The day starts at 4:30 a.m. That’s when Rebeka Northway rises, well before the sun, to hit the market, where she pursues the offerings from her favorite vendors, hoping to beat the rush and benefit from the best selection. As the summer begins to retreat into fall, there’s more inventory from nearby farms, so she makes her purchases taking into consideration what goes best with what, balancing color, freshness, and smell, among other factors. By mid-morning she’s unloading her treasures at Zuni Cafe, the iconic wedge-shaped restaurant known for its roasted chicken and seasonal California cuisine.
But Northway doesn’t deal in edible wares like dry-farmed tomatoes and delicate little gem lettuces. Under her business name the Petaler, she’s become the go-to florist for many of San Francisco’s powerhouse dining destinations, including Zuni Cafe, State Bird Provisions, Octavia, and Nopa. On a recent Tuesday, her haul includes sprawling boughs of oak and pear, each the height of a small child and covered with splashy leaves of green and red, plus armfuls of amaranth dripping with vibrant green flowers, golden bouquets of yarrow, and a bunch or two of bushy dahlias. Northway says she buys what looks good at the bustling San Francisco Flower Market, waiting until she’s at the restaurant — with all her selections spread out across the bar and several tables — to decide how to build the arrangement. “Most of the time it works out,” she says, carefully studying the array of branches, flowers, and greenery splayed around her.
The weekly installation at Zuni Cafe typically takes about four hours, Northway estimates. There’s one enormous arrangement perched on top of the restaurant’s piano to be designed (and sneakily woven into the railing of the staircase for stability), plus a smaller one that goes upstairs. Northway compares the construction of the approximately 8-by-5-foot downstairs arrangement to building a house: she starts with the scaffolding, in the form of those thick oak and pear branches, then begins to fill in with greenery, before adding in long, thin sprays punctuated by delicate pink flowers.
Northway is self taught and learned through “a lot of trial and error,” she says. “I started playing around with it when I was a server and it just snowballed from there.” Her ethos is decidedly farm-to-table, favoring locally grown elements over those imported from half a world away. The results tend to be “hedgey,” Northway describes. And since plants flower before they bear fruit, her work tends to serve as a sort of sneak peek at what may be on a diner’s plate in the coming weeks. “It’s always kind of a preview of what’s to come ingredient wise,” Northway says.
Selecting flowers for restaurants requires a very specific approach, she explains. Unlike creating arrangements for events like weddings, restaurant arrangements must be able to last for about a week — and withstand the possibility of being bumped by a distracted server or inebriated guest. Anything overly fragrant can distract from the food, so that’s a no-go. Plus the over-size floral arrangements — the installation at Nopa stands about 15 feet tall — “drink like you wouldn’t believe,” she says. That’s why she usually makes a mid-week stop at each restaurant client to make sure staff have replenished or changed out the water.
Chef Marissa Perello has worked with Northway ever since the florist walked into Frances to inquire where the restaurant was getting its flowers. “I was assertive early on,” Northway recalls with the hint of a smile. “And the flowers [at Frances] seemed like they weren’t getting the attention they deserved.” Perello remembers being impressed with the fact that Northway was already doing flowers for Zuni (in fact, the restaurant is Northway’s longest-running client of about a decade now) and Nopa. She gave her a shot and in the passing years the two have become close friends. Northway has not only done floral arrangements at both of Perello’s restaurants (Frances has yet to reawaken from its pandemic slumber) but also more formal installations including a sycamore branch that formerly hung on the wall at Octavia. “Her style really reflects the ethos of our restaurant,” Perello says. “She’s focused on seasonality. She’s hyper-focused on it.”
Prior to the pandemic Northway worked with a team of two other florists, juggling a longer list of restaurant clients including Liholiho Yacht Club, Dandelion Chocolate, and Sightglass Coffee on top of events. “It was a really well oiled machine by the time the pandemic hit,” she says. “[Then] it just totally flatlined. I’m still traumatized by watching everyone run around on that day — March 16 — to try to shut down their restaurants.” These days she’s a one-woman show, dashing from client to client in a repurposed postal truck stuffed with upcycled branches and bunches of flowers.
For the first 10 years, restaurants were the core of the Petaler’s business, Northway says. Now it’s more of a 50-50 split between restaurants and events. But the pandemic shutdowns made her realize the need to diversify even more. To that end, she’s planning to open up her studio, located in the Duboce Triangle, as a flower and gift shop. She’ll stock plant-dyed textiles, pantry items from some of her restaurant clients, and beeswax candles, plus flowers and plants, of course. Northway says she has noticed an increased interest in flowers and plants in restaurants lately, but is quick to point out that flowers have long been an important design element at Bay Area restaurants, including the now-closed Michael Mina and Chez Panisse. “I think it’s always been there but it’s been more spotlighted now because of social media,” she says. “It really does add this magical element to a space.”