Name: Debbie Otto
Position: Owner, .
Overview: When Otto was in college, she took an aptitude test to see what career might best suit her. The test indicated she should be a park ranger or florist. Of course, she didn’t pursue either. Then in 2000 she discovered the Coronado Flower Lady business was for sale and bought it. Now, six days a week, she sets up her flower stand next to the large water fountain in the little (700-square-foot) triangle of Rotary Park at the confluence of Orange and Isabella avenues and Park Place. It took awhile, but she’s now a full-fledged florist.
History: The Coronado Flower Lady is a mobile stand that has been set up and taken down each day at the park since 1980, when Diana Gurney – who lived just down the street on Isabella – started it. Since then, the business has been owned by four women, the latest being Otto, who rents a 10- by 10-foot space (it can be larger during the holidays) from the city. Today, Otto rents two storage areas and a cooler (for the flowers) just a couple of hundred yards away, where the stand, flowers and all her equipment are housed.
Love of flowers: Before she owned the Coronado Flower Lady business, Otto, 58, used to visit the stand every Friday to buy lilies or other favorites, particularly tropical varieties. Otto says she’s always loved being around flowers and recalls that in college at UC Santa Barbara, she was always making leis. As a child in Orange County she liked to wear daisies in her hair.
Set it up, take it down: For the past 11 years, Dom Martinez, who lives in a boat in Coronado, helps Otto set up the stand every morning and take it down every night. He says it takes about an hour for both. In addition, an umbrella and wind break are put up, connections are made to water and electricity and the flowers are set out for display. Otto loves her location – such a visible part of the city – but the work to set up and tear down the shop is “the headache of it all.”
The road to flowers: After Otto graduated from UCSB, she was a teacher for 10 years in Hawaii. She went on to live in Santa Barbara, and then came south in 1992 to manage four factories in Mexico for the Ugg and Teva (boot and shoe) companies of Santa Barbara. At first she lived in Imperial Beach, then moved to a house on the beach in Coronado. When Ugg and Teva closed down their operations in Mexico and Costa Rica, Otto suddenly found herself wondering what she’d do next. That’s when she bought the flower business. Today, she and her husband, Brad, and 16-year-old daughter live in Coronado, just a few blocks from Rotary Park.
What is it? Though she’d always loved flowers, she didn’t know much about them when she bought her business. She had to take a crash course in learning their names, how to use them in concert and how to make corsages and arrangements. She credits Myrna Caballes, her designer, for teaching her about arrangements, and her mother-in-law, Carol Kephart, for her tutelage. As designer, Caballes creates the main pieces for weddings, funerals and parties. Though it’s a flower stand, the business provides flowers for major events. It also delivers flowers across the city. On a day-to-day basis, it’s usually just Otto working, but during the busy summer months she hires local high school students to help.
Info booth: Many tourists treat her stand as an information booth, and that’s fine with Otto. “Other than flowers, the best part of this is talking to people and meeting people,” she says. “People want to know where everything is.”
Quotable: “We’re exposed to the elements. We’ve gone through quite a few of those,” she says, pointing toward her umbrella. Until she got a much sturdier one, high winds took out her previous models.