Noel and Jerome Stehly are not your stereotypical farmers, despite being third generation growers hailing from a family that has worked the land in southern California for decades.
The brothers own Stehly Farms Organics in San Diego County, where they grow citrus fruit, avocados, berries and vegetables on nearly 300 acres.
But they do things differently.
They live in San Diego and commute to their farm, which is about an hour north of the city, because they married “city girls.” And they began their own grocery stores, Stehly Farms Markets, to sell their produce and that of other select local farmers.
Unlike other growers, they don’t have farmstands because their farm is off the beaten track and they don’t own public road frontage. A few years ago, they noticed the trend toward buying local food gathering momentum. And since they lived in the city, they saw there were several underserved areas where residents had to travel far to get fresh organic produce.
Noel had toyed with the idea of opening a retail store for several years, but he didn’t bring it up until Jerome suggested it.
“I didn’t want people to think I was crazy, but when Jerome brought it up, I was excited,” Noel said.
His worry was, with all the work that the farm required, how would they find the time to expand into retail?
“But my opinion was, how can we not do it?” Jerome said. “If you do it right, it would be a great extension of our business.”
They stumbled upon the location for the first store almost by accident, when Jerome noticed a guitar shop had closed and was available for rent. It fit their needs, being neither too small nor too big. There were no other grocery stores and the area didn’t fit the demographics for the larger chain stores like Jimbo’s or Whole Foods, so they would not be competing against them.
Soon after, they opened a second store in another underserved area of the city. On the advice of an early employee, they put a juice bar in their stores, which has been a huge draw for foot traffic into the stores.
The brothers resisted the idea initially, wanting to get the store up and running before venturing into smoothies and juices, but they adapted once they saw how popular it became.
“We didn’t know some of this initially, we were amateurs, but that’s OK,” Jerome said. “In business you make mistakes, but you learn from them as quickly as possible and correct them.”
The two stores consume a good portion of their time, although they represent a small portion of their total business. The brothers make joint decisions, but Noel concentrates more on running the farm while Jerome focuses on the stores.
Local residents have appreciated having a store in their neighborhood, and many stop by before or after work or school drop-offs to pick up their favorite smoothie or juice, and stock up on groceries.
While the two stores have done well, the Stehlys are not rushing to open a chain of stores, instead biding their time and focusing on doing what they do well. Hiring experienced store managers has been key to the success of the stores.