Skip to main content
Growth
Business Observer Friday, Sep. 25, 2015 4 years ago

A fresh approach

Share
Detwiler's Farm Market brings old-school charm to modern-day food shopping. Is it enough to outdo the grocery king?
by: Beth Luberecki Contributing Writer

Executive Summary
Company. Detwiler's Farm Market Industry. Grocery, retail Key. Family business looks to add at least 10 stores in the next decade.

For some people, it's the fresh, well-priced produce. For others, it's the store-made breads and baked goods. And for still others, it's the Amish-made ice cream. No matter what first brings customers into Detwiler's Farm Market, they tend to keep coming back, as anyone who's navigated one of the store's parking lots knows.

Over the past six years, the family-run business has grown to three successful Sarasota-area locations. It started with a 5,000-square-foot store in Sarasota, expanded to a larger space in Venice, and early this year added a location inside a shuttered grocery store along busy University Parkway. The plan is to multiply locations at least threefold in coming years.

The family draws on its years of experience running produce stands to create a shopping environment that's more down-home farm market than corporate chain.

“We have a Publix at every corner and a Winn-Dixie at every third corner; we don't need another one of them around,” says Sam Detwiler, 27, a company vice president and one of market founder Henry Detwiler Sr.'s nine children. “They're great and they do a good job, but we want to be different. There are very few if no retailers that do as much as we do with produce, and that's what sets us apart.”

The company keeps its revenue figures private. But it knows what its grocery-store competitors bring in and Detwiler's posts comparable and often better sales figures, say company officials. “Our per-square-foot sales are probably close to double a supermarket's,” says Henry Detwiler Sr.

And that's without moneymakers such as lottery tickets, tobacco, and alcohol. “Those things are huge for stores; that's the easy money,” says Sam Detwiler. “That would increase sales so much, but that's not where our family with our morals wants to go.”

The devout Mennonite family brings its faith into its business, where talk of God or prayer isn't kept in the background.

And even though terms like local, organic, and natural have become major buzzwords in the food industry over the last few years, the Detwilers think their work ethic has contributed more to their success than an interest in healthy eating.

“There have been many retailers similar to us that go in and out of businesses every year across this nation,” says Sam Detwiler. “So why didn't they make it? Because you can't be just a product-driven business. That product is always changing — and we want to always be changing with it.”

Growing a Brand
Patriarch Henry Detwiler Sr., 51, grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He learned butchering from his grandfather and opened his first produce stand as a teen. He moved to Florida after meeting his wife, Natalie, and was out of the produce game until the early 2000s, when the family did egg grading at Sutter's Egg Farm in Sarasota.

The Detwilers started to sell produce at Sutter's roadside egg market. They quickly outgrew that space and moved their operation to Fruitville Grove, where they had some 8,000 square feet of selling area.
But much of that was outdoors and the rent was high. So after about five years the family parted ways with the grove and set out on its own.

The first Detwiler's Farm Market opened in 2009 on Palmer Boulevard in Sarasota. As parking became an issue and the store was constantly crowded with customers, the family knew they needed other locations. They were lured to Venice in 2013 by an extended family member involved in auction and furniture companies, which share space with Detwiler's Farm Market on U.S. 41 Bypass. Venice, with its large snowbird population, isn't always a first choice for retail-related companies that seek another location.

“We had a lot of advisers and different people we knew in the business who said don't go to Venice,” says Sam Detwiler. “But it's been a great second choice for us. The first year was a struggle, learning how to market to the customer there. But since then the Venice store has just grown and grown and is now beating our original Sarasota store's sales.”

Venice residents tend to be older and more price-conscious. While they don't buy as much at a time as Sarasota customers do, they make more frequent trips to the store. And Venice's small-town feel works well with the company's farmers market vibe.

In 2014, the Detwiler family set its sights on a third location, signing a lease to occupy a former Sweetbay along University Parkway in Sarasota. That store is a few miles west of the Mall at University Town Center, a $315 million project that opened in October 2014 and draws people from across the region.

The 46,000-square-foot grocery store is different than anything the family has done before. They put in hours of their own labor and hired a contractor to turn the empty shell into the latest and largest extension of their business. They brought Miller's Dutch Haus Furniture on board to share the space (and the rent). It's a different experience than shopping at the original location — in addition to produce, this store carries meat, seafood, baked goods and some packaged foods — but one that adheres to the company's values and mission.

“Most people who come into the University store say, 'Wow, I've never been to a store where there's so much fresh produce, the deli prices are so good, and the seafood is so great,” says Sam Detwiler. “We have so many people in love with the brand and what we're doing. We like this store plan, and if we do any further growth, it's going to be similar to a store like this. It's more full-service without a grocery-store feel.”

Stock up
The goal is to have about 10 stores total in the next 10 to 12 years, along with a distribution center. Those goals give birth to a familiar familial conflict: The family realizes the company's structure, systems and operations need to be further honed to support a widespread expansion. But they are determined to maintain the look and feel of a family business.

The family is also cautious about not growing too quickly. Though it's getting a lot of inquiries and suggestions about new locations, it's not rushing into a fourth site. “You can't be a hundred places at one time and think you're going to be able to hold on to what we're doing,” says Sam Detwiler.

To stock its produce sections, the company tries to buy as much locally as possible and prefers to work with smaller growers rather than big corporate farms. When it needs to look outside the area for items depending on the season, it tries to find suppliers located as close to Florida as possible, which means looking to places like Canada and Ohio before farther-flung locales like California. “If I can save money on freight, then I can pass that right along to the customer,” says Sam Detwiler.

The Detwilers try to sell the best quality product at the lowest price possible. They do that by forging relationships with suppliers to get the best deals and eschewing big markups in favor of meeting customers' pricing expectations.

“If you really think of what customers want and give it to them, they'll come back over and over again,” says Sam Detwiler. “So if you can lower your margins and get that customer to come two times over one, you've made more money on that customer by selling something for less.”

All in the Family
If the Detwilers weren't in the grocery business, the large family would be a caterer's dream.

That's because Sunday dinner at the home of Natalie and Henry Detwiler Sr. are large affairs. The couple, original founders of Detwiler's Farm Market in Sarasota, has nine children. At family dinners, that expands to five spouses plus nine grandkids, with two more on the way. (Not surprisingly, commercial cookware is used to prepare dishes to feed the two dozen diners.)

Six of the nine Detwiler children currently work at the markets. The list includes four sons, each vice presidents, and two younger daughters:

Sam Detwiler, 27, deals with buying what the stores sell.

Henry Detwiler Jr., 26, handles operations and human resources.

Caleb Detwiler, 25, is general manager of the original Sarasota store and acts essentially as a district manager, ensuring that there's consistency among the three locations.

Dorcas Detwiler, 22, heads up the deli department. “Out of our whole family, she's had more compliments on customer service than anyone else,” says Sam Detwiler.

Josh Detwiler, 20, is the produce manager at the University Parkway store, taking responsibility over a department that's bigger than the company's entire first store.

Grace, 17, works in the bakery alongside mom Natalie, who runs that aspect of the business. “Grace has tons of energy,” says Sam Detwiler. “She has the potential to run the whole company; she's very talented.”

The two youngest siblings, Victoria, 14, and Emily, 11, are still in school but help out over summers. Oldest sister Laura, 29, is a stay-at-home mom but played a big role in the Fruitville Grove market before having children.

The plan is for the sons to eventually take over the company from their dad. Henry Detwiler Sr., 51, while not planning a retirement party, is trying to go behind the scenes more and hopes to do some farming or ranching with the grandkids. His sons and daughters share his grocery passion.

“I love what I do and I'm in it for the long haul,” says Henry Detwiler Jr. “I love interacting with the customers and the challenges of it all. Sam and I keep pushing Dad's foot out the door a little bit at a time.”

Related Stories

Advertisement