He bought a flower truck on Craigslist. Now it’s his lifeline during COVID-19
This is the latest in a series we call Plant PPL, where we interview people of color in the plant world. If you have any suggestions for PPL to include in our series, tag us on Instagram @latimesplants.
“People are in a good mood today,” florist Nemuel DePaula says with a grin.
It’s Saturday, and Santa Fe Avenue in the Arts District is abuzz from the news that Joe Biden has won the presidency.
DePaula is decked out in a rugged winter coat, denim button-down shirt, shorts, boots, and a red scarf, like a modern-day swashbuckler.
His pink Lenita by Grita truck, parked in front of Stumptown Coffee, feels well-suited to the festive mood.
So do his colorful, sculptural bouquets.
His flowers are seasonal, bright and wild. He loves to use cockscomb in the fall for its “stunning velvet, brain-like texture,” orange marigolds, and the Protea family of flowers, which he describes as “out of this world.”
“I try to make them different from what you’ll find at the grocery store,” he says. “Everyone hates carnations and roses, but I include them, and people love it.”
Developer Lina Lee, who invited DePaula to set up shop inside a 600-square-foot apartment alongside Tartine in Santa Monica, says he is not your “conventional florist.”
“He picks exotic blooms and purposely looks for undervalued or quirky flowers,” she says. “It’s actually very focused. It’s a fun lesson every time I visit his shop.”
Around L.A., DePaula is known for his all-day pop-ups, where he sells flowers, handmade gifts by local artists, plants, and his own line of cards. (“Love from Los Angeles” is a hot seller.)
He is also known for building a business focused on inclusion. As an immigrant from Brazil, DePaula is keenly aware of the importance of embracing all the people who visit his truck.
“A student told me that he used my Instagram in a school project because I highlight all types of people,” he says. “I want to showcase the people who come to the truck. Every background. Every color. Young. Old. Transgender. I know people are tired of the word ‘community,’ but it’s time for us to take the word ‘community’ back.”
DePaula moved to Boston from Brazil with his family when he was 10. He brought with him the closeness and intimacy of growing up in a small community. “Where we lived, looking out for each other was crucial,” he says. Little acts of solidarity — helping people find beans like the ones back home, translating letters for friends — were integral to building a life stateside.
“I’m sure that influenced me somehow,” he says of his Brazilian roots, “but I simply like to think that when you celebrate the people, community around you, especially their differences, whatever you’re doing has more of a soul. It doesn’t become about me — I become a part of them.”
The concept for DePaula’s business is built on honoring the women in his family. His mother, Lenita Alves, who grew up one of 10 children in the small town of Ecoporanga, in Espírito Santo, is the inspiration for his mobile business. DePaula uses her image and name in his advertising. He collaborates with his sister and his brother.
“It’s a very meaningful project for Nemuel and his sister Leticia and brother Kemuel, who have been the biggest supporters of the flower truck,” Alves says. “Seeing them all work together and believe in each other brings me eternal joy. I’m very honored and grateful to have the truck named after me; it’s a beautiful tribute.”
He names his floral arrangements after his female relatives: Thalita, Carmelita, Carmozita, and Rezonita. His trademark pink truck, he says, is just like them: powerful, delicate and timeless.
Before becoming a florist, DePaula worked as a graphic designer, designing art books for Taschen, among others.
A few years after arriving in L.A., he got his “aha!” moment when he created the flower arrangements for a friend’s wedding. “I had wanted to merge all of the things I love into one platform. It had been a passion of mine forever,” he says.
Encouraged by the popular Los Angeles food truck business model, he decided to sell flowers out of a truck.
He purchased a gray van on Craigslist for $6,000 and painted it pink. Enlisting the help of his twin brother, Kemuel, and a mechanic, they remodeled the interior and got it running.
Soon, thereafter, he was hitting the wholesale flower market in downtown Los Angeles at 4:30 a.m. and assembling the arrangements in his truck, which he would park at various locations throughout the city.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says now with a laugh.
From the beginning, the 32-year-old graphic designer’s flower truck was “Plan B,” but when the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the work dried up, selling flowers became his main source of income.
“COVID-19 has slowed everything down,” says DePaula. “With most projects on hold ... now I’m back on the streets with the truck. The flower truck was my side job. It has grown more than I anticipated.”
One reason, he says, is that customers are “more aware of what they spend their money on right now. They want to support small businesses. They realize that there is a chain of people they support when they buy my plants — farmers, growers, vendors at the flower mart.”
DePaula plans to continue his brick-and-mortar pop-up at the Shops on 20th in Santa Monica through December and will be selling wreaths, candles, incense and ceramics by local artists for the holidays.
“COVID has made me slow down on my design work, but shifted Lenita to a higher gear,” he says. “I hope to continue Lenita and expand more on my creative direction and design work as we return to some form of normality. I find myself developing my own projects, products and stories; it’s going to be more about figuring out how to lift them off the ground.“
Until then, he says, he will continue to encourage people to “stop and smell the flores.”
For Lenita by Grita flower truck updates, consult DePaula’s Instagram account.
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