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Family bounces back, rebuilds storm-wrecked produce stand

RIVERVIEW

It took Jeff and John Wolfe almost three years to build their produce market into a thriving business and less than three minutes for a tornado-like wind to knock it flat. After the storm hit the stand at U.S. 301 and Progress Boulevard on March 31, the twin brothers, who had no insurance, surveyed the damage: smashed tables, toppled coolers, scattered holiday decorations and broken jars of cider, barbecue sauce and salsa. Estimated cost of the devastation: $20,000, not counting loss of business. "It was a mess," said Jeff, 26. "There was stuff everywhere. There were heads of lettuce on 301. Down there in the ditch, there were celery stalks." But he said there was never a question that they would rebuild and reopen. "What are you going to do?" he asked. "You got to eat."

The following day, about two dozen friends and relatives helped clean up. Heavy equipment pushed the tents into piles, clearing the lot. The entrepreneurs' mother, Laurie Wolfe, set up a few tables under the trees and sold produce.

"That afternoon, people started coming in," Jeff said. "People were telling us they were sorry about what happened, and they made some kind of purchase."

• • •

Three days after the storm, a few tents were up and more were on order. Signs advertised a "twister sale." On the heavy-duty counter, handmade by the twins and their dad, Jeff Sr., stood a framed photo of the squashed market overlaid with the motto "Dust yourself off and try again."

"People were driving by, honking and giving us the thumbs up," Jeff said.

Family members said they were touched by friends, frequent customers and even competing produce vendors who pitched in with donations of tables, a cash register and free labor. A walk-in cooler survived, but they had to replace two other large coolers.

The new tents have enlarged the market by about 1,500 square feet, Jeff said. He also runs a tree disposal business, and he said extra work generated by the storm helped offset the produce business losses.

The Wolfes are convinced the storm that flattened the market and wreaked havoc in nearby Progress Village packed a tornado. They point to a tree 5 feet in diameter on the leased lot that snapped like a twig.

John Wolfe said he had just driven his truck into the parking lot the day the storm hit, returning from an errand to buy a lighter to restart the boiled peanut vats.

"As I pulled into the driveway, a panel of privacy fence or a limb or something took the side mirror off and put a big dent in the fender," he recalled. "I didn't realize what hit me, the wind was blowing so hard.

"Stuff was swirling in the wind — debris — you could hear sticks and little rocks hitting the truck."

His mother had fled her post among the tables filled with fruits and vegetables to the shelter of the family van. She watched as wind pushed the tents down, a pole hitting and denting the vehicle's hood. When she tried to drive away, she said, visibility was so bad she drove slowly down the side of the highway until the wind eased.

"It just happened so fast, I was just thinking about survival," she said. "It was freaky."

• • •

Amy Reid, a regular customer at the produce stand, said the sight of the flattened tents right after the storm upset her 4-year-old son, Eric, who professes a weakness for the Wolfes' red apples.

"He was so sad the fruit stand was ruined," said Reid, who lives in Riverview. "He said, 'It's a bad day.' It's amazing how quickly they had it back together."

Tom Saber called the stand a "neighborhood icon."

"Everybody comes here for their produce," said Saber, who lives in Riverview. "Everybody pitches in because it's a neighborhood gathering place."

Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

.If you go

Reopening celebration Saturday

A grand reopening is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday with free hot dogs and a bouncy house for kids. The market typically is open from 9 a.m. until dark. Call (813) 927-2203 for information.

Family bounces back, rebuilds storm-wrecked produce stand 04/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 14, 2011 4:31am]
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