is the second generation of Erschens Florist in Dickeyville and Platteville.

It’s not common anymore for people to know what they want to do for a living well before they enter the work world.

The exception to that rule is Lori Erschen-Bahr, whose parents, John and Janet, began a flower shop in the basement of their house in Kieler in 1979.

One year later, the first Erschen’s store opened in Dickeyville.

“I’ve always been involved in the business since they started in the basement of the home,” said Lori Erschen-Bahr. “My oldest sister went to floral design school, and as soon as she came back they opened. I helped Mom and Dad with anything they needed help with.”

In 1984, after Erschen-Bahr attended a floral design school in Denver, Erschen’s opened its store in downtown Platteville.

By then, Erschen-Bahr had worked for the business for its entire existence, sometimes to the exclusion of what she was supposed to be doing at the time.

“I would want to take off high school to help my parents with flowers, and at first I would not tell school why I’d take off a day here or there,” she said. “And I answered the phone, and the principal was calling to order flowers.

“So I got called into the counselor’s office, and he was very nice, and he asked what I wanted to do with my life, and I said I always wanted to work in flowers.”

Erschen-Bahr left Platteville after she married her husband, Glen, in 1987. They moved to Iowa so Glen could attend a tool and die course. But in 1989, Erschen-Bahr’s brother died in a car crash. Her parents told her they couldn’t run both stores anymore, and offered to sell the Platteville store to the Bahrs.

“We took a long walk, and Glen knew my heart was in Platteville,” she said.

They bought the store at 10 W. Main St. in Platteville that year, then bought the store at 163 S. Main St. in Dickeyville. Lori, Glen and their four children have all worked in the business. The two stores have a combined seven employees.
Glen does the business’ accounting, and the children “all were involved in the business,” she said. “They all know how to clean roses, how to take off the thorns.”

After 30 years in the business, Erschen-Bahr enjoys “the social aspect of it, people that come in, and when we deliver, we definitely light up people’s faces.

“Being able to use your creativity as being a hobby every day is just a blessing — you do what you love to do every day. The floral industry, you’re connected with people every day, and every day is different, and that is what drove us to Platteville and to stay in Platteville.”

Over the years, people’s tastes change. Erschen-Bahr is seeing more interest in “mini-calla lilies and Gerbera daisies because of vibrant colors,” as well as interest in hydrangeas.

“Before that time we had done a lot of silk [flower] weddings, but in the last 10 to 15 years, it’s mostly fresh flowers now,” she said.

Color tastes also change.

“It’s fun to do the bridal show at the university,” she said. “We do it once a year, and working with the Bridal Boutique I look at the gowns and the new upcoming colors, and I make bouquets to show what brides can do for color combinations.”

Flower colors no longer have to come from nature. Flowers can be dyed to create, for instance, bright blue roses or purple orchids with blue streaks. Colors can also be infused into rose petals to create what are known as Tie Dye Roses, which look like the shirts.

Thanks to innovations in agriculture, flowers formerly available only in certain times of the year now are available almost all year.

“We can get tulips and iris off-season” from the Netherlands, said Erschen-Bahr. “A lot of flowers are shipped from Holland to wholesalers and then are shipped to florists.”

Erschen’s most involved work is floral arrangements for weddings. Brides come in to start planning four months to a year in advance of the wedding, and then come in the day before the wedding so “there are no surprises,” she said. “You have to be very detailed with wedding orders.

“It’s always an honor to be able to do weddings, work with brides and help plan — it’s fun to see when their day comes and it all pulls together. There are florists who won’t do weddings because of the labor of putting flowers together. I look at it as an opportunity and an honor to be part of events like that. And we get a lot of thank-you notes — it’s really neat.”

Erschen’s radius of wedding business is farther than one might think.

“We do weddings all over,” said Erschen-Bahr. “We do weddings in Madison, Dubuque, East Dubuque and Galena. Our draw is that we are competitive with our prices for the service we give. We do not charge for consultation with the bride. We don’t charge for delivery to the church.”

Erschen’s once did flowers for a wedding in Green Bay, packaging the bouquet, corsages and other flowers so the bride could take them to Green Bay.

A florist’s business includes many funerals as well.

“I look at that as an honor also, because it is their last tribute to their loved one or to a person,” she said. “It’s for the living. I will do whatever they want.”

Erschen-Bahr said funerals are “very difficult. Sometimes I cry right along with them.”

The spring is a busy part of Erschen’s year, from Valentine’s Day through the high school prom season to Mother’s Day.

One of Erschen-Bahr’s more unusual jobs was “the honor of being able to meet the Chicago Bears when they were in town and decorate buffet lines.” Erschen’s also gets requests to tuck engagement rings into roses. The store also once got a request to make a bouquet of not flowers, but vegetables and herbs.

Erschen’s business isn’t limited to their stores.

“One thing we’re really proud of is our website,”, said Erschen-Bahr. “It is a website that is designed to show off our work. They can purchase a particular bouquet online, and that’s convenient for out-of-town customers.”

Erschen-Bahr opened the Midwest Floral Design School on the north side of her building in 1998. She is working on scheduling classes in late afternoons and evenings, so that people with daytime jobs can attend classes after work.

Erschen-Bahr was prominent in Platteville over the past year as the Common Council decided the fate of a building project at what now is the city’s Pine–Bonson parking lot, and more generally the issue of downtown parking.

“That was 100 percent passion,” she said. “If you have a downtown like we have here, you look at the way it’s laid out — what would work out here, what would work out there — that Bonson/Pine parking lot is our most accessible parking lot. You take that away, it’s like clogging an artery in your heart.

“We want Main Street to be sustainable and viable for the businesses that remain here.”

Erschen-Bahr spearheaded the formation of the Downtown Parking Alliance, which met to get a say in what the city would decide about downtown parking. The DPA participated in meetings with the city’s Downtown Redevelopment Authority, which recommended renting parking for those needing parking beyond two hours — downtown residents and business employees — one lot at a time based on demand. The DPA also spearheaded a survey on downtown parking.

“My life was dedicated to it 24/7,” she said. “My family supported me on it as well as my employees. My employees took on more workload so I could attend the meetings.”

One year ago, communication between downtown businesses and the city was nearly nonexistent on parking issues.

“I think it’s gotten better,” said Erschen-Bahr. “We have the Downtown Parking Alliance that is meeting with the city. But we’ll see; time will tell.”