Service is recipe for flourishing food business

Family produce stand grows to
four Sarasota area supermarkets

As published in The Marketplace Magazine Nov-Dec. 2018

By JB MillerDetwilers who work in the store minus EmilyNine members of the Detwiler family work in the supermarket. Eight are pictured here.

PALMETTO, FL — Anticipating the opening of the newest Detwiler’s Farm Market in July, the Detwiler family wondered, “Will anyone come?”

There was no need to worry. Cars jammed the parking lot and nearly 5,000 shoppers visited that first day. With the opening of their fourth store, Detwiler’s is on its way to meet a company goal of serving nearly three million customers over the next year.

Detwiler’s newest location, a long vacant 40,000- square-foot former grocery store, stands in stark contrast to their first produce market, a 10 by 20-foot roadside tent opened in Sarasota in 2002 by Henry Detwiler Sr. and his family. They soon gained a loyal following and remained an open-air market until 2009 when they moved into a building.

The transition to enclosed space was stressful. While the previous business had thrived, any excess cash was invested in the new location. An additional challenge was the lack of air conditioning. “Some nights I would come over and open doors to bring in cooler air to keep the produce from spoiling,” Henry said. “Then that winter, we had one of the coldest winters in many years and local produce was devastated.”

The business struggled. Paying the bills became difficult. When one of their major suppliers called and said they could no longer deliver products to them, Henry knew this could be the end for Detwiler’s Farm Market. After a lengthy conversation, the owner agreed to reconsider the termination. Later, he called to say that he would continue to serve Detwiler’s and was sending $20,000 for Henry to pay other creditors. He shouldn’t worry about repayment and suggested that, in the future, Henry could help someone else in similar straits. This answer to the Detwiler family’s prayers became a major turning point for the business.

Even though their first building was only 5,000-square-feet, the additional space allowed them to open deli and fresh seafood counters. Despite the small space and crowded parking lot, customers came, shopping elbow to elbow with little space to maneuver grocery carts. Rather than being frustrated, many customers felt the crowded conditions added charm to their shopping experience.

As the business grew, it gained a reputation that’s still reflected today in the Detwiler’s slogan, “Eat Fresh for Less.”

Over the next six years two more stores were opened within 25 miles of their initial Sarasota site, each larger than the previous one. Their third store gave Henry the opportunity to return to his roots — opening a full-service butcher shop. As a child he would ride about on his tricycle in his grandfather’s Franconia, PA. butcher shop. There, he saw firsthand how Grandpa Landis treated his customers with respect and kindness, ensuring they were satisfied with their purchases. Even then, Henry was a budding entrepreneur. “I believe God gave me the gift of retailing. When watching my grandfather, I used to think ‘Grandpa, why don’t you do it this way?’” Henry recalled.

That entrepreneurial spirit has been passed on to the next generation. Seven of Henry and Natalie Detwiler’s nine children are active in the business, five serving alongside their parents in leadership roles. Sam, the oldest son, has worked in the business from the beginning. Today, at age 30, he serves as president.Henry Detwiler Sr and Sam DetwilerFounder Henry Detwiler Sr and company president Sam Detwiler

Engaging and articulate, Sam’s passion for serving their customers and employees is clearly evident. “I believe if we take care of our customers and employees, God will take care of us,” Sam said. “Just this morning I was reading James 5, and it’s a clear warning about how we need to treat people, and not make this business just about us. There’s more to it than that.”

With the loyal customer following, there are many requests for Detwiler’s to open stores in other locations. “We hope to continue to grow with more stores but building our own larger distribution center is a top priority,” Sam explained. “We started our own distribution center when we had only two stores and that’s been strategically important because we can buy large quantities of produce.”

Detwiler’s buys local fruit and vegetables when they are available, but with today’s high demand, produce comes from throughout the Americas. Suppliers know, with their large customer base, Detwiler’s can move large quantities of overstocked inventory, often at reduced prices.

Besides the large produce selection, butcher shop and seafood counter, shoppers find a wide array of specialty items with brands not found in local grocery stores. Troyer deli meats and cheeses from Ohio, Martin chips from Pennsylvania, and items from many small companies known for their high quality and strong customer loyalty are customer favorites.  

Detwiler’s is known for their generosity. Each week the company provides food for a local wilderness camp for at-risk boys. After Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas, they sent a semi-tractor load of food to Houston. When Hurricane Irma struck the Sarasota area, Detwiler’s purchased plywood and supplied labor to board up their employees’ houses, and opened their stores for employees who needed a safe place. “We have been blessed, and I’m learning to let go, stop being ‘tight,’ and be generous,” Henry explained. “I’m learning you can’t out-give God, I need so little to make me happy.”

Satisfying as business growth has been, it doesn’t come without some concern. When asked what keeps him awake at night, Henry paused a long time before answering, “That we lose our faith, walk away from God, and the business becomes more about ourselves and not serving our customers.”

When meeting Detwiler family members, it’s evident that they see their business as a Christian calling. “What really makes me tick is people thanking me for opening the new store, as well as employees telling me they enjoy working here,” Henry commented. “We hope when customers walk into our stores they can feel the love we have for the business and for them. Our goal is to mix love in everything we do, including the bread we bake.”

“Eat Fresh for Less” may be Detwiler’s popular slogan. However, love for the people they serve appears to be the winning ingredient in the Detwiler family’s success. ◆