51 Beach St.
(at Collister)

“I grew up with so many Michaels,” says Michael Collarone, explaining how he came to be known as Mikey Flowers. “Mikey Navy wanted to be in the Navy. Mikey Fires wanted to be a firefighter. I was the Mikey who knew flowers.” His floral design firm, Floratech, has been in Tribeca for three decades, and he has the stories to prove it. (“I used to do Keitel’s Christmas tree.”) Personally affected by 9/11, he’s the co-author of a book, Mikey Flowers 9/11: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to DNA, and he donates roses to the 9/11 Memorial for placement by victims’ names on their birthdays. Last but not least, he also owns Beach Street Eatery down the block.

How did you get started in this business?
I started sweeping floors at a flower shop in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, when I was eight years old. I made $11 per week after school. I got to stay out late at night, using the job as excuse. I was all of 12 years old when I started driving the truck. I told the guy I was working for that I wanted to wash the truck, but I needed the keys to move it closer to the hose. He was a drinker, and when he’d nod off, I’d drive around.

I thought it was cool to be a businessman, to have a flower shop, but my mother, who worked in insurance, had other ideas. She wanted me to be an insurance executive. When I was 14 years old, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I left home. I worked part-time at a flower shop in Brooklyn Heights, and I also started working in insurance. I started talking different, going to school at night…. I loved it. I was a pollution underwriter for AIG, for physical damage on oil rigs.

One night, a friend and I went to the Limelight, and we talked our way into the VIP room. Some friends were talking to this guy who said he liked flowers, so they told him I like flowers, too. He couldn’t believe someone like me knew anything about flowers. I bet him a bottle of Champagne I could name every flower in the place. I think we drank three bottles of Dom Perignon…. He said to me, “You gotta get out of insurance and into flowers.” But I was like 27, and my family didn’t have a lot of money. He asked me to do the flowers for a beauty pageant—it was for manmade beauty, which my friends thought it was so weird. Transsexuals! But they were so beautiful. The guy was Andy Warhol.

I was working at AIG and doing flowers in my spare time—the flower shop in Brooklyn let me buy flowers under their name—until my branch manager at AIG discovered the company car filled with flowers. I pulled out my ID card and handed it to him. I resigned. The home office wanted me to get a psychiatric review. They thought I was crazy. But I became the florist for AIG!

I opened a shop at 17 Battery Place, but I was only making $250 a week. I tried consulting part-time in insurance to make ends meet. Then, out of nowhere, I get a call to go see Kenny Scharf and Madonna to talk about an event. They were having a design contest for the Don’t Bungle the Jungle rainforest benefit on the pier here in Tribeca. They loved my design, but when I asked what I’d get paid for it, they said, “Oh, you didn’t know it is a donation?” I said sorry, I can’t do it. I needed the money! They asked what the minimum I could do it for was. I said $25 or $30, I don’t know. They said OK, and they promised great PR, too. There was nothing in the paper for the first few days after the event, and then a big article saying all the major designers were there: Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Tommy Hilfiger. And then it mentioned Mikey Flowers of Floratech. And I started picking up corporate business, including from the Downtown Athletic Club.

David Rockwell asked if I knew anything about topiaries. I said sure, and then I did research on my own dime. I made a mock-up of a garden wall with duck foot ivy. They were amazed. I was amazed! It was for the W Union Square walls. It had computerized water and lighting. And someone from Related asked if I knew anything about fountains. Sure! It was for the Mandarin Oriental. I started working for the Mandarin—I didn’t get paid a lot, but I was able to use it as a springboard. I do work for the U.N., countless celebrities, fantastic people, events. I’ve been doing flowers for Nike’s New York office for 13 years. I work for Madison Square Garden, doing the flowers from MSG to the artists who play there and for the owner’s private suite during the season.

When did you open this store? Why here?
I moved to Tribeca around 30 years ago, when Salomon Smith Barney moved to 388 Greenwich. My shop was in the building, but it was too big, people thought it was a museum. It failed after about six months. There was nothing around here then. Nobu was still Café Americano! When Nobu opened, if you went to Tribeca Grill, they gave you a coupon to go try sushi at Nobu. People thought it was crazy.

The landlord said I could have this space for maybe $1,700 in rent. It was a lot smaller than the one on Greenwich, but I’d rather have everything on top of itself than a big space I don’t use. I’ve also had a shop for 13 years in the Mandarin Oriental. It’s solely for the hotel—the public areas, rooms, spa, restaurant….

What is Floratech known for?
Great flowers at a reasonable price. The majority are from Holland. We have some of the best orchids in the world.

What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
People saying thanks. Helping people out. Whether it’s for a moment or joy or condolence, flowers touch on every aspect of life. And I’ve had people working here for 19, 20 years.

What percentage of your business is local?
I’d say 25%. Originally, the business was retail, but we wouldn’t have been able to make it without corporate clients. When people started buying flowers at delis, that hurt us. They don’t realize the flowers are so cheap because they’re a week old. Now I buy the best for corporate clients, and I get extra for the neighborhood.

People shop differently now, too. They don’t go into stores so much.
On the other hand, people used to buy from catalogs, so maybe we’ve come full circle. But the rent is insane. I always say the World Trade Center killed us twice. Once when the buildings went down, then again whey they started quoting the rent. They’re charging what, $1,700 per square foot? Look at Il Mattone. When it was around the corner on Greenwich, it went from $17,000 a month to $37,000. I have a great landlord, but it’s nuts around here.

Tell me a crazy customer story.
Not long after I opened here, in walked the bouncer from Limelight. He used to sweat me for flowers to give to his girlfriend! He didn’t recognize me. He gave me a name for a delivery—it was Robert De Niro’s assistant—and asked if I’d deliver a package, too. I said I’d do it for nothing, since I knew he was used to not paying. “Hey, whaddya mean?” he said, and I told him who I was. He promised that if anything came of it, he’d be in touch. Well, some time later, I get invited to the opening of A Bronx Tale. It was Chazz Palminteri! I walk into Tribeca Grill, and Drew says, “How you doin’, Mikey?” Chazz says, “How you doin’, Mikey?” They’re both wondering how I know each of them. I met Don Pintabona, the original chef at Tribeca Grill, and he asked if I’d help out with a birthday party for De Niro. I was there, making sure everything was right—that’s what I’m good at—when someone shows up at the door. No one was going to answer, so I did. It was Christopher Walken. “Do you know where Bob is?” he asked. I said he’s out by the pool. Fifteen minutes later, the door again. It’s Joe Pesci. “Do you know where Bob is?” He’s out by the pool with Christopher Walken. The party started out slow, but that’s when the apple martinis were basically invented. We brought them out, and by the end of the night, I was eating Robert De Niro’s birthday cake with my hands.

How did Beach Street Eatery come to be?
On 9/11, I saw both planes, both buildings, people jumping…. After the first tower fell, I was trapped in the Winter Garden, down on the floor, trying to breathe. A fireman stepped on my arm and I made it out. When the north tower fell, I was on West Street. I ran to the store to get supplies. After 1993, I had said to myself, next time something like this happens, I’m going to be prepared, so I got EMT training.

I stayed at the site doing medical recovery, pulling out a jaw, a foot…. One day, I’m in the overpass, and I see someone, so I tell him I’ll bring him out. I know I’m talking to a dead guy, but when I finally get to him, I realize he’s just skin. He had been blown out of his skin. This continued for 17, 18 days, I don’t remember.

I went home to take a shower, and I couldn’t close the shower door. I couldn’t do it. My clothes on the floor reminded of dead bodies. I went over to Ladder 8, where there was a therapist. I told her I was drinking a bottle of vodka every night to pass out. She said either you go back down there and work it out or you’re screwed for the rest of your life.

I was working with Port Authority handling memorials. One day, I went home and made five baked zitis and two roast beefs to bring down into the pit. Everyone loved it. Before you know it, I’m cooking down there. I wouldn’t take anyone’s money. People were leaving checks under the door here, but I’d give them to the FDNY or the NYPD or whoever needed it. Charlie from Il Mattone donated pies; Drew Nieporent helped out. And then I realized it wasn’t bothering me anymore. Seeing the guys dealing with it helped. And when the plane crashed in the Rockaways, I helped the FDNY move bodies. It didn’t bother me anymore.

I told the landlord here I’d like to do coffee, cake, ice cream for the guys at the World Trade Center. He gave me the space at no charge. I started cooking. Guys would come up here for a break. I didn’t charge a dime. When the recovery was over, the dirty boots stopped coming in. The World Trade Center had been the number one place to deliver flowers to. I asked Drew and a couple of other people about training my flower guys to cook. We opened as Sweet Treats, an ice cream shop. We were lucky if we made $30 per week. I was going broke, but I didn’t care. It felt like it was almost the end of the world. People uptown didn’t realize that.

We started making soup. Business picked up, from $30 per week to $30 per day, and then it started to hit. We don’t make a lot of money, but we’re creating jobs.

Photos by Claudine Williams, a contemporary portrait photographer based in Lower Manhattan. Her specialty is women’s portraiture as well as personal branding and magazine-style family photography.