Topiary. Let’s talk about it.
You know, green stuff (i.e. plants). Maybe some Kenilworth ivy or lovely creeping fig wrapped around wire frames twisted into the shapes of beloved animals (dinosaurs anyone?) or specific objects (like a throne)?
If you were asked where to get one, maybe two, right here in WeHo, would you snap your fingers with a knowing smile or draw a complete blank?
“We are the only ones as far as I know…for sure…in the city…that does topiaries,” said Saeed Babaeean, 55, proprietor of The Empty Vase on Santa Monica Boulevard at Willey Lane and Nemo.
“Probably in the country there are only a handful,” he said. “When we have these big elephants, big giraffes or dinosaurs, or whatever, it’s a point of attraction.”
You agree with that? Despite The Empty Vase’s smack dab, on-the-boulevard placement just a block from Pavilions to the east, and a mere block from the Troubadour to the west, the place feels like the best-kept secret in WeHo.
“It’s nice to have new people coming here surprised: ‘Oh my God! It’s like a hidden jewel’,” Babaeean said, grinning. “A lot of people don’t know much about it.”
Yet The Empty Vase has served customers desiring upscale (way, way upscale) flower arrangements (and the events requiring them) “since 1988 October, almost 30 years.” “We still have clients who live in the neighborhood close by and, for some reason, they have never been inside,” Babaeean said.
I’m ashamed to admit that was true for me. I live only three blocks away and getting this interview lined up is what brought me in. And, as much as I see their quality work done by an army of floral soldiers (30 to 50 strong, depending upon special event orders), I’m so not their target customer.
I said “upscale,” remember? Looking at emptyvase.com, you can order arrangements online for around $3,000. “On Valentines Day,” Babaeean said, “sometimes we do one arrangement for seven thousand. We can make it happen.”
Wealthy studio types and celebs need a local florist too, I guess. “I never forget the first time I bought the French tulips,” Babaeean said. “I was kind of scared. And this gentleman walked in, one of the execs from Warner Brothers. ‘Oh my God! French tulips!’ He bought them. I’m, like, ‘Wow. Okay, there’s a market for that’.”
Babaeean’s story starts in Iran. He emigrated to the States in 1979 (the year of the Iranian Revolution) to attend the University of Texas in Austin. Then came grad school in Houston. “When I graduated as [an] architectural engineer, I couldn’t get a job,” he said. “Even though I had a great degree and references, I didn’t have my green card. What do you do?”
Start a business, apparently.
“One of my partners back in Texas, he used to work in a flower shop in summertime.” Babaeean said. “We said, ‘Why don’t we just open a flower shop?’” The first one worked, so “we opened the second one. We opened the third one.”
“At first it was for money,” Babaeean admitted. “But after that we loved it. My [business] partner, he’s still back in Texas. And I’m here.”
The WeHo store happened on a whim. “On the way back to Houston, on the way to the airport,” Babaeean said, “we passed by this location.” There was a for lease sign. Babaeean canceled his flight. “ … I talked to whoever was leasing the place that same day,” he said. “And I made a deal by the next day.”
He moved here about six weeks later. “I just felt like doing it. I guess I was bored in Houston.” (Easy enough to understand that, if you ask me.) “Usually when I make a spontaneous choice it goes really bad for me,” he joked.
Babaeean, who describes himself as a “florist, businessman, creator” who can turn random drive-by fantasies into successful business ventures, lives in the Wilshire Corridor. “Wilshire and Beverly Glen,” he said. “The high-rises.”
Speaking of himself in the third person for a moment he adds, “Saeed has a beautiful daughter. She just graduated from Parsons in fashion. She’s back in LA looking for a job.” And: “I’m divorced. I have my mom and two sisters and nephews and nieces. My cousins are my immediate family.”
How did he come up with the name The Empty Vase? “What makes sense is to say something like ‘Full Vase,’ right?” After rejecting friends’ suggestions like “The Most Expensive Flower Shop” and “All Things Considered Flower Shop,” as well as then-popular incarnations such as “Flowers by [insert your name here]” and “some French names [like] Fleur de Jour,” Babaeean decided. “Why not name it Empty Vase? Something that’s different.”
Babaeean’s architectural background definitely influenced his product line. “When I started creating arrangements, I started using a lot of straight lines,” he said. “Nothing like what was in the market at that point, [which was] just traditional Baby’s Breath and roses. Stuff like that.”
Doing so set Empty Vase apart. And its history sounds quite romantic, too.
“Also the fact that our shop was like a European flower market,” Babaeean said. “People would call it the second market after the LA market. We had a humongous amount of flowers on any given day. People would just come from Santa Monica, from all over, instead of going to downtown, and buy flowers.”
Like any new venture, Babaeean faced some dark nights of the soul. “I had to make it,” he said. “There was no way back.”
The Iranian-born florist remembers two guys who walked into his new location (much smaller than it is today) before he even opened it. He was laying floor tile. Not knowing he was the owner, they openly doubted the business would make it.
“I didn’t say anything,” Babaeean remembered. He just told himself, “I have to make it because I borrowed so much money to get this place.”
As is the case with so many WeHo businesses, big stars have become customers. While Babaeean won’t spill details on which celebs purchase daffodils and which prefer daisies (he’s gotten in trouble from publicists), what he will say is: “I did Michael Jackson’s birthday party. I had no idea, no clue that it was for him. When I was there I was, like, ‘This is Michael Jackson’s…,” his voice trailed off. “He was a few feet from me.”
“That was, like, wow, you know,” he said. “When he was on top of the world.”
Giving me a tour of the property, Babaeean showed me a large topiary throne. Mentioning the name of perhaps the biggest female pop star for the past five years who bought one just like it, he then remembers himself, asking me to keep her name strictly off the record.
What keeps Babaeean’s business successful? “Even as of now, 30 years later,” the entrepreneur said, “there are no flower shops that offer what we offer, as far as indoor and outdoor pottery, accessories, doing events, the website. Pretty much the retail part is gone. [It] has moved to all the super markets and online.”
And excellent customer service is crucial. “Being good to your clients,” Babaeean said, “and doing the best you can for them, no matter what cost. It’s easy to get a customer…much easier to lose them.”
EmptyVase.com has a robust testimonials page showing hundreds of handwritten thank you notes. A lot of those glowing reviews are for events they have not just provided flowers for, but created from the ground up.
“We come up with these crazy ideas,” Babaeean said. This “huppah, for example, has 34,000 roses on it.” It was 20 feet high and 24 feet across. “In the old days it was, like, four poles. Now, it’s like a shrine. The draping was made of flowers [and] stayed over the dance floor. Four hundred people were dancing under [it] all night.” Babaeean is almost out of breath describing it to me. “It took tons and tons and tons of roses, like … endless. We do stuff that [is] maybe not [the] typical thing that you see.”
When I asked Babaeean what brings him the most satisfaction, he mused, gently smiling. “When I leave the event after it’s done and I know that I did it,” he said. “I did what I wanted to do [and] also [made] the client happy.” He sounded resolute. “The nice thing about it is, ‘Okay, I’m done. Goodbye. Let’s go to the next one’.”
As for The Empty Vase’s future — “We’re working on a very exciting website, something that’s easy to order [from],” he said. “Once we do that, we are changing all of our paperwork and coming up with new bags. We still want to be Empty Vase. We don’t want to be somebody else. But things [are] gonna change.
Let’s hear it for evolution.
9033 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069