At home with Florence Kennedy of Petalon Flowers
Originally built as a dairy, this unique space in east London has had several guises over the years including a carpet warehouse, a clothes manufacturing factory and a particularly imaginative squat with a skate ramp. The previous tenant was a photographer who transformed the vast main room from a derelict shell into a shoot location and lived in the two-bedroom flat on the side. Now the building is home to Florence and James Kennedy, founders of flower delivery business Petalon and Kennedy City Bicycles respectively; Clover, age one; and Huxley the Great Dane. The main space is still hired out for shoots and it’s a licensed wedding venue, too.
‘We always used to walk past on the way to walk Hux on Hackney Marshes and think it was the dream place,’ recalls Florence. ‘We liked the crittall windows, and the fact that looked warehouse-like but also homey.’ Then, in a brilliantly serendipitous twist, the couple ended up becoming friends with the photographer who lived here and a few years later, when he wanted to move to Lisbon, they took over his lease. Since then, James has done everything from upgrading the plumbing to putting resin down on the floors. ‘It’s an endless DIY project,’ continues Florence.
Eager to find out more about this enterprising pair, we sit down at the gorgeous dining table – made by James’s dad from a slice of redwood – for a chat.
We love this space – it’s so original.
Thank you. It’s so hard to know how much to invest when we’re only here for a few years before the lease runs out. We bought the kitchen counter on eBay and James found all these amazing bits of marble that we use as a splashback; our friends gave us the Belfast sink.
Which came first, Kennedy City Bicycles or Petalon?
The bicycles. We were shopping for a bicycle for me and, at the time, the only thing I could afford was a second-hand one. The alternative was at the other end of the price spectrum. James always used to buy old 80s racer frames from eBay and have a tinker with them, so he decided to start designing bicycles that people could buy at a middle price point. He did it as a ‘mix and match’, so you chose frame colour, the handlebar shape and saddle. It was good but it got so he was making five bikes a day and it was losing its fun. Then, for a Christmas present I bought him a course at a frame builder in Frome called The Bicycle Academy and James got hooked on making frames from scratch – so now that’s what he does.
That sounds brilliant. And what’s the story behind Petalon?
James surprised me for my birthday one year and took me on the Eurostar to Paris for the day. He colluded with my boss at the time – I thought I had sales training in Kings Cross – and afterwards as a thank you, he sent her a bunch of flowers. I saw them on her desk and they were rubbish. I really felt for James, because it meant a lot to him but with our means he was never going to spend more than £50 on a small bunch. So I thought maybe I could do something at that missing price point. That was in 2013.
So you both tapped into a gap in the market.
Yes. I wasn’t that into flowers at the beginning; it felt like a world I wasn’t part of because I didn’t know all the names, but then prides gets wrapped up in it and I wanted to make bunches that I was proud of. I didn’t do any training; I used YouTube and read books because all I needed to learn was how to make a hand-tied bouquet. Then I got hooked on designs and colour combinations.
How has Petalon changed since the beginning?
When I had Clover, it really made me delegate more. It’s very weird and lovely to have everyone from the florist to the riders so invested in your business and really take pride in it. Last year was a very unsexy but productive year. We started doing nationwide post because we had so many requests to send flowers to family out of London and it was a big learning curve.
I was also accepted onto the Innovation for Growth programme at the British Library, which helps small businesses grow. For the last three months I’ve been going to workshops and having one-on-one mentoring. Before I felt like I was winging it; now I know what I need to do to take it to the next level. Petalon is one of my babies and I want to make it the best it can be.
What do you love about living in east London?
I don’t know if it’s having a baby or a dog but it feels like a real community. You end up taking the dog for a walk at the same time in the same park as someone regularly and you get chatting. There’s a coffee shop as you enter the park so we get a bun and a coffee and it becomes a ritual and the baby is part of it now. I don’t think that’s specific to east London; I think that’s where we found ourselves.
Ah yes, tell us about Huxley.
He’s such a gentle giant and so low maintenance. Great Danes make great flat dogs because they don’t move much. We put in so much work when he was a puppy because we didn’t want a dog his size to be out of control. We used to take him on the bus but now he doesn’t fit. The drivers sometimes make you go upstairs and he can’t turn around now to get back down so we’ve stopped doing buses. He’s pretty good on the tube; he just hops on the escalator. From the word go, he was good with Clover too. She leans up against him and reads him books. You couldn’t write it; it’s so sweet.
How do you spend time with Clover?
I have Wednesdays with her, James has Mondays and the other days she’s at nursery. It’s nice to have that one-on-one time but there is this pressure of it being our one day together so we must have fun. We might go to The Tate or soft play but, equally, I can spend the whole day in east London, whether we go to City Farm or for pasta at Campania & Jones on Columbia Road.
Are you a keen cook yourself?
I’m a terrible cook, I like eating nice food but, for me, I’m as happy with cheesy pasta. I don’t want Clover to eat rubbish food though and we don’t eat meat, so it’s about trying to make food for her that’s nutritious. I spend a lot of time making her things like daal and tagine and jam without refined sugar. She’s really good at eating; it’s one of my proud parenting things. I’ve probably got nothing to do with it but she’ll eat anything you throw at her. Food has become a newer thing for me; I wouldn’t say it’s a hobby – it’s more of a ‘have to do’ but I’m getting more pleasure out of it.
Totally inspired to be more adventurous in the kitchen (and by the idea of running our own business) we give Huxley one final pat and hit the streets of east London. To find out more about Petalon or Kennedy City Bicycles visit.