From the Crosbys to the Currys, the San Mateo florist has served generations of dedicated locals who won’t buy flowers anywhere else.
San Mateo’s legacy florist, Ah Sam, recently got a visit from Golden State Warriors point guard, Stephen Curry. Some would say that his visit was a major marketing coup; but for 90-something-year-old Mayme Leong, Ah Sam’s matriarch, it was an opportunity to meet her favorite player. “I like him better than LeBron James,” Mayme said matter-of-factly.
The basketball star’s visit was part of a Google ad campaign, helping local businesses rebound from the impact of Covid-19. When Lori Leong, wife of co-owner Shawn Leong, who assists with Ah Sam’s media relations, received a call from a production company calling on behalf of Google, she was initially surprised. “I asked them, ‘How did you find us?’ They said, ‘We Googled florists in San Mateo,’” she deadpanned.
Not everyone who orders flowers hops on a search engine. Some prefer to pick up the phone or pop in and place an order with a familiar voice or face. Ah Sam, housed in a ’50s-era storefront along El Camino Real, has been that friendly place for almost 90 years, providing floral arrangements and living gifts to the San Mateo community and beyond, including celebrities from Hollywood’s Golden Era like Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley Temple to San Francisco high society founders like William Randolph Hearst and the Spreckels family. (Even some of the area’s tech titans are customers, but discretion prevents the family from sharing names.) Needless to say, locals of all stripes have used them to commemorate their most important life events.
Most of us are guilty of driving up and down El Camino Real in San Mateo, oblivious to the subtle nods of the thoroughfare’s provenance. What was historically a well-traveled path for indigenous people became a major arterial roadway, aiding in the region’s growth. And though many of the storefronts that we zoom by on our way to grab dinner have become relics from the past, some businesses are still thriving thanks to a combination of innovation, loyalty and familial ties. In the case of Ah Sam, it’s all three.
A Humble Start
Ah Sam’s beginning came about because founder Gordon Leong didn’t want to peddle fruits and vegetables like his father. His parents had emigrated from Canton, China, during the early part of the 20th century in search of a better life. The couple, and their four children, first settled in Oakland before moving to the more affluent community of San Mateo in 1931.
After graduating high school, Gordon worked at Ah Fong Florist for a year to learn the business. After consulting with his father, and with financial help from his older sister, he established Ah Sam Florist. An abandoned grocery store on a dusty, rural part of El Camino Real served as a storefront — or flower bucket shop as they were called — and living quarters for Gordon and his family.
Everyone pitched in, and four years later, Gordon was able to purchase the building. In 1939, Gordon and his brother built the shop’s first greenhouse and lathhouse, which was used for storing prized plants like camellias.
There was a time when flower farms like chrysanthemums, aster and fragrant sweet peas populated both sides of El Camino Real and the land Highway 92 runs through today. Japanese and Chinese immigrants not only operated these field crops but they also formed business associations such as the California Chrysanthemum Growers Association and the Peninsula Flower Growers Association. These organizations were powerful networking and recruiting tools for this industry, and they brought business and tax dollars to the county.
Co-owner Shawn Leong reflects that, “There wasn’t a need to purchase flowers outside of California during the early part of the 20th century. The San Francisco Flower Market had a phenomenal inventory. Florists would wear suits to make purchases.”
In fact, according to the California Association of Flower Growers and Shippers, by the 1940s, California accounted for approximately 80 percent of domestic flower production.
The original siblings were innovative. Before they built their first walk-in cooler, they would store funeral sprays under the family beds to keep them cool. Soon, they partnered with an uncle who grew chrysanthemums nearby.
As the siblings worked side by side each focusing on their strengths, the coming decades were christened with growth. Art, the youngest, who had attended design school, was considered the floral designer of the family. His untimely death in 1980 left a hole in the family’s legacy; and his wife, Mayme, stepped in to carry it on.
“The nice thing about working in a family business is that you get to work with your siblings. If it weren’t for the business, they wouldn’t be as close. They figured out a way to work together and love each other,” says Lori of these third-generation siblings. Mayme still comes in for special occasions (like when Steph Curry drops by) or when a customer has a special request, according to Lori. And being the last of her generation, she has earned the respect of those who worked beside her.“There’s a fine balance between respecting your elders and moving the business forward,” Lori says of the period when Art and Mayme’s children — Steve, Scott, Shawn and Stacey — came into the fold and became stakeholders while the older generation of family members were still involved on a limited basis. “Even though they had retired, it was still their business.”
A Living Legacy Built on Trust
Ah Sam’s storefront at 2645 El Camino Real is just a small part of the family’s property and operation. Several acres behind and adjacent to the selling space are used as warehouse and greenhouse space and fleet parking. Though the business no longer propagates plants, many greenhouses continue to serve as holding and finishing space for the plants that eventually make it inside the selling area.
“We still have a few of the original glass greenhouses, but we’re no longer growing plants like azaleas and Easter lilies like we used to,” says Lori. “All of the greenery — potted plants and cut floral items — is nurtured by family and staff. We take great pride in hand selecting our living inventory.”
This legacy business has its own legacy customers, and Lori stresses how special it is when customers come in and speak about the connections. “We actually have an employee working for us now, who said when she was interviewing for the job, that her grandmother worked for Ah Sam,” she says.
“Many of our customers have grown with us…customers that come in and say, ‘You did my mother’s debutante flowers,’ or ‘You did my prom flowers,’” Lori says. “Even Kathryn Crosby, Bing’s wife, ordered an orchid garden a couple of months ago. She’s been a customer since Bing was alive.”
Ah Sam’s longevity is due, in a large part, to the trust they’ve built with their customers. The business shies away from using wire services and online order gatherers, which carve into profits and make it impossible to monitor the quality of an arrangement. Instead, they’ve built up an incredible network of floral partners, so when a customer requests a bouquet be delivered in Chicago, they can place that order directly with a florist they know that will replicate the order as requested. Especially during the holidays, Lori says that “we get calls from customers who have moved out of state or out of the country, but still call us directly to get an arrangement delivered to a mother for Mother’s Day or a colleague for Christmas.” People might have moved away from the San Mateo area, but they remain loyal to Ah Sam.
The fourth generation, grandchildren of Art and Mayme, have been a part of business since they were little. “They’ve helped install Christmas decorations in people’s homes, in businesses, and they’ve delivered plenty of arrangements,” says Lori. “It’s a family here and everyone knows who they are, the customers and the employees.”
They are currently in college, and they’re not pressured to join the family business. “We’re giving them the opportunity to decide without feeling obligated,” Lori says of her and Shawn’s children. “We’re allowing them to select their path.
Ah Sam Floral Co // 2645 S El Camino Real, San Mateo; 650.341.5611
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