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A tale of two brothers

July/August 2014 California Bountiful magazine

Farm's reach now includes city stores


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When Josephina Fennessey walks into Stehly Farms Market in the urban San Diego neighborhood of Bay Park, she is greeted with the aroma of farm-fresh oranges, pears and strawberries and eye-catching displays of carrots, butter lettuce, frisee and other produce.


Brothers Noel, left, and Jerome Stehly are third-generation farmers operating retail stores in San Diego.

She shops at the store a few times a week, usually after she takes her children to school.

"There's nothing more powerful than knowing you're supporting a local, family-run business," Fennessey said. "You know where the food is coming from and that they select their goods carefully."

Stehly Farms Market is indeed a family business, but with a twist: Brothers Jerome and Noel Stehly are farmers who have added grocery stores in the city as an extension of their farm. Their store stocks not only the fruits and vegetables they grow, but also includes produce from other farmers and grocery items that enable customers to create a complete meal.

The 1,800-square-foot store, located in a small shopping center near Sea World San Diego, is filled with organic produce, as well as an eclectic assortment of organic pastas, sauces, salad dressings, snacks, meat, eggs, breads, pickles and dairy products, including cheese, milk and ice cream. It's the first of three retail outlets to be opened by Jerome and Noel, who are fifth- and seventh-born of seven Stehly siblings.

And while they are now grocery entrepreneurs, the brothers certainly didn't start out that way.


Bay Park is the first of three San Diego neighborhoods to be served by Stehly Farms Market.

From farm to store
The Stehly family has deep roots in agriculture—their grandfather began farming in Orange County in the 1920s. As the city grew, their father relocated in 1964 to San Diego County. Today, there are many Stehlys, including siblings and cousins, among the approximately 6,500 farmers that comprise San Diego County's agricultural community.

Jerome and Noel own Stehly Farms Organics, a nearly 300-acre farm in Valley Center, an hour north of the city, where they grow avocados, oranges, berries and vegetables.


Co-owner and farmer Jerome Stehly, left, talks with store manager Andru Moshe.

The decision by farmers to open retail stores, as unusual as it is, is somewhat typical for Jerome and Noel.

For example, when they married "city girls," as they call their wives, they opted to live in the city and commute to the farm every day. In another unconventional move, the brothers in 2002 switched from raising 80,000 chickens to growing organic fruits and vegetables—and kept just 350 chickens.

When Jerome brought up the idea of opening a retail store early last year, Noel jumped on it.

"I'd thought about it for years, but I never proposed the idea because I didn't want Jerome and our families to think I was crazy," Noel laughed.


Customers Pam Rosemier, left, and Evelyn Ayres browse the produce selection, complete with oranges, and other fresh fruits and vegetables grown by the store owners and other local farmers.

Familiar with the city, the Stehlys knew there were several neighborhoods where residents had to travel far to buy farm-fresh produce or wait for the weekly farmers market. They believed these were ideal locations for small grocery stores that would be open seven days a week.

"I used to drive past those areas every day for 20 years," Noel said. "It was just a food desert before."

Retail means detail
Within six months of floating the idea, the Stehlys opened their first store. Initially, they thought they could do it themselves, Noel recalled, but soon realized the endeavor required solid retail experience. They turned to Andru Moshe, who had run similar stores in the Napa Valley.


Kelly Lecko, left, and Alexis Harris prepare drinks at the store's juice bar, which garners rave reviews from customers.

As store manager, Moshe handles the daily tasks of running the Bay Park market, including training staff and preparing displays. She also finds appropriate suppliers for the groceries and for produce items not grown on Stehly Farms.

And it was she who pushed for a juice bar, an idea the Stehlys initially resisted because they wanted to gauge the store's success before expanding its scope. When they did add the juice bar and saw its popularity, "we quickly realized the juice bar should go in first in future stores," Noel said.


Josephina Fennessey has made shopping at her neighborhood Stehly Farms Market part of her regular routine.

Customer after customer who walks in on any given day heads straight to the juice bar before exploring the fresh produce or shopping for groceries.

"We perfect our recipes and we taste and re-taste," Moshe said of the juice bar's offerings. "Take sweet potatoes: I don't know anyone who uses it in their drinks, but we combine it with carrots, fresh turmeric, ginger, cardamom and lemon."

Longtime residents, including Mary Kay Waters, remember how they used to drive 20 minutes or more to get a smoothie. Now, they rave about the quality of the beverages in the neighborhood market.

"When my sister was visiting me, she'd stop by the store twice a day for the juice drinks," Waters said. "When she left, she said that would be one of the things she'd miss about San Diego."


Solar panels power the office and packing operation at Stehly Farms Organics.

Location, location, location
Choosing the right locations for their stores has been critical, the Stehlys said. The first store has a seafood restaurant around the corner and a brewery close by, and its success played a significant role in the brothers' decision to open more stores sooner than originally planned.

"I literally stumbled on this location—it used to be a guitar store that went out of business," Jerome said. "I found two other locations the same way, and they were too good to let go."

Within the first year of opening their farm-to-retail business, the brothers found themselves launching two more stores. The second, an 800-square-foot shop in the neighborhood of South Park, opened in March. The third, a much larger 5,000-square-foot site in the historic Kensington area, is set to open this fall.


Belen Martinez sorts and packs fresh fruit.

The Stehlys credit their partnership and division of labor for achieving retail success: Noel focuses on the farm, while Jerome oversees the stores' operations.

Word travels fast. Food bloggers have anticipated the opening of each new store, and local residents thank the Stehlys for coming to their neighborhoods.

"There's a turn back to local and organic, so we're trying to become one of those neighborhood businesses," said Noel, adding that customers often stop to chat with staff before selecting their groceries.

"We give them easy-to-use, simple recipes. We want them to use fresh ingredients, cook it and hopefully share it with their friends," said Moshe, the Stehlys' store manager. "The interaction in the community around food is the most important part of all this."

Jerome also regularly interacts with customers, filling in at the check-out counter, checking on orders and occasionally munching on fruit samples.

"The best part of going into retail is seeing how much people enjoy our products," he said.

Padma Nagappan
info@californiabountiful.com

Smooth move

The juice bars at Stehly Farms Market are neighborhood hot spots that serve cool, refreshing drinks—many made with ingredients grown by the Stehly brothers or other local farmers.


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