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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 22, 2019 3 months ago

Family farm market grows into four-store operation with hundreds of employees, plans for more growth

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Behind the success of Detwiler’s Farm Market? An intense focus on the customer.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

When Henry and Natalie Detwiler ran a produce stand at Fruitville Grove in Sarasota, their kids helped after school and on weekends.

Sam Detwiler, their oldest son, started helping with the family business when he was in grade school. Then he decided he wanted to dedicate more of his time to the growing venture. “My mom wasn’t really happy, but I dropped out of high school and went basically full-bore,” he says.

The company was too small to have job titles, but he was in charge of produce. “I started understanding customer patterns — how many customers come in this spot, more foot traffic here, move this product here,” he says. “Now we do that at such a greater level. When I’m talking in the stores with our directors, it’s funny what I learned there at the little roadside stand.”

That little roadside stand has grown into a fresh food empire: There are now four Detwiler’s Farm Market stores ranging in size from 5,000 square feet to 45,000 square feet. The company’s 445 employees sell not only produce but meat, seafood, baked goods and more.

Today, Henry Detwiler Sr., 54, and Natalie Detwiler, 53, remain involved in day-to-day workings of the business, along with four sons who are owners and three daughters who help out. Sam Detwiler, 30, is president.

Company officials decline to disclose revenue but point to sales that outpace competitors per square foot and by department. The Detwilers’ success can be attributed to a constant focus on customer service — and on giving customers deals on fresh food. But as a family focused on faith, they are also quick to attribute their success to something beyond business: God. Henry Detwiler says, “I think the biggest thing for us is to stay focused and honest and humble.”

Hungry for produce

Henry Detwiler grew up in Franconia, Pa., where his grandfather and grandmother had a butcher shop and grocery store.

After moving to Florida, he worked construction for 10 to 15 years. Then the Detwilers helped with the Sutter’s Eggs operation, run by a family friend. “Our whole family after school would grade all of the eggs,” Sam Detwiler says.

From there, they started a market, running the farm stand at Fruitville Grove. Henry Detwiler says, “We learned how hungry Floridians were for good produce.”

Since the stand was outside, there were challenges with ensuring the produce, like lettuce that can wilt easily in the Florida heat, didn’t get damaged before it was sold. Now, Sam Detwiler says, even when he sees a box of produce sitting in a cooler in an air-conditioned store, his instinct is to get it sold as soon as possible.

In 2008 they opened a store on Palmer Boulevard in Sarasota. That was the beginning of the Detwiler’s Farm Market name. Henry Detwiler says they chose the building on Palmer because it was the only available building he could afford. 

After a while at Palmer, he says he could tell his three sons needed more space, describing the situation as “a lot of Detwiler in that little area.” The store has 5,000 to 6,000 square feet of retail space. So they opened a second store in Venice that’s 10,000 square feet. Henry Detwiler says they didn’t get out a map and say, “This is where we want a store.” Instead, a relative had space available, and it was the right opportunity.

When they learned an old grocery store location on University Parkway in Sarasota County was available, that seemed like a good opportunity for expansion, too. The much larger store — at about 30,000 square feet — was a big step for the company and lot of work. “Our feet were so tired,” Henry Detwiler says.

When the Detwilers opened their fourth store in July in Palmetto, they took another leap, opening an even bigger store — 45,000 square feet. Today, in addition to the stores, the Detwilers have a 10,000-square-foot central distribution warehouse near Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Henry Detwiler says, “The success is just beyond anything I can imagine.”

Customer service-centric

Lying awake at night, Sam Detwiler says he doesn’t worry about competitors taking market share. “But I do worry about disappointing the customer. We really want to make sure customers are taken care of.”

That’s one way Detwiler’s sets itself apart from competitors: customer service. Yeah, we’re a for-profit, but we would rather give more money away if someone had a bad experience,” Sam Detwiler says. Recently, he says, a woman emailed Detwiler’s to say she was never going to shop there again., citing a bad experience that involved not getting the cut of steak she wanted. 

Detwiler’s response was to offer the woman a gift card to its stores — or a gift card for a competitor if she felt Detwiler’s couldn’t make her happy again. “If we have any negative feedback, we want to make sure we treat it 100% right,” Sam Detwiler says. “We own the mistake, and we want to take care of it.” The woman accepted a gift card — to Detwiler’s.

A people-first, customer service-centric philosophy is engrained in employees right away. At orientation, new employees gather around a table along with Detwiler family members. “We start with prayer because it’s a main part of who we are as individuals,” says Sam Detwiler.

Then everyone takes turns telling a childhood memory. People might share something about growing up on an orange farm or running down to the local store to buy popsicles or riding bikes to a nearby park. “There’s an impersonal side of business that I feel is wrong,” Sam Detwiler says. “We’re a people company, not a product company. We’re selling experiences.” In orientation sessions, he’s shared stories about how he grew up in Myakka City and used to pick flowers and run a lemonade and flower stand with his brothers and sisters in an early sign of entrepreneurship.

Orientation also includes the story of the Detwiler family and how the company was built. Employees go on a warehouse tour, store tour and do role-playing, including examples of good customer service and team participation. Employees are encouraged to be personable, keep a spring in their step and remember to smile. “We’re going to explain safety, expectations and how your first day is going to look, but we want to make sure they understand what is our goal at Detwiler’s and our life and what we’re doing,” Sam Detwiler says.

Sweet spot

On an average day, Sam Detwiler visits stores, communicates with employees, monitors the company’s public image, approves advertising and attends meetings. He’ll turn 31 in March. “I’m definitely being mentored from my dad," he says. "I’m on the phone with him basically every day multiple times and in meetings with him.”

His father developed a standard, Sam Detwiler says, of taking care of customers and suppliers, and he wants to continue that legacy. “If you know the farmer who’s picking those tomatoes, and he has $7 in the case, don’t try to get them for $5. Pay him a fair price.” But at the same time, when suppliers call, they know they have to be at their bottom price because Detwiler’s has to pass the deal on to customers. “I have nine kids,” Henry Detwiler says. “I know what it’s like to feed kids.” He says he’d rather give the customer a deal than make an even greater profit.

“Business is really simple. We like to make it complicated. It’s really having an item that consumers want, selling it at the right price and selling as many as you can.” — Sam Detwiler, president, Detwiler’s Farm Market

The Detwilers say the chain’s size puts the company in a good purchasing position. There’s room for a chain with four to 10 stores, Henry Detwiler says. “That’s probably our sweet spot. For me, I’m really blessed and satisfied with what we have.” But, he says, he’s always looking at what other store locations might be available.

What gets the team excited, Henry Detwiler says, is finding deals on the items they sell like pineapples or chicken breasts. Detwiler’s recently got a deal on 15,000 bouquets of flowers. They were originally headed to a mainstream chain, but were sent before the chain wanted them. So the supplier called and asked if Detwiler’s wanted them. Sam Detwiler says they got a good deal, which was passed along to the customer. Flowers that would have sold for $5.99 to $7.99 were sold for $2.50. “That’s hard to scale if you get too big,” Sam Detwiler says. 

Detwiler’s doesn’t sell tobacco, alcohol, pharmacy items or lottery tickets. And it’s closed on Sundays. Yet Sam Detwiler says the chain’s per-square-foot sales lead the industry, and certain departments outsell competitors by five to eight times. “Business is really simple,” he says. “We like to make it complicated. It’s really having an item that consumers want, selling it at the right price and selling as many as you can.”

People then profit

Signs are sprouting of the company's growth. Three years ago, for example, Detwiler’s didn’t have an executive team. Henry Detwiler and his sons ran the operation, along with a controller. Now the company has a director of meat, director of seafood and director of produce along with a CFO and human resources team. "We’ve really been able to compile a great strong group of individuals," Sam Detwiler says. "There’s a lot of sound counsel.”

The company wants to continue to grow, but smartly. A key question facing leadership: How many stores can they have without losing what makes Detwiler’s special?  

“We’re not trying to grow just to grow,” Sam Detwiler says. But if the company has the team and energy, he says, Detwiler’s could have stores in every city across Florida. Right now, he says, a specific goal is 10 stores.

“We haven’t had to turn to any private investors,” Henry Detwiler says. “We’re fairly conservative. We try to not outgrow what we can afford.”

He adds the company isn’t about profit. It’s about people. The profit comes, he says, because they care about people. “We never set out to be Detwiler’s Farm Market,” he says. “Eat fresh for less just came out of my heart.”

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