Every year, countless individuals walk through the gates of Como Park Zoo & Conservatory to experience all that the St. Paul attraction has to offer. From animals and gardens to art and a marketplace, the park has something to suit every interest- for nothing more than a suggested donation. Keeping Como open and free has always been a priority for the park staff, which is why hundreds of people gathered on Nov. 29, 2012, to wine, dine and raise money for the cause.
Hosted by Como Friends, the nonprofit partner for the park, Bouquets is an annual event held on the Thursday after Thanksgiving. In addition to getting a sneak peek at the Holiday Flower Show, and bidding on items in a silent auction, event-goers have the opportunity to sample a variety of wines and nosh on a selection of hors d’oeuvres and amuse-bouche, bite-size indulgences, from Minnesota restaurants. "It’s a really good way to showcase the beauty of the conservatory in the evening," says Caroline Mehlhop, Como Friends director of events and sponsorships. "Most people don’t see the candlelit gardens and the conservatory at night, and it’s stunning."
This year, the Como Friends managed to raise approximately $10,000 from the 320 guests in attendance at the red-themed event, all of which will go back into the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory. Specific projects impacted by these funds include five seasonal flower shows in the Sunken Garden, enrichment training for the animals of the zoo and free daily education programming for Como visitors.
And Bouquets isn’t the only way the Como Friends raise money. Since their inception more than 10 years ago, the nonprofit organization has raised more than $30 million through other fundraising events for improvements and educational programs at the zoo and conservatory. Recent examples include the Polar Bear Odyssey- a popular attraction that opened in 2010- and the Japanese Garden Experience- a project that added a wing to the conservatory in 2011.
Bouquets got its start almost by accident in 2004 after two of the four main poinsettia breeding companies in the world sent the Como Zoo poinsettias they had named after wine. Breeders typically do this when searching for poinsettias, or if they are aware of a new breed. The vino-themed plants, with names based off of such popular wines as Chianti, merlot and cortez burgundy, were used in the Holiday Flower Show, a conservatory tradition since 1925. "Because of that, the creative minds in the conservatory, and at Como Friends, decided it would be perfect to pair a fundraiser-a wine tasting-with the flower show that was based on wine-named poinsettias," Mehlhop says.
Since then, the theme has evolved from wine and chocolate to incorporate a variety of food and beverage options, including beer- a new addition to the soiree this past year that, according to Mehlhop, was very popular among attendees.
Brew samples from Stout’s Pub, however, were just the tip of the iceberg. Thirteen food establishments took part in Bouquets this past year, among them were local favorites such as Big River Pizza, Good Earth, Muffuletta and Luna Rossa. Guests were also able to sample more than 96 different wines. "It’s a fun way to expose a broader geographical community to the event and provide really solid exposure for their local partnering businesses," says Bonnie Hanson, a director of marketing for the Industrial Fabrics Association International, who has attended Bouquets twice.
Among the socializing, networking and camaraderie, however, the main purpose of Bouquets is to raise money for the park. "It’s one of the last completely free zoos and botanical gardens in the United States, and we are open 365 days per year," Mehlhop says. "Any funds that we raise go towards the educational component, the improved exhibits and staying open and free."
Keeping the park open and free is the reason guest Sherry Fonseth-Lais chose to attend Bouquets this year. "The money brought in through ticket sales, donations and the silent auction helps keep this jewel of our community accessible to everyone," says the first-time attendee. "To me, that is one of the most beautiful things about the zoo and conservatory. People from all walks of life can come and enjoy this oasis every single day of the year."