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Produce Takes Center Stage At Detwiler’s Farm Market 

Detwiler's Farm Market

Last updated on June 7th, 2024 at 09:46 am

Detwiler’s Farm Market is very much a family affair. Henry Detwiler Sr. and his wife, Natalie, have nine children, many of whom work for the Sarasota, Florida-based company.

The Detwilers opened their first brick-and-mortar store in 2009. Now with six locations, Henry Detwiler remains as CEO but has turned over the day-to-day operations to his four sons.

Sam Detwiler is president, and he is joined by his brothers – Henry James, who is a pastor like their father and also serves as VP of human resources; Caleb, VP of produce operations; and Joshua, who oversees warehouse/logistics. Daughter Laura, the eldest child, lives in Oregon with her husband. Dorcas is a homemaker and culture/social director, Grace is a homemaker and bakery product developer, Victoria is bakery director and Emily is in bakery development.

Sam and Henry Detwiler
Sam and Henry Detwiler

Henry Detwiler said some of his sons-in-law also work in the business.

“Our secret sauce is we run this business more like a family than a business sometimes,” he said.

Sam Detwiler noted family businesses are “a backbone of American society. I think the reason why everyone wants to go to America is so they can have a better life.”

The younger Detwiler also attributes their success to the fact that he and his brothers never left the business. He said they grew up in the “school of hard knocks” and had to figure out three things: how to serve customers the way they want to be served, how to develop the business and how to work together.

“It’s worked for us,” he said. “There can get to be a lot of voices … I know what my strengths are, I know what my brothers’ strengths are.”

Where one brother may be weak, another is strong, and those strengths combine to provide leadership for the company.

Sam Detwiler said his brother Henry makes sure “we treat people the way we need to treat them, having expectations but going the long mile … I think his strength with that has been huge for the company.”

He shared that his personal strengths lie in the general business of the company, adding he is very “number driven.”

“For a family company, we’ve modernized. We’ve spent a lot of money over the years in modernizing our technology to be where it needs to be, so that’s where my strength is.”

He describes his brother Caleb as “the best talker in the world. We call him our in-house politician.”

Sam Detwiler said Caleb’s personality and the relationships he has built with the farmers they buy produce from has been instrumental in the company’s success. 

Josh Detwiler, the youngest brother, also has been working with Detwiler Farm Market’s logistics company, learning routes and other aspects of the business, along with coming up with ideas for growth.

Humble beginnings

The beginnings of the family business took root in the late 1990s when the Detwilers began selling produce and outdoor furniture in Farmville, Virginia. After moving to Sarasota, they started selling under a 10×20 tent at Sutter Egg Farm before moving to a citrus grove, Fruitville Farm Market, where they learned about Florida produce and their customer base was born.

“That’s where we cut our teeth on understanding what people want and trying to serve it to them, but it was all open air,” Sam Detwiler said. 

After about seven years in the citrus grove, the Detwilers opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Sarasota. Detwiler’s Farm Market was founded in September 2009. In 2013, a second store was opened in Venice. The family opened a third store in North Sarasota in 2015.

“I think that was the first time we actually had store managers,” Sam Detwiler said. 

In 2017, the fourth location opened in Palmetto, which was the first full supermarket, he said.

“We put all of our dreams into that store. Everything we ever wanted, we tried to open it with that,” he said. 

When the time came for the grand opening, he said the family was just hoping customers would show up.

“We spent a lot of money. We were hoping that our brand was at least strong enough in the area for people to be there for the store to be successful. I think that day we had 1,500 or 1,600 customers waiting in line for us to open,” Sam Detwiler said. “I think some of the local media reported it was one of the biggest grand openings in the area, which we didn’t even know. We quickly figured out it was pretty good opening.”

About two years later, the company opened its fifth location in Sarasota, on Clark Road. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, “we kind of held on tight for almost four years,” he said. In December 2023, the sixth location opened in a new market, West Bradenton. This was another “massive opening,” said Sam Detwiler, adding that they have been “extremely impressed” with the new location. “It’s definitely a strong community for the family.”

Another area of expansion for Detwiler Farm Market is its distribution centers. Currently with two small DCs, the company is about to break ground on a 135,000-square-foot DC in the Palmetto area. The new facility will house produce, grocery, meat and seafood, “basically the full store inside one warehouse,” Sam Detwiler said.

Once it is operational, the company again will look at opening new stores. He said the goal is not to have hundreds of stores but instead open about one store a year. The family is looking at North Port, south of Sarasota, and also at the St. Pete and Tampa area.

“The store sales and the comps are doing so phenomenal that now it’s just basically building human capital to make sure they carry on our Detwiler culture the way we want our stores run.”

Company culture

When customers enter a Detwiler Farm Market, the produce department takes center stage. Sam Detwiler said they also will see “giant service counters in meat, seafood and deli and a scratch bakery. We’re kind of the old throwback.”

Customer service is a focus for the company and interaction with customers is encouraged.

“We thrive on it,” he said. “We want to be a five-star company … The customer is always right, no matter what. Our big thing is that customer service side – good, old-fashioned customer service.”

He added that their No. 1 goal is “service, service, service. We want to make sure people have a great experience.” 

The company’s slogan is “Eat Fresh for Less,” and he noted they offer high quality products at a great price.

“We’re trying to find a lot of value. That’s a big thing, especially now. Price is important. We don’t have a secret sauce for selling tomatoes and cheese and deli meats, but how you sell it and how you promote it is really important.”

Henry Detwiler recalled going to farm markets with his mother when he was young.

“We didn’t have a lot of money, so we were always trying to find the good stuff for less. Now, to be able to see it happening in our stores, I think the vision I had has come full circle.”

He said not only is the family dedicated to providing the best products at the best price while providing excellent customer service, but their department directors share that same passion. He noted they still wrap meat in white butcher paper and make a point to engage with their customers.

The elder Detwiler said he believes while almost anything can be ordered online now, “some young people love to be able to interact with someone who’s going to work with them behind the case. I don’t know if there’s something deep in our soul that we need interaction, but it seems like it’s working. It’s paying the bills.”

Both Sam and Henry Detwiler voiced appreciation for their employees, adding that they have a great support system inside the company.

“We have phenomenal management now that five years ago we didn’t have,” said Sam Detwiler, mentioning VP of Operations Mike Asher, CFO Steve Schlabach and senior buyer Phil Caliri. 

“The family now doesn’t have to do it alone. Our big thing is getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus and ensure we focus on making sure we set up great leaders inside our business to help us do this, because it’s too big for us to do it alone like we used to.”

While the company is changing and evolving, he said the family is working to ensure they stay true to their principles. That includes purchasing locally whenever possible. Sam Detwiler noted they have several farms they have worked with for many years, including Troyer Potato, Florida Specialties and Alderman Farms.

When asked what they enjoy most about being an independent grocer, Henry Detwiler said he enjoys working with his family and being in the stores.

“What really excites me is being able to be in a store and see the customers love what we’re doing and see the employees willing to come and work for us … I love where I’m at.”

Sam Detwiler said he enjoys the fact that the family and their employees “geek out that we’ve got customers wanting to shop our store.”

He said they try to create a fun environment for their shoppers. If they have crab legs on sale, he said they bring a boat into the store, insulate it, stack it with ice and display the crab legs.

“We’ll put clerks behind the boat with a bag and scale and they’ll start shouting out, ‘Hey, we’ve got snow crab, snow crab.’ You get a crowd of people around and, I’ll tell you, there’s not any more fun in life than just having fun hanging out with customers and serving food at a good price.”

He noted they have stores drawing 20,000 customers a week. “It’s just insane the volume we push through the store.” Employees hand out samples and interact with the shoppers.

“We just try to have fun – simple, good fun. That sums it up. And we’re trying to make sure we don’t lose that.”

About the author

Treva Bennett

Senior Content Creator

After 32 years in the newspaper industry, she is enjoying her new career exploring the world of groceries at The Shelby Report.

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