Thursday, January 7, 2010

`Wow! This is a little piece of heaven,'

Ambitious Redland roadside stand rises from real-estate collapse
BY ANA VECIANA-SUAREZ
aveciana@MiamiHerald.com


Preserves, pasta sauce and fresh fruits are among the products at Whitney's Produce and Market Place. A couple of years back, when real estate was booming and the good times rolling, Glenn and Christina Whitney used their bucolic five-acre plot in the Redland as a place to park the 25 or so vehicles they owned through their property management company.
The orchard with the waxy-leafed trees and plump avocados? An afterthought -- a tasty one, to be sure, but an afterthought just the same. They always hired someone to pick and pack the crop.


Then last year the packing house returned 17 boxes of avocados because they were too small to sell commercially.

What to do?

``We had to change work hats,'' says Glenn. ``There was no way we could eat or do anything with that many avocados.''

So they set up a roadside stand in the front of the orchard at Southwest 232nd Street and 139th Avenue. The avocados sold like . . . well, like avocados do in South Florida.

That inspired the Whitneys. The real estate market was tanking and their property management business slowing; they had cut their 55-person staff to 15. It was time to make better use of their rural land.

Thus was Whitney's Produce & Market Place born. In the year since, the couple has put up a pole barn -- ``We really needed the shade,'' Christina says -- added refrigeration and expanded their offerings.

``Little by little we just got into it,'' says Christina, whose family was busy this week protecting plants from the cold with plastic sheeting. ``We had the Key limes, so we started making Key lime pie. Then we had all those banana trees and I had this recipe we all really like, so it was the banana bread.''

Strawberry jam, mango bread, guacaomole dip, spaghetti sauce, smoothies and milkshakes joined the lineup along with fresh fruits and vegetables. Next field-to-table items in the pipeline: grilled tomato sandwiches and tomato soup.

As the business expands, the Whitneys hope to create ``a Norman Brothers kind of place where you come to eat and relax and just enjoy yourself,'' says Glenn, referring to the landmark Kendall produce market. ``We want this to be a place you experience.''

``They have lots of places to sit, so I always stick around to talk,'' says customer Joan Cortez, who stops by two or three times a week. ``They're the nicest people going. They have the perfect personality for what they're doing.''

Her favorite item? ''They have a Key lime pie that is to die for.''

``They have this vision of what they want to do and how they want to make people feel when they're here,'' says Glenn's sister, Robin Cromer, who moved from Orlando with her husband, Tim, to help with the operation.

The Whitneys, Cromer says, are not afraid to experiment. Case in point: the hydroponic stackers suggested to them by Miami-Dade County Agriculture Manager Charles LaPradd as a way to maximum space.

They now have about 5,000 plants -- broccoli, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries, even corn -- growing in a perlite and vermiculite medium in white poly-styrene stacked pots. Glenn dreams of expanding to 150,000 plants.

``It's amazing how this saves space,'' he says, leading a visitor down the tidy rows. ``You can put 100,000 plants on an acre, and you use 80 percent less water.''

They've also added a post on the east side of the property so trail riders can tie their horses when they stop by for a snack. A bucket of water and fresh carrots are provided, too.

One Sunday a month, they invite customers on their growing e-mail list to a potluck. They cook the main dish and guests -- usually 20 to 30 -- others provide the sides.

Most customers spot the place driving by or hear about it from friends. Nancy Moller of West Kendall found out about Whitney's from Cortez, a fellow teacher at Oliver Hoover Elementary. Moller comes for the fresh herbs and red sauce.

``It's great to get away the commercial and boxed stuff,'' she says. ``Every time I'm in the area I make sure to stop by.''

Christine, 44, comes from a New Jersey farming family that also ran a restaurant and catering company. Glenn,50, was born and raised in Cutler Ridge (now known as Cutler Bay). His dad, a Marine colonel, and mom, a Julliard-trained musician, kept their six children busy with sports, music lessons and church activities. As a kid, Glenn ran his own lawn service and washed dishes at a restaurant.

Though he eventually raced cars in the Florida Pro Series, he stayed in the restaurant business for a while, learning to make everything from spaghetti sauce to subs. Recipes he perfected in that past life have become the inspiration for the products he now sells. His guacamole dip, for instance, is flavored with unusual ingredients: crushed pistachio nuts and goat cheese.

When he brought Christine out to the Redland for the first time in the late 1990s, ``I thought, `Wow! This is a little piece of heaven,' '' she recalls.

Now they spend 12-plus-hour days baking, cooking, cleaning, picking fruit, trimming trees. Their three teenage daughters join them on weekends.

``Being outdoors and working with family is how life should be,'' Christine says. ``I love it. We eat lunch together, we plan together. We cook and eat fresh produce together.''

``Yep,'' quips Glenn. ``Being out here is also about as close I can get to playing golf.''

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