R&R Orchids founder and owner Tony “The Vanda Man” Romani was featured in the Palm Beach Post in a July 2012 article titled “The Vanda Man: Orchids Are His Passion”, written by staff reporter Barbara Marshall.
In it, she poses the question: Can Tony turn the objects of his passion into an empire?
Take a read for yourself! Enjoy!
The Vanda Man: Orchids Are His Passion
Can he turn the objects of his passion into an empire?
By Barbara Marshall
“People actually ask if I dye them,” said Tony Romani, walking through a mass of orchids so flamboyantly colorful they could make rainbows weep in despair.
Romani grows vanda orchids, the showiest of all orchid species, with blooms the size of saucers and look-at-me shades of violet, magenta, purple, neon yellow, coral and fireball orange.
Subtle, they are not.
But then, neither is Romani.
“My goal, my destiny is to have a vanda empire, because I love these plants,” said Romani, whose R&R Orchids booth attracts gaping fans at the West Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens greenmarkets each winter.
Among South Florida’s orchid maniacs, vandas’ dramatic looks seem to attract characters as intense as their dazzling colors. Author Susan Orlean wrote about them in The Orchid Thief (which became the Meryl Streep movie, Adaptation).
If Orlean were writing today, she might find Romani’s combination of bluster and big dreams intriguing, as he takes aim at the rarefied, competitive world of South Florida orchid growers.
“Of all the vanda growers in South Florida, I’m the smallest right now, but I’m drinking milk,” he said.
According to Diane Patrick, the vice-president of the Orchid Society of the Palm Beaches, Romani already “grows the best vandas in Palm Beach County. One day, he’ll be up there with Bob Fuchs and Marvin Motes,” two Miami-Dade County orchid legends.
He can’t mention his high-profile clients’ names, but they’re the kind of people “who don’t walk through a greenmarket because they’d get hammered for autographs,” said Rob Thompson, managing partner of Waterfront Properties, a luxury real estate firm in Jupiter.
Thompson’s wealthy clients started demanding Romani’s number after seeing the cascading blooms of more than 1,000 orchids he installed in trees outside Thompson’s Jupiter home.
“Tony’s not motivated by the money,” said Thompson. “He’s passionate, like an artist. You think you’re interviewing him for a job, but actually he’s interviewing you to see if he’ll sell you his babies.”
Earlier this summer, Romani signed a deal with a major Florida firm whose business could catapult R&R Orchids into the major leagues this winter.
It’s heady stuff for a 34-year-old high school dropout who used to rescue orchids from a Palm Beach florist’s dumpster.
In his airy greenhouse on 5 acres in Loxahatchee Groves, Romani is weaving carefully around the gray roots — some as thick as a No. 2 pencil — hanging from 5,000 vandas. This is where he transforms the $6 plants he imports from Thailand into $50 orchids for next season’s greenmarkets, using precise amounts of water and fertilizer from an overhead system he designed.
He’s got huge specimen plants priced at $2,500; others are too priceless to sell.
Romani, his wife, Keri, an elementary school teacher, and their three young kids, moved to a five-bedroom house here among the exotic plant nurseries and palm tree growers a year ago. In back is a pond Romani stocks with bass.
Beyond the pond, he’s cleared enough land for five more greenhouses, which could eventually house more than 30,000 orchids.
Few people expected Romani to end up here after leaving Palm Beach Lakes High School in the 10th grade. But Romani knew he wasn’t going to college. He wanted to work.
“Leaving home wasn’t scary, it was exhilarating,” he said. “I was finally responsible for my own actions.”
For a long time, Keri’s father didn’t approve of the brash, long-haired boy with seemingly no prospects.
“But I saw something in him from the beginning,” said Keri. “Tony was smarter than a lot of people I knew in college, even if he didn’t have a full education. And he had this motivation to prove something to the world.”
Romani’s first vanda was supposed to be a gift for Keri, “but I fell in love with the flower and decided to keep it.”
When he nurtured it into a second bloom, “something clicked,” he said. “It seemed like my life’s path was laid out for me.”
On his first day as a vendor at the West Palm Beach Greenmarket in 2002, he sold 40 plants to make more money than he would have in a week at his furniture refinishing job. Now he sells hundreds of orchids each Saturday morning. His largest single sale was $2,500.
Although Romani has never taken a horticulture class, he worked his way through a college textbook on orchids, looking up each word he didn’t understand.
“It was like friggin’ Chinese, but I learned about the different formulations of fertilizer and how the temperature of light affects orchids,” Romani said.
With partners, a Palm Beach couple who don’t want to be named, he bought the Loxahatchee Groves property.
Yet, Romani yearns for acceptance by the insular orchid world, while at the time disparaging the orchid show circuit that’s a ticket to that recognition.
“My customers are my judges,” he said.
As a newcomer, he hasn’t been able to get a coveted vendor spot at the Mounts’ plant sales due to space limitations.
“I use the same people who have been with us for 30 years,” said Joy Ford Le, Mounts’ program director.
Growers who were encouraging to him as a customer shunned him as a competitor.
“In the orchid world, that tends to happen,” said Patrick. “When you’re far better than someone else, people tend to be a little standoffish.”
Romani shakes his head.
“Maybe it’s a mental hang up, but I want to be accepted.”
For the time being, he may have to settle for success.