Business was brisk at Gregg Florist in Peoria Heights on Mother’s Day Eve as owner Dan Callahan scurried about the shop, preparing arrangements, taking payments and last-minute orders, working the room.
Many customers greeted him by name, and not uncommonly, he responded with theirs. “This is kind of like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows everybody,” he says.
Post-COVID, just about any business owner will confess that busy is infinitely better than not, but it was also a bittersweet moment for the 68-year-old Callahan. This past Mother’s Day was Callahan’s last at his Gregg Florist pulpit, from which he’s dispensed no end of compassion and counsel over the years.
On May 31, he closed on the sale of the property he’s owned at 1015 E. War Memorial Drive for the last 44 years, to make way for a gas station and a convenience store. The business itself remains on the market, the doors may remain open until everything is gone, but as for Callahan, he’s looking forward to his next chapter and will soon start on that journey.
“Forty-four years, it’s a good run,” Callahan says. “There’s never been a dull moment.”
It was 1978, disco was still a thing, and a 24-year-old Dan Callahan was not long out of the University of Illinois with an architecture degree when an opportunity came along to buy a little flower shop in Peoria Heights.
“One visit to the bank, that’s all it took,” he recalls of the loan he took out to buy the business for $50,000. It was a different era. Things were simpler then.
They were about to get a bit more complex when Pabst announced that it would be closing its iconic brewery in Peoria Heights. That was 1981, and suddenly the future wasn’t quite coming up roses.
“This was a neighborhood business, at that point. There weren’t as many people coming from across the river,” said Callahan. “That was just devastating.”
Callahan persevered – really, what other choice was there? – calling on a character trait he describes as more “eternal optimist” than entrepreneurial. Some might have downsized. He expanded.
He seemed to instinctively know that “people will go to a place they trust” and that they “want authentic,” which made the Heights and its mom-and-pop vibe the perfect place for him to be.
It also didn’t hurt that in terms of drive-by traffic, it was hard to beat his corner spot at War Memorial and Faber. Still, arguably that little flower shop could have been plopped down anywhere, and customers still would have sought it out for that personal touch.
Indeed, what’s the perfect flower arrangement for the Feast of the Annunciation at a local Catholic church? You’re unlikely to run across anyone who has a clue about that at the nearest big box store — but at Gregg, Callahan and crew were able to whip something up in a jiffy. Lilies and roses, at your service
In fact, Callahan has gotten to know his customers so well over the years that many just trust him to “do your thing,” whatever the occasion – weddings, funerals, proms, graduations, you name it. Indeed, unlike just about everything else these days, expressing yourself with flowers is a politically neutral way to convey just the right emotion for the moment, “joy, sorrow ... the things that are just part of everyday life."
“It’s not just another commodity,” he said. “It’s what you do with it” that makes the difference, in a way that “just masses of blooms” cannot.
There would be other challenges, of course.
In the late 1980s and ‘90s, businesses that once wined and dined clients and showed their appreciation to employees for their work and career milestones began to cut back. Then, in 2020 came the granddaddy of them all – COVID-19. It stung personally to not be considered an “essential business,” but locking the doors for four months didn’t boost the bottom line, either, even for a business that had been doing “contactless delivery” for decades.
“We got over that bridge, too,” said Callahan.
Over the years, tenology changed everything. Online orders have reduced in-person visits. Still, the face-to-face interactions that remain are what makes Callahan and his dozen or so employees “so reluctant to give it up.”
Nonetheless, he is accepting.
First, he’s never regretted his decision to walk away from architecture, much as his appreciation for it remains.
From “the joy of design without having someone’s life depend on it” to “dealing with people’s transitions and trying to talk them through all of that,” running Gregg Florist has been a privilege, he says.
He’s also not exactly walking off into the sunset.
“I’m going to be around…I don’t have to be at that counter for people to find me,” Callahan said.
Indeed, he is active and then some in his Moss Avenue neighborhood. He’s become a one-man maintenance and beautification crew of his beloved Malvern Lane, upon which his Tudor Revival-style home is the only address. No one waxes more eloquently or romantically about that early 19th century, now-closed-to-vehicles, brick-and-limestone connection between Peoria’s West Bluff and its South Side valley than Callahan, who can go on and on about everything that springs from its hillside, from the now-spent bluebells to the Dame’s Rocket to the false Solomon’s seal.
Meanwhile, he tends to the gardens at Westminster Church. And, of course, there is simply no end to the weeds that need to be pulled and the monuments placed and the flowers to be planted on the Western Avenue Greenway that so distinguishes his neighborhood and the people who took it upon themselves to make it happen.
As is typical of Callahan, he gives credit to others for the “miracle” they pulled off “with style and sustainability,” but he lent a significant hand, as well, and continues to.
All in all, his “retirement,” if you can call it that, is “less traumatic than I thought it would be.
“I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Forty-four years of having a small business, there’s not been much breathing room.”
So Callahan can exhale now and truly smell the flowers. For many sad customers, it’s the end of an era.
What made it special?
Longtime customer, friend, neighbor and Peoria City Councilwoman Beth Jensen doesn’t hesitate. “I’d say it’s Dan himself,” she said. “He’s a genuine people person who cares ... who listens…who remembers” every personal tale and darn near every arrangement he’s sold to that person and for what occasion.
Meanwhile, he’s a constant presence and leader and peacemaker in the Moss neighborhood, the bridge between its past and present, a worker who inspires by example with the kind of energy and action “that keep the neighborhood strong,” said Jensen. “If it weren’t for him, I don’t think the Greenway would still be there. He’s so dedicated.”
Peoria has had its ups and downs, Callahan has witnessed many of them, but he’s proud of this place and wants to continue to be a part of making it better in ways that “lift the spirits” and allow its residents to say, “’I’m going to stick it out. Hold on. Things will get better.’
“I went away. I had a choice of where to go,” he reminisces. But this community’s manageable size and the opportunities it presented to make a personal difference were “the heart of what kept me in Peoria.
“Peoria is real.” And Callahan is among those real deals who have helped make it so.
Mike Bailey is editor in
chief of Peoria Magazine.