Small Business Profile: Elizabeth Cronin, Owner of Asrai Garden
How did you start Asrai Garden?
I worked for a florist for three years. She had a shop in [Wicker Park] and a shop downtown, and I worked for her when I was about 21 or 22. After being there for six months, I was basically running both of her stores. I dropped out of college and lived right around the corner, so I left that job and started working for an event florist, and it felt like a factory. I was so miserable, but I thought "I love flowers, but I haven't particularly loved either of my bosses." It was the '90's, so they were giving loans to 23 year-olds because Clinton was in office and the economy was booming. So one day I decided I wanted to [open Asrai Garden], and I don't really remember what happened after that, but eight weeks later, I had a store. It was kind of crazy. I was the whole first floor [of what now is The Robey] for my first three years. It was huge. I had 5,000 square feet.
What is your background?
I was an environmental studies major in college for a year, and then I dropped out and worked a bunch of different jobs. Everything from R.E.I. to working on the boats of Navy Pier, and then I started working in flowers and I loved it.
What inspires your work?
Just nature itself. I love the very Victorian, I love the very old, I love the Dutch Master paintings, so that is what inspires our design.
How would you describe your style/aesthetic?
Whenever anyone asks me how I would describe my store, I always tell them it's like if the Field Museum was for sale; if a natural history museum had price tags. We've got jewelry, and all the artifacts, and botanica, and the taxidermy. I used to say that it was all the things I thought were pretty in a room. That's the best I've got. I was 23 and didn't have a business plan. No one looked like me in the flower world, but now, everyone looks like me. They certainly weren't young, covered in tattoos, or doing the dark aesthetic that I was doing.
What brought you to Chicago?
I was born and raised here. My parents had their first date in [Wicker Park].
If you weren't here, where would you be?
Good question; I have been trying to explore that right now. I've been wanting to be in more places than one after being here for so long. I wish I had lived somewhere else when I was younger. But, it depends on the day that you ask me. Sometimes it's New Orleans, sometimes it's New York, sometimes it's L.A. I would be everywhere; if I wasn't here, I would just want to be traveling.
If you weren't doing floral design, what would you be doing?
I don't know; I have a million business ideas. I've helped other people start small businesses, I'm working on a concept for next year with some really close friends of mine. Probably opening businesses, because it's all I know how to do.
What are you trying to learn right now?
I [went] to L.A. right after Christmas, and I was going to have a pop-up shop, but the space fell through, and I decided to go anyway. I was going to go the whole month of January, but I decided to spend two weeks out there with absolutely no agenda. I guess I'm trying to learn what is next and how to shift my business away from me. There were years where I barely had a day off. The first five years, I didn't leave or take any time off. I feel like I've worked more than most people work in an entire lifetime, and I'm trying to learn how to not have anything to do, and how I can then break the cycle of working all the time and having to be busy.
What are you most proud of?
As far as the shop is concerned, I'm constantly being reminded that this is people's happy place, and that a lot of people feel better when they come here, and that the store calms people and helps people after a bad day.
I had three instances this year where people told me that this is where they would come [to recover]. One was when they were recovering from a suicide attempt to feel better about things and about life, [the shop] made them want to keep moving and living and doing. Two other women told me that last year was a terrible year for them personally, and again, this is where they would come to feel better and the staff here would always be so kind with them looking for two hours and not buying things.
How do you take time for yourself?
I work out most mornings during the week, and I try to have an outside spiritual practice that is useful. At the end of this summer, a few of my really close women friends were moving away, and so I started ditching work a lot with my friends and day drinking, laying by the pool at Soho House for an entire day, and doing things I wouldn't normally be doing on any Wednesday or Friday.
Why do you think it is important for creative women to come together and collaborate?
I don't know how to answer that question, because there's not a reason why it's not important for women. Mostly what I love is that when I was young I felt a lot of competition with women, not that I personally felt like I was in competition with other women, but I just felt that vibe. The internet and social media has been great for finding like-minded women, and I think that supporting other women in whatever they're doing is so important. A lot of the women that have worked here have started their own floral businesses and it doesn't feel like competition to me. There is room for all of us, and we're stronger when we're together. And given what is going on in the world right now, the more that we can do together, the better it is.
What is your advice for someone who would like a job like yours?
You need to work really hard and not have a life for awhile. Or you come from money and it is a different story. My mom helped with a tiny loan, my dad helped with a tiny loan to get product in the store when I opened, but nothing big. Perishable is really hard. You have to not worry about making money and really love what you're doing or there is no way you'll stick it out.
What is something that has surprised you in your path?
It surprised me how I underestimated the value of community in a way. When the stock market crashed, the shop was about to turn nine and I thought I was going to have to close it. I had built really amazing relationships with clients. I didn't realize how doing this ended up looking like an extended family in a lot of ways. One of my clients in 2009 called me when she was flying me out to New York and asked me about a project there and I didn't sound okay. I told her that I thought I was going to have to close my business and I didn't see a way out of it since I just lost almost all of my accounts. The next day, a very large check came in the mail, and she told me to pay her back whenever I could. Things like that have surprised me, and I think when you consistently show up for people and care and love, they show up back for you.
Favorite female creatives?
I'm going to keep it in this city. My friend Heather Gabel is amazing and a total genius. Leah Ball is amazing and I love what she is doing for the city.
Favorite Chicago places?
There is a place at 87th that is a park space that used to be a steel mill, it is called Steel Workers Park. No one knows about it, and the steel mill that was there was knocked down and it is back to nature. We did a photoshoot there last year and I feel in love with it. But also Super Dog. The places I grew up having birthday parties at, like Super Dog and Bunny Hutch.
Top three items of clothing in your closet?
I own five of the exact same black sack dress that is from Black Crane. Pretty much everything Black Crane makes is a giant sack and I own it. All of my baseball hats and white tennis shoes, so both ends of the spectrum.
I get up pretty early. I get up usually between 5:45-6:30. I go to a trainer three days a week in the West Loop. When I'm fortunate enough to carve out the space in the morning, I go to the Soho House to shower and feel like I'm starting my day like a rock star because it's beautiful.
Favorite travel destination?
New Zealand or Istanbul. I'm obsessed with Istanbul. I would go back there several times a year if I could.