Rib Lake florist ready to pass the torch
After years of living with MS, Dohrwardt to step back from owning shop
You can tell a lot about a master craftsman by watching their hands at work.
They may carry on a conversation about the weather, the happenings of the community or asking about your family, but through it all their hands are always moving, always creating.
Nancy (Gerstberger) Dohrwardt’s hands never stop moving. She seems to effortlessly select and trim greens, choosing only the ones with the brightest and healthiest leaves. Using a small, sharp knife she trims the stems and strips the thorns and leaves from roses. She places the greens and roses into the water-filled vase seemingly with no rhyme or reason, yet almost by magic the arrangement appears complete and perfect. The only hiccup comes when her hands pause after lifting a bunch of small white flowers. Although only accents to set off the roses, the flowers do not meet her standards, she calls for new ones while methodically breaking the offending bunch into pieces and discarding it with the other trimmings.
“If I don’t like it I don’t expect somebody else to like it,” Nancy said.
Nancy owns and runs Gerstberger Rib Lake Florist located on McComb Ave. in downtown Rib Lake. She took over the shop from her mother Marlene Gerstberger who started the flower shop from her home in 1973 before building the shop in 1978. Marlene Gerstberger died in 2019.
Nancy started her career as a florist at her mother’s side when she was 12 and for the past 40 years has worked to perfect her trade. As a young girl, Nancy said she never expected to continue the family business. Like many of her classmates at Rib Lake High school she planned to get a factory job at Weather Shield or Hurd Windows and Doors (now Sierra Pacific). Those plans were derailed because she didn’t turn 18 until the fall and since you had to be 18 to work at a factory she was at loose ends. For a while she worked at the former Copps IGA in Medford doing flowers there at $3.40 per hour while continuing to help her mother at her shop before eventually going to work with her mother full time. For many years the two worked side by side, and as her mother grew older Nancy took over more and more of the arrangements and business of the shop.
Marlene was a savvy and exacting business owner who set a high bar for Nancy when it came to the quality of plants coming into the shop and the quality of arrangements leaving it. Over the years, Nancy built a strong following with loyal customers and a large service area stretching across the region. Nancy tells of the times her husband Rick and sons Michael and Taran would be heading into all different directions to make deliveries. Even as COVID-19 was shutting down many other businesses, Nancy remained busy. She noted that 2020 was just about her busiest year ever as people sent flowers in place of being able to visit.
In 2008, life threw Nancy for a loop. Out of nowhere she lost function of her left hand. She had been playing softball at the time, a favorite pastime, along with bowling and horseshoes, and felt tingling while pitching.
Other symptoms started to appear, loss of function in her hands, falling and unsteadiness. In 2012 she was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is a disease in which the immune system eats away at the protective covering of nerves. The resulting nerve damage disrupts communication between the brain and the body resulting in a range of symptoms which can come and go depending on the individual.
Nancy has not allowed her MS to slow her down, working to continue to provide high quality service to her customers. She said she has never been one to complain about her MS and said many people are not even aware of it.
“People do not need flowers,” she said, noting there were other basics like food and housing that were more important. With that in mind, she said it is important to do her best for her customers.
In recent years, Nancy’s passion and commitment to delivering her best at all times has taken a toll on her body. Finally it was her neurologist who laid down the line telling her she cannot expect to work 60 to 80 hours a week and survive.
No matter how much it pained her, she knew it was time to look at stepping back and selling the booming flower shop. Simply closing the doors on the business was never an option to her, to do so would be to turn her back on what her mother and her had built over all those many years.
“I would never do that to Rib Lake or to my customers,” she said of simply walking away.
Nancy noted that things moved relatively quickly since she made the decision to sell. She expected that it would take some time to sell the shop, but was surprised to get interest and come to an agreement.
If all goes to plan, the paperwork will be signed next week for the new owner, Alysia Judnic, to take over the shop. Nancy said she is excited about the changes the new owner will bring to the shop including a new name and some planned upgrades to the storefront area. She said she understands the new owner needs to put her mark on the shop and make it her own.
Nancy will continue working at the shop and helping with the transition to the new owner. She noted that after so many years in the industry she has built a reputation for not tolerating having substandard plants and flowers and will reject flowers from wholesalers if she does not believe their quality is good enough.
It is those types of skills that Nancy hopes to share with the new owner as well as continuing to help create beautiful arrangements. Nancy admitted to being a little nervous from transitioning from the owner and person in charge to being an employee, noting it has been a long time since she worked for someone. Still, she is looking forward to being able to cut back on her stress load and look after her own health needs while continuing to bring beauty to her customers.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, of her plans to work with the new owners as long as she is needed.
The change will also be a big transition for her family.
“I couldn’t be more proud to be part of a family and have such a talented mom and grandma that put Gerstberger Florist on the map and made it a household name for the past 48 plus years,” said Nancy’s son Michael. “I’m going to miss delivering and helping out at the flower shop. I really really am.”