Thursday, February 22, 2018
Cooking

The Citrus Place, one of the last holdouts in independent Florida citrus, is serving up fresh juice in Terra Ceia

TERRA CEIA

Barry Broder's customers start asking for "the good orange juice" in early fall. For 17 years, he has been stopping at the Citrus Place on his way to work from Bradenton to stock up.

Broder tells his customers at his Bayway Country Store & Butcher Shop in St. Petersburg to be patient. Sometimes they have to wait until the week of Thanksgiving for the juice. Even then, he warns customers that the first half-gallons are not as sweet as later supplies.

Broder likes the sweetness of the freshly squeezed juice almost as much as the local flavor of his friend Ben Tillett, who produces the coveted nectar of Florida oranges at the shop just south of the Sunshine Skyway bridge in Manatee County.

"He's important to the fabric of the community," said Broder of the 85-year-old businessman.

Tillett has been making and selling juice at the Citrus Place for 42 years. He and his family have a history in Terra Ceia that he thinks could date back to the late 1880s.

Today, he is one of the last citrus growers and producers in the small community. In fact, he's one of the last independent holdouts of the Florida citrus boom.

Tillett was born in 1931 in the two-story house that still stands on the property at the junction of U.S. 19 and Interstate 275. He lived there until 2005, when he sold the house and a portion of 10 acres of family land to someone planning a boat storage facility that never developed.

But he kept the Citrus Place.

Production notes

Every day at 8:30 a.m., he shows up for work, begins with a strong cup of coffee and makes no excuse for drinking lots of it throughout the day. He answers the phone, serves customers and supervises production of his juice with the help of his son, Sidney, who manages the juice plant.

Carefully labeled as "citrus" juice and not strictly "orange" juice, Tillett's brand can include select ingredients.

"Sometimes he'll juice a navel or mix Murcott oranges and tangerines and get a deeper color and a lot more sweetness," said Broder, who once spent a season working for Tillett at the plant.

Visitors to Tillett's roadside store can sample slices of oranges used in the juice. On a recent morning, Tillett was offering navels and honeybells, along with flame grapefruit used in his grapefruit juices. He squeezes citrus two to three times per week.

And twice a week, as long as the season lasts, Broder stops by to pick up a total of 90 half-gallons for his store. (A half-gallon of juice from the Citrus Place sells for $5.50. Broder gets $5.99 from his customers in St. Petersburg.)

"In the summer, when I can't get his juice, I only sell about 15 half-gallons of regular orange juice," Broder said.

To make the juice, oranges are unloaded into a barn behind the store, where they are washed and peeled. They are squeezed inside the store by a machine that chills and stirs the juice until it is bottled. Tillett then stamps each juice jug with a two-week expiration date.

Tillett's juice is unpasteurized, which means it is not heated to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria or microorganisms. It can be dangerous for individuals with weakened immune systems. But Tillett said he has never heard of anyone getting sick from drinking his juice.

His production is regulated by Florida's Department of Agriculture, which monitors the processes of washing and juicing the fruit. Because it is unpasteurized, Tillett is also required to send a sample of his juice to a state certified lab once a week to be tested for E. coli bacteria.

"We have a file stretching back a very long time, and we've never once had a problem," he said.

Tillett juices fruit until right after Easter. After that, he freezes what he has left in stock, and customers can buy the frozen jugs from his store until they are gone.

"We used to open the last Monday of October and close the last weekend in May. But now we can sell it much longer by freezing around 200 half-gallons," he said.

Although in 2016, he said he ran out of even the frozen juice before the end of summer.

Fresh juice and more

In the burgeoning citrus years of the early 1980s, Tillett was a member of the Florida Gift Fruit Shippers Association and sold nearly 4,000 boxes of citrus each season. He left the association a few years ago, and now hand-packs oranges in prepaid U.S. postal boxes to fulfill out-of-state orders.

The limited supply of fresh oranges is one reason Tillett continually adds other products to his store. He sells tangerine marmalades and a variety of jams as well as cheeses from the Midwest and jars of pickled vegetables.

A local favorite is his orange and vanilla soft-serve ice cream.

Customers also stop by to visit with Tillett's wife of 60 years, Vera, who works in the shop and sells her knitted scarves, sweaters and capes in the gift shop.

Before going into the citrus business, the Tilletts had careers as local educators. Tillett started the grove as a U-pick business on the side of the busy highway when he was still teaching. But citrus was in his blood; his family had been in the business of maintaining groves in Manatee and Hillsborough counties. And his son still operates the fertilizing equipment and has contracts to spray a few local properties.

Tillett has kept the Citrus Store going through the highs and lows of the citrus industry. He has weathered the diseases of canker and greening and other statewide citrus catastrophes, and is thankful that his grove has never suffered a freeze.

Diseases and weather are what put most small-grove owners out of business. Donna Garrin, executive vice president of the Florida Gift Fruit Shippers Association, said membership has dropped from a high of 140 to 50 today.

"Rather than rebuild on those lost groves it was just cheaper to plant houses," Garrin said of most of the former growers. "The owners left now have been in business for 100 years and they are just going to stay. They are going to ride it out."

That's Tillett's plan. He continues to work on the 6-acre property, experimenting each year with new plantings. Recently, he and his son added lychee trees to the grove.

"They produced a little bit of fruit last year, so we'll see what happens," he said.

Broder often lingers at the Citrus Shop when he picks up his juice.

"I try to help him with upkeep and to stay modern," said Broder, who recently replaced the lights in Tillett's walk-in cooler with LED bulbs. "I just got him to start taking credit cards again, too."

Tillett said he has no problem embracing change. But he won't compromise on his freshly squeezed juice.

"All you have to do is taste it," said Tillett. "Our customers, year after year, tell us we have the best juice anywhere."

Contact Kathy Saunders at [email protected]

     
   
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