From seed to store: How an agribusiness became a shopping destination
When Banny Oakes started a produce stand in South Florida in the 1930s, he likely could not have foreseen that his no-frills business would grow into the largest independently owned agribusiness in the region.
Under the management of his son Frank and grandson Alfie, Oakes Farms grew exponentially.
Today, Oakes Farms has approximately 3,000 acres of farmland under production, with central operations in Collier County in Southwest Florida, growing 70 types of fruits and vegetables; it also maintains specialty farms in Florida and up the East Coast.
In addition to the sheer variety and scope of the farmland, as well as the diversity of what they grow, what sets Oakes Farms apart is its expansive retail operations.
The Future of Food
Kirk Henderson, a nursery grower who operates and manages the nursery at the company’s 10-acre tour farm, a microcosm of the operations of the larger farms under the Oakes Farms umbrella, said that Frank Oakes was a trailblazer.
“He had a vision about what the future of food in this country would look like,” Henderson said. “He was very outspoken about the benefits of organic farming well before most people had arrived there. As a testimony to his commitment to organics, he opened and operated the original Food and Thought Market in 2004; it still exists today.”
After Frank died in 2013, his son Alfie took over the business and has since opened a second Food and Thought Market, an organic restaurant and market.
But what put Oakes Farms — and Alfie — on the map was Seed to Table, a two-story, 75,000-square-foot “farmers’ market-inspired” store in Naples, Florida, that opened in 2019. Under that expansive roof is a grocery store that redefines the notion of a supermarket, with multiple departments; restaurants managed by executive chefs; four bars; and an active entertainment/nightlife scene. The place itself is a destination for both locals and visitors from all over the country.
“When people ask what Seed to Table is, it’s a supermarket to be sure, but what it has also succeeded in is becoming both the best bar and the best restaurant and also the best shopping experience in Naples and in all of Southwest Florida,” Henderson said.
From Dream to Destination Market
Henderson said that Seed to Table is a culmination of Alfie Oakes’ vision and dream.
“He traveled the globe; not just to the U.S., but to everywhere around the world where someone was operating an extraordinary market. He consulted with architects and engineering companies. He took little bits from this café in Italy, from this shop, from this market in Greece; he took the best of the best and brought it all together here in Naples and under one roof.”
Though residents have other supermarket options in the area, Henderson said that the market has become the focal point of the Naples community, calling it a “standalone, experiential, destination market.”
The vast majority of the produce sold at Seed to Table is sourced directly from Oakes Farms.
“You name it, we grow it,” Henderson said. Edibles from the farm run the spectrum, as Oakes Farms grows a little (or a lot) of everything: tomatoes, lettuce, root vegetables, kale, beets, turnips, radishes, green beans — anything you’d expect to see in a produce market.
“Tomatoes are always going to be king. Because of our broad range of distribution, different areas of the company have ethnic and regional favorites,” Henderson said. For example, he said, they grow upward of 80 varieties of peppers, which are quite popular in Texas and Louisiana. Other popular products include squash, cucumbers and watermelon.
“In terms of what we grow, I think I’d have an easier time talking about what we don’t grow.”
Depending on the season, Seed to Table also procures some of its produce from other vendors.
“We have suppliers all around the country, as well as partners and farming interests in various parts of the country. Having a relationship with your local farmer and understanding the source of your food is as important as having the relationship with your family’s doctor or accountant,” he said. “You’re feeding this stuff to your family, so if you’re fortunate enough to live in a community that has a farm, you’re pretty blessed. Of the products we stock in our markets that have not been produced by us, we know the source of them, we have a relationship with those people, which is an important component.”
This business philosophy appeals to eco-conscious consumers who seek transparency in sourcing.
Henderson said he also grows thousands of herbs. As he has increased the footprint at the nursery he runs, he has gone from zero to nine greenhouses, with three that are 100% committed to herb growing. The volume of edible plants and herbs that is sold at Seed to Table continues to increase monthly.
As praiseworthy as Henderson is of Oakes Farms and its operations, Henderson is troubled about the trends in farming. “Right now, greater than 80% of the produce consumed in the U.S. is grown outside of the U.S. We see farming becoming more and more difficult for people to do; farming, for most people in this country, is not profitable.”
However, his company is a bit of an outlier.
“If we were just a farming company, we could not survive. The vertical integration, for us, has allowed us to be a profitable company. Most farms don’t have that luxury,” said Henderson. “In a company like ours, we’ve almost virtually eliminated the concept of shrink or waste. If we get a pepper with a spot on it, we chop it up and serve it in our restaurants.”
In addition to Seed to Table, which has become nationally famous in just four years, and the two Food and Thought organic markets in Naples, both of which also feature cafes, the newest retail operation is Farmer Joe’s in Cape Coral. Henderson refers to it as “Seed to Table without the additional bells and whistles.” Two more Farmer Joe’s locations are in the works.
Although Oakes Farms and Seed to Table is a local treasure, the businesses’ footprint extends into Canada, with hubs all around the country, including an especially large presence throughout the Eastern U.S. And because Oakes Farms operates its own distribution centers and trucking companies, they are able to ship produce within 24 hours after it is harvested.
Though Oakes Farms did not invent the farm market concept, it does exceed, in scale, the vast majority of these types of businesses. Should other farms be thinking about the retail end of things, Henderson advised that it must begin with quality.
“You absolutely must give people a reason to enter your establishment. When you choose to go somewhere, you’re going there for a reason. You have to perform and do what you say you’re going to do. That would be a key for anybody that wants to succeed in business in this day and age. Customers have the ability to promote or destroy your business with the click of a finger, so you have to be able to live up to it.”
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