How Two Retailers Stepped Up to Help Their Communities During a Crisis

MSU Students handing out flowers

By Shandra Martinez

Being there for their communities wasn’t easy for B/A Florist or Washtenaw Dairy, but it’s the kind of dedication that builds loyalty. 

Retailers can become a part of the fabric of a community. Often, this relationship is built over years and can deepen when times are tough. 

Longtime retailers B/A Florist in East Lansing and Washtenaw Dairy in Ann Arbor are examples of businesses making the sacrifices required to be there for their customers and the community when they are most needed. 

The tragic shooting on the Michigan State University campus in February prompted B/A Florist to go above and beyond by donating flowers to support the grieving students and families, while Washtenaw Dairy stepped up in the aftermath of winter storms to make sure their commercial and residential customers who were left in the dark by power outages had enough dry ice to preserve their frozen and refrigerated food. 

Helping a community mourn

The staff at B/A Florist was working late on the eve of Valentine’s Day, getting ready for the shop’s busiest day of the year, when they heard the shocking news about a deadly shooting on the MSU campus, less than a mile away from the shop, which is at 1424 E Grand River Ave. Police were urging everyone to take shelter.

The next morning, the calls started coming in canceling orders. But instead of buying flowers for their romantic partners, people were buying flowers to put at memorials on campus to mourn the three students killed and the five students wounded. When people purchased a bouquet, MSU alum and longtime owner Laurie Van Ark gave them double, asking them to put them out on behalf of the shop. 

“People came in and they would start telling their story, and we would see strangers that didn’t know each other,” said Van Ark. “They were just standing in line to get some flowers for memorials. They were hugging and they were crying and offering support.” 

She provided flowers to a group of MSU graduate students who created the “Welcome Back” event the following Sunday. The event grew so quickly and became so massive that the university eventually took over and organized the campus-wide event. News started spreading of the shop’s generosity. 

“I received the nicest notes from people who found out about our donations of flowers,” Van Ark said.

Although the shop took a financial hit with the donations, she has no regrets. This act of kindness came during her last months of ownership. Over the summer, Van Ark sold the store that her mom, Barbara Ann Hollowick, opened in 1979, and that she owned for decades, to Sarah Soltis. Van Ark, the shop’s lead designer, is staying on to provide assistance, especially for weddings.

Cool Under Storm Pressure

Washtenaw Dairy has been a part of Ann Arbor since 1934. This community gathering place, at 602 South Ashley street on the city’s old west side, is where locals come for huge scoops of ice cream and homemade donuts.

It also steps in to provide an essential service when storms take out the power grid by selling dry ice, which keeps food cool until power is restored. 

In January, when an ice storm left a swath of Ann Arbor without electricity, businesses and residents began lining up at the dairy for dry ice. Washtenaw Dairy stepped up, though that meant taking a financial hit. The dairy didn’t raise prices, even though dry ice was more costly during this time because high demand forced the dairy to send trucks to make additional pickups.

“Normally we get it delivered from our main supplier,” said owner Mary Jean Raab, “but we have a secondary supplier, and we were able to set up. We started running our trucks twice a day to go pick up more dry ice and ended up getting 10,000 pounds in the next couple of days.” 

Raab joined the family business in 2016 after a successful corporate career to help her 90-year-old uncle, Doug Raab, after his business partner died. She bought the business, which is evenly split between retail and wholesale operations. The latter supplies dairy and associated products to restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, day cares, nursing homes and schools. 

“In order to make our customers happy and the community happy, we always try to do everything we possibly can to help out people and businesses during any kind of tough times,” Raab said.