Good Old American Chat with Daniel Saparzadeh of River Oaks Plant House
It’s obviously a posed photograph, a portrait of a patriarch, but there is also something different about it, something untraditional that takes a moment of study to identify. The picture shows a distinguished man, well-dressed in the clothes of his culture and formally posed. But the man is sitting far to the left abandoning the center where, competing for the viewer’s eye, is a pot of tall flowers sitting on a table.
The significance of the unusual setting then is unknown, but it has proven to be a most incredible prediction. Half a century later, 17-year-old Daniel walked into a flower market in Houston and began on a course that will forever have the Saparzadeh family and the world of plants and flowers inseparable.
Whether it is a story of a fulfilled prophesy, a testament of determination or a combination of many explained and unexplained circumstances, Daniel Saparzadeh is a success story rooted not just into ideals that make up what is called the “American dream” but most literally in the soil.
Beneath the photograph, Daniel runs River Oaks Plant House, which he purchased in 1983. The office is full of papers and machines and various awards and modern photographs, but it is also filled with the perfume of thousands of flowers that fill his eye-catching flower market at Buffalo Speedway and Westheimer, a business that few may realize is also the world’s largest source for topiaries.
“I was a student at the University of Houston in 1977 and needed a job,” Daniel recalls. “There was a flower shop here (at 3401 Westheimer where River Oaks Plant House used to be at) called The Flowery. I just walked in off the street, asked for a job and the owner said, ‘Can you sweep floors?’ Cleaning the bathroom was my first job. I got $3 an hour.”
No one else in his family had ever been in the flower business, and his job at The Flowery was not even a consideration as a career choice.
Still, the work was both enjoyable and nostalgic. “I come from a very modest family in Iran, but we always had fresh flowers. I always remember my mother having flowers on the table even when it was difficult to spend the money. When she would go to buy food, she would always buy flowers, even if it was just a little bunch, before she would buy the groceries.”
He was studying to be a mechanical engineer, something that would ironically earn him a spot in history, but at the time, flowers were a job, engineering was a career.
When he graduated, his career choice proved to be a good one, landing him an excellent job with a promising future – except for one hitch. “I was miserable. I absolutely hated it. I walked into my boss’ office one day and said, ‘Please fire me.’ In my family, in my culture, walking out of a job is a shameful thing to do, so I did not have the guts to quit. I used to do all kids of things to get fired like park my car in the owner’s parking space.”
Daniel finally confessed how unhappy he was, how he hated being away from the outdoors and intermingling with people. The owner of the engineering firm attempted to talk him into staying, but finally agreed his young employee ought to go where his heart was. With a smile he said, “Park in my space one more time and I’ll fire you.”
“The next day I got fired,” Daniel says with a smile. At 22 years old, he left his windowless office behind and put together the financing to start a flower market in an empty lot across from Felix’s Mexican Restaurant on lower Westheimer. Then, just a few years later, he returned to the Flowery, not to work, but to negotiate to buy it.
It was a crowning achievement for him although he was soon working seven days a week, most nights and all profits went right back into the business to add this, build that and try new things.
Despite the hours and the amount of work, he had never been happier and he claims it’s only gotten better. “I love what I do. I love to come in here. I love working with the customers. The secret is I have a passion for what I do and people pick up on that. My biggest obstacle is me – nothing is ever good enough.”
The business has become a family and marriage for the 39-year-old bachelor. More often than not he calls his customers by name when they come into the store. Many know where to find him when the store is closed, and he finds himself selling prom corsages to graduates whose parents he prepared flowers for when the children were born.
He eventually closed his location on lower Westheimer while the River Oaks location continued to expand. His topiaries, growing grander and more unusual every year, became an eye-catching display to drivers passing by his intersection. Elephants, horses, monkeys, giraffes and a Noah’s Ark worth of creatures have since sprouted in the area. Eventually he received permission to put topiaries, flowers and other plants in the median strip on Buffalo Speedway. The Plant House now is a Houston landmark, attracting international press and has recently even become a regular stop for area tour buses.
The topiary business kind of began as a sideline for Daniel, whose employees admit he will never in this lifetime have enough to do to keep him satisfied. It was a fascinating facet of gardening and the endless shapes and sizes he could design that attracted him to the ancient art. What he began selling were topiaries in which the plants grew from pre-shaped frames rather than the old method of shaping hedges rooted in the ground. But several years after Houston made him the prime source for topiary art, he was contacted by a large shopping center, which wanted to have some topiaries designed for inside the mall complex. The problem was how to water the living creations without making a mess.
“Finally, my education as a mechanical engineer was able to make a contribution,” he laughs. To answer the need, Daniel designed a topiary with a built-in tank. The tank can be filled with water, and basically, the topiary waters itself as it needs it. Prior to delivery, however, Daniel applied for and received a U.S. patent for the design.
Today his topiaries are shipped around the world, from the Far East to the Middle East and practically every country in Europe including places where topiary art had its grandest beginnings. In the United States his customers include familiar names like Walt Disney (World and Land) and Warner Brothers. “We are the largest in the world.”
The man who started by cleaning a bathroom at 3401 Westheimer, has met presidents and luminaries from around the world. His business continues to grow – literally and figuratively – and his family of fans and customers grows ever wider and more diverse.
“I will say over and over again, this is what makes this country so great,” he says of his successes. “I left Iran because there was no opportunity. Here if you put the effort into what you are doing, in what you believe and feel passionate about, you will succeed.
Will there be obstacles? Definitely. Will be discrimination and people who don’t’ want you to succeed? Yes. But no roads are paved. You pave your own road and do the best you can.”
Most of Daniel’s employees have been with him for many years – another testament to his attitude toward the kind of place he wants River Oaks Plant House to be. Ironically, many were his co-workers and supervisors when he was a teenager working at The Flowery. “I know both sides,” he says. “I saw how some things were not handled right before, and I work to not make those mistakes. I don’t have managers and assistant managers and supervisors. My business card doesn’t say ‘Owner.’ Not one job is more significant that the others. Everyone here is to make the customer happy and whatever job needs to be done, it’s everyone’s job to do it.” All jobs? “If bathroom is dirty, I clean it,” he says.
There’s a steady buzz of activity outside his office. Phones ring. One customer walks by with flowers, a rainbow of colors nearly hiding her face. The aromas that drift by in seeming waves are intoxicating.
“This business is a luxury business, but it’s the kind where people who come in want to make someone happy, cheer someone up or make themselves happy. It gives you the motivation and the passion. As long as I can do this and do this well, I will be happy.”
The dignified man in the old photograph seems to smile.