Meet Petaler, the florist at San Francisco’s favorite cult restaurant
The day starts at 4.30 a.m. That’s when Rebeka Northway rises, long before the sun, to hit the market, where she pursues offers from her favorite sellers, hoping to avoid the hustle and bustle and have the best selection. As summer begins to fall into fall, there are more stocks on neighboring farms, so she sheds light on what goes best with what, balancing color, freshness and smell, among other factors. By mid-morning, she unloads her treasures at Zuni Cafe, the iconic wedge-shaped restaurant known for its roast chicken and seasonal California cuisine.
But Northway doesn’t sell edibles like dry-grown tomatoes and delicate little gem lettuces. Under her trade name Petaler, she has become the go-to florist for many San Francisco foodie destinations, including Zuni Cafe, State Bird Provisions, Octavia and Nopa. On a recent Tuesday, her loot included sprawling oak and pear branches, each about the height of a small child and covered in splashing leaves of green and red, as well as armfuls of amaranth dripping with vibrant green blossoms, golden bouquets of yarrow and a bouquet or two of bushy dahlias. Northway says she buys what looks good at the bustling San Francisco Flower Market, while waiting to be at the restaurant – with all of her selections spread out over the bar and multiple tables – to decide how to build the arrangement. âMost of the time, it works,â she said, studying the array of branches, flowers and greenery that spread around her intently.
The weekly setup at the Zuni Cafe typically takes around four hours, Northway estimates. There’s a huge arrangement perched above the restaurant’s piano to be designed (and slyly woven into the stair railing for added stability), plus a smaller one that goes upstairs. Northway likens building the roughly 8-by-5-foot landscaping to building a house: it starts with the scaffolding, in the form of those thick oak and pear branches, and then begins to fill with greenery, before adding long, fine sprays punctuated with delicate pink flowers.
Northway is self-taught and has learned through âa lot of trial and error,â she says. “I started playing with it when I was a server and it snowballed from there.” His philosophy is resolutely from farm to table, favoring locally grown elements over those imported from the other side of the world. The results tend to be “hedgey,” Northway describes. And as plants bloom before they bear fruit, her work tends to serve as a preview of what might be on your dinner plate in the weeks to come. âIt’s always kind of a preview of what’s going to happen in terms of ingredients,â Northway says.
Selecting flowers for restaurants requires a very specific approach, she explains. Unlike creating arrangements for events like weddings, restaurant arrangements should be able to last for about a week – and withstand the possibility of being hit by a distracted waiter or drunk guest. Anything that is too fragrant can distract from the food, so it’s not allowed. Plus, the oversized flower arrangements – Nopa’s installation is around 15 feet tall – “drink like you wouldn’t believe,” she says. That’s why she usually makes a mid-week stop at each restaurant’s customer to make sure staff have replenished or changed the water.
Chef Marissa Perello has worked with Northway since the florist walked into Frances to find out where the restaurant was getting its flowers. âI asserted myself at first,â Northway recalls with a hint of a smile. “And the flowers [at Frances] seemed not to be getting the attention they deserved. Perello recalls being impressed that Northway was already doing flowers for Zuni (in fact, the restaurant has been Northway’s longest-serving customer for about a decade now) and Nopa. She gave him a chance and over the years the two have become close friends. Northway has not only done flower arrangements at the two restaurants in Perello (Frances has yet to wake up from her pandemic slumber), but also more formal installations, including a sycamore branch that once hung on Octavia’s wall. . âHis style really reflects the philosophy of our restaurant,â says Perello. âIt focuses on seasonality. She’s super focused on it.
Before the pandemic, Northway was working with a team of two other florists, juggling a longer list of restaurant customers, including Liholiho Yacht Club, Dandelion Chocolate and Sightglass Coffee, in addition to events. âIt was a really well-oiled machine when the pandemic hit,â she says. “[Then] it’s just totally flat. I’m still traumatized seeing everyone running that day – March 16 – to try to shut down their restaurants. These days, she’s a one-woman show, rushing from customer to customer in a repurposed mail truck filled with recycled branches and bouquets of flowers.
For the first 10 years, restaurants were at the heart of Petaler’s business, says Northway. Now it’s more of a 50-50 split between restaurants and events. But pandemic closures have made it aware of the need to diversify even more. To this end, she plans to open her studio, located in the Duboce Triangle, as a flower and gift shop. She’ll stock some plant-dyed textiles, pantry items from some of her restaurant patrons, and beeswax candles, plus flowers and plants, of course. Northway says she’s 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 in Bay Area restaurants, including the now closed Michael Mina and Chez Panisse. âI think it’s always been there, but it’s now more highlighted because of social media,â she says. âIt really adds that magical element to a space. ”