April 1, 2007

Myron Sofer and Miriam Klein – ‘We’re obsessive about delivery. We track every single order until it’s marked delivered.’It was 1998, and time was running out for Myron Sofer and Miriam Klein, the husband and wife owners of Israel Rose, a fresh-rose farm in Sde Nitzan, a community in the southern Israeli Negev desert.

Two years before, they had implemented what seemed like a smart business strategy: with the world market for fresh roses expanding exponentially, they’d modernized their own operation, investing NIS 1 million in state-of-the-art computers to perform most routine tasks in their 12 greenhouses.

Before, the roses had been hand-watered and hand-fed, which resulted not only in high labor costs, but expensive inefficiency as well. By computerizing the watering and feeding systems, they’d realize higher production with lower costs. Now, even the sun roofs on the greenhouses were computer-controlled for greatest efficiency. ‘Israel Roses’, the baby business they’d started, nurtured and grown for 20 years, was poised for growth.

“Then the bottom fell out of the market,” says Sofer, a city kid from Chicago who came to Israel right after high school in 1961. “The simple answer was oversupply. We weren’t the only ones to understand the profits in fresh flowers. The World Bank began subsidizing flower growers in Africa, and South American growers expanded. Almost overnight, the world was flooded with fresh roses,” he recalled to ISRAEL21c.

“The price dropped through the floor. We went from selling a rose for 50 cents down to 8 cents,” Sofer says. “No grower can stay in business at eight cents a rose. A third of the Israeli growers dropped out. At the same time, the government cut the help they’d been giving us – we were in deep trouble, struggling day by day. Miriam took an outside job as an administrative assistant, just so we’d have some money coming in. The goal was simple: hold on one more day.”
Through long nights of soul searching, an idea began to take shape. “We’d been selling our roses on the Dutch market – Holland is the world center for fresh flowers,” Sofer explains. “Just like everyone else, we sold to distributors, who’d resell to individual shops, who’d resell to the customer who wanted the flowers.

“What would happen, I wondered, if we started selling roses direct to the customer? What if we started selling not just roses, but Jewish roses – roses grown in Israel?”

Niche marketing is a beautiful thing when it works, but as everyone knows, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’. “People told us we were nuts,” Sofer says. “The conventional wisdom was, ‘Just grow great roses, cheap. No one cares where they came from’. But one neighbor encouraged us, and we decided to go ahead.”

Deciding to go ahead was one thing, finding a way to deliver fresh roses directly from Israel to individual customers all across the US is quite something else. Dead or wilted roses would end the experiment in a heartbeat.

“Given all the restrictions on agricultural import, all the mandatory inspections – not to mention the sheer distance, weather systems and airline schedules – could we really guarantee fresh roses from Israel, delivered to any address in the US, within 24 hours of shipping?” asked Sofer.

The question was rhetorical, as the partners knew they had to try. Fortunately, Myron Sofer was accustomed to innovation under fire – he’d come through an agricultural crisis before, as a tomato grower with the legendary Israeli farmer Eddie Peretz. Peretz believed Israel could become the world’s primary supplier of tomatoes.

“Right after the 1967 Six Day War, Eddie Peretz founded the whole hothouse industry,” Sofer says. “He was passionate about tomatoes. I came to Israel as a kid, realized I loved farming, so went back to the US to get an education so I’d know what I was doing. In 1974, with my BA and Master’s in Plant Pathology, I came back and joined up with Peretz at Sde Nitzan.

“Unfortunately, Peretz’ tomato plan wasn’t economically feasible – Israel wasn’t going to grow tomatoes for the whole world. So I looked around for a different crop. At that time, roses were where the money was, so roses it was. That worked fine, up until it didn’t.”

With the new marketing strategy in mind, Sofer and Klein began researching shipping companies, permit requirements and airline timetables.
“We decided to ship internationally only to the US,” Sofer says. “We ship locally within Israel, but international permitting is complicated. We went to work with Agrexco, the Israel Agricultural Export Co, who takes care of all importing issues. We’d pick and pack the roses at Sde Nitzan, the shipments would be picked up once a day and flown directly to Agrexco in New York. Then Fed Ex would take over, delivering them to the customer’s door.”

The big test came when a large order came in from a travel agent who was getting married in Houston.
“She wanted 30 dozen roses – but the daily temperature in Houston hovered around 104. Once again people told us we were nuts to even try this one, but we went ahead. The roses arrived in time, in perfect condition. No one was happier about that wedding than we were,” said Sofer.
When the Palestinian offensive against Israel began in 2002, the business again was thrown into jeopardy, but inadvertently, it proved to be a benefit for Israel Rose.

“It’s hard to say it, but the intifada helped us.” Sofer says. “People were afraid to come to Israel, but there was the whole ‘I love you Israel’ campaign, the ‘buy-Israel’ movement. We were still in a terrible financial bind, and things didn’t change overnight. But little by little, the idea of ‘Jewish roses’ from Israel began to catch on.”
Since then, packing and shipping techniques have improved, and local weather isn’t of special concern. “But other problems come up, “Sofer says. “Anything from being given a wrong address or zip code, to having bad weather so the plane can’t fly, to having the person they’re intended for not home.”

The watering and feeding is now done by computer, but rose growing is still very much a hands-on operation. “We still have workers who spray, trim and weed by hand,” Klein says. “And when it’s time to pack, we’re all in the cold room, assembling the orders.”

It’s when the orders leave Sde Nitzan that personal attention becomes paramount. “We’re obsessive about delivery,” Klein says. “We track every single order until it’s marked ‘delivered.’ Every Passover, right before our own Seder, we’re pinned to the laptop, making sure every order was delivered.”

“Before the big holidays we put in before-dawn to after midnight days,” laughs Klein, a trained psychologist who grew up in Melbourne, Australia. “Any of the Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving and Valentines Day are huge. Last year for Rosh Hashanah we shipped 25,000 roses over a two-day period. We’re edging up to an overall total of a third of a million roses shipped.”
Institutions are the biggest clients, with synagogues, schools, and Jewish community centers all using the roses as fundraisers.

“We give them a big discount on bulk orders, so they can resell them for a profit. Our biggest order was for 250 dozen for a fundraiser in St. Louis. Our list of Christian customers is growing, too – having fresh roses from the Holy Land is special for them, too,” says Sofer.

Klein and Sofer find that getting involved with clients’ lives and receiving positive feedback to be the biggest rewards in their business.
“Because we keep such close track of our orders, we get to know our customers,” Klein says. “We know what the wedding will be like, we know who’s in the hospital, we know about the Bar Mitzvah. Every day our email box is full of warm notes. “My house is filled with happy smiles from each bud,’ one lady wrote. “That makes all the work worthwhile.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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