Nate Porter wheeled his white Ford panel van into the Stop-N-Go on Center Avenue in Janesville. The van’s side panels advertise Porter’s line: The Rose Connection.
Porter, 25, is the flower guy, purveyor of the roses and small bouquets that nestle among the other impulse buys at area gas stations, convenience stores and drug stores. His weekly deliveries of fresh flowers are the stuff of gas station patrons’ last-minute amorous tendencies.
As Stop-N-Go clerk Heather Egerstaffer saw Porter pull in, she said: “That guy’s flowers have saved a lot of relationships, I can tell you. He’s kept a lot of guys out of the doghouse.”
As Porter swung open the door and entered with a black plastic vase full of roses, fall bouquets and crystal “faux flowers,” he was greeted by the sound of the gas station’s music system. It was playing “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News, perhaps too loudly for 9 a.m.
A patron told Porter the song could be considered a rose deliveryman’s theme song. Porter rolled his eyes behind his Ray-Ban glasses and flashed a broad, sardonic grin. He’d been delivering flowers since 3 a.m. that day.
“That’s me. The flowers ‘n love guy,” he said.
Porter manages The Rose Connection, his family’s Evansville flower wholesaler business. He wears black spacer earrings with rose florets stamped on them and a black ball cap with a single embroidered rose.
His work takes him and his van full of flowers on 14-hour delivery runs to dozens of convenience stores in a huge diamond-shaped territory bordered by Evansville, Madison, Kenosha/Racine and Rockford, Illinois. In the middle is the Janesville area.
Anyone who has noticed the floral selections in local gas stations has seen the flowers The Rose Connection delivers under contracts that Porter’s father, Jeff Porter, established over the last 25 years.
Nate Porter said he recently began to take the helm of The Rose Connection. It’s a learning process that will take him about a year, and it will include include managing the wholesale rose delivery service and Deo Gloria Flowers & Gifts, the company’s retail flower store in Evansville.
But Porter has years of delivering flowers under his belt, including on Valentine’s Day, when he and another employee typically run two vans with trailers that fit up to 28,000 roses. Before graduating to deliveries, a young Porter spent time in the trenches, plugging rose stems into little plastic vials.
He said he’s heard every flower deliveryman joke imaginable from customers and clerks who banter with him.
Really, there isn’t a great variety of flower deliveryman jokes.
“They’re mainly limited to ‘Hey, did you know every rose has its thorn?’ and ‘Aw, you shouldn’t have!’” he said. “I hear ‘Aw, you shouldn’t have!’ at least once a day. It’s OK. It’s my life. You roll with it.”
On a chilly morning this week, Porter was trundling deliveries to about a dozen Janesville convenience stores. He had hundreds of yellow and red roses, some in pairings labeled “Yellow Bikini,” along with other flowers wrapped in bouquets and ordered in rows in the insulated rear of his van.
Porter rode sans radio but hit up a few doughnut and coffee sections at his stops. He talked about how, for a few weeks, The Rose Connection had to switch from Florida rose suppliers to one in California.
“Our lady in Florida was literally on the run from the hurricane. We told her, ‘You go. Get out of there. We’ll figure it out,’” he said. “My dad is really good at figuring things out on the fly.
“What I’ve learned from him in business is this: Something bad happens, things get hard, my dad always says, ‘It’ll be fine.’ You know what? It’s true.”
Porter’s process at each stop was simple. He consulted various ledgers kept in a plastic bin in the center console, checked the trends on what sold and what didn’t at each store, and then took stock of last week’s sales in each store.
Then he swapped out unsold flowers from the prior week with this week’s fresh flowers—making a sort of on-the-fly calculation at each stop of what he figured might sell over the next week.
He said unsold flowers often are donated to locals, who give them to people in nursing homes.
Porter said his father structured the company in a way that clients—convenience stores—don’t get charged for unsold flowers.
“Dad structured it that way to run a business that was fair,” he said. “He was never interested in hustling people. I look at that, and I think it’s easier to be in business that way. Honesty doesn’t necessarily get you rich, but there’s value in trust, relationships and reputation.”
In his travels on his 14-hour route, only one customer, a woman, hit Porter up with the “Aw, you shouldn’t have” joke. Porter smiled as though it was the first time he’d heard the line.
A female gas station clerk at the Mobil Travel Center along Humes Road glanced wistfully at a bouquet of week-old flowers Porter was replacing in his kiosk near the counter. The old flowers appeared to have a few weeks’ life left in them.
“You’re taking those away?” the clerk said. “I’d love to see those flowers find a good home.”
Porter stopped, thought about it and then pulled the flowers from his take-away vase. He handed the bouquet to the clerk. She beamed. A few customers in line looked on with vague envy.
Walking out, Porter cracked a sideways grin.
“There’s a right way to ask for flowers,” he said. “And that was it.”