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Friends open fresh-produce market in Citrus Park

CITRUS PARK

It was 2009 and the recession was closing in on them.

For Jason Garrett, who worked for GE Capital selling machinery, sales of bulldozers and excavators were slowing down.

Building projects were scarce for Jon Drane, a construction worker for Sanford Homes.

But they had an idea.

They would combine their skills and guide their own fate.

The result is J&J Farms produce market on Ehrlich Road, which the pair opened about a month ago. It is quickly becoming a favorite among commuters and neighbors alike.

"You look at what's going on in the economy, this is not a four-wheeler or a boat, it's not a hobby," Garrett said about the decision to open a produce market. "It's a necessity — it's food."

J&J's offers the basics like apples and oranges and harder-to-find items like purple scallions and English peas. There's also a selection of hometown favorites, including boiled peanuts and fresh-squeezed orange juice. The owners stock Amish-prepared jams and butter as well.

At their core, they say, is the desire to offer fresh products at a lower price.

But their produce stand goes deeper than that. Both men spent much of their childhoods learning how to grow food from the earth.

Garrett, 36, says he spent his summers in Brooksville, helping his Grandma Verlie and Grandpa Preston on their large citrus farm.

Drane, 28, loved picking corn in his Grandpa Hobie's 15-acre garden in Duluth, Ga.

A decade ago, they met and became friends. By 2008, they were laying the groundwork for a venture reminiscent of their childhood.

Drane had started running a produce stand in Zephyrhills during the lull in the construction business.

For lunch, Garrett would stop by Drane's market, which was in his territory for machinery sales. They often talked about crops and ideas to run a business.

In 2009, "when the construction business went in the crapper," Drane said, their conversations turned into real plans.

They spent last summer researching the business and potential locations.

"I saw moms coming and going, the traffic flow, and it had easy in and out access," Garrett said about the property at 7615 Ehrlich Road, between Citrus Park Christian School and Citrus Park Animal Bird & Exotics Hospital.

Family members pitched in to refurbish the dilapidated convenience store that was at the site.

The result is an open-air farmers market that one might find along a county road. A mural of a blue sky with clouds, a red barn and bright, colorful fruits and veggies on both sides of the building make it distinctive along busy Ehrlich.

Painted by Tampa artists Jenna Zimmerman and Nancy Lydon, the mural piques the interest of passing kids and the produce lures their parents, Drane jokes.

Amanda Grizzaffe, a preschool teacher at Citrus Park Christian next door, plans to bring her class to the market for a field trip.

"We're talking about farms in class," Grizzaffe said, "so it's the perfect place to bring them."

J&J sees a variety of customers. Some stock up for the week, while others pick up a tomato or two on their way home from work.

"We needed this," said Anne-Marie Marquise, a mother of two who works at Citrus Park Mall. "The ability to endorse local farmers, saving money and the freshness is huge for me."

The personal touch

Even though it has only been a month, Garrett and Drane know many customers by name and freely dole out advice.

Drane recently explained to a customer that Amish rolled butter can be kept unrefrigerated much longer than regular butter.

When a man wearing a straw hat and denim shirt strolls in, Drane greets him. "How you doing today, Mr. Garrett?"

No relation to Jason, Don Garrett, 78, is a former farmer who has lived in Citrus Park since 1956. He comes in several times a week to pick up odds and ends. "It's good to have it so close by," he said.

The market strives for a down-home feel and accepts special orders; hence a few cartons of quail eggs in the cooler. A customer from Texas likes to boil them and put them on his salad, Garrett said.

Dollars and sense

Prices keep some coming back.

This week, for example, Globe grapes sold for $2.49 a pound at J&J Farms, compared with almost $3 at Publix.

"I'm looking for the most inexpensive product with the best quality," said Martha McCorry, a single mom from Carrollwood. "I'm a Walmart Supercenter shopper, but I'm finding these prices to be cheaper."

Drane and Garrett, who earned a bachelor's degree in business management from the University of South Florida, say they keep their prices low in part by promoting quick turnover.

Each morning the men go to area farmers markets, including the Tampa Wholesale Produce Market on E Hillsborough Avenue, to buy the day's supply of produce.

Both the men have nicks on their hands and a tiredness in their eyes that is synonymous with long hours and manual labor. But neither one is complaining.

"It's not the money," Garrett said. "This is a dream of ours."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or nhutcheson@sptimes.com.

Friends open fresh-produce market in Citrus Park 03/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 11, 2010 3:30am]

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