As the author of the Taster's Choice column, I am constantly searching for new stores to get a wider variety of products for our panelists to compare. I was intrigued by a recent find from Julie Overton, mother of four and an occasional caterer.
Twice a week, Overton makes the drive from her home in Gulfport to Palmetto to stock up on meat and vegetables at a place called Detwiler's Farm Market. She loves both the quality of the food and the prices. Boneless chicken breast? $1.97 per pound. Whole chickens? $3 to $5 each.
"They have everything you can imagine down there, and the weekly sales are amazing," Overton said.
Overton learned about Detwiler's from the owner of a store in Brooksville, where she buys canning supplies.
"It's perfect if you want to buy things in season or in bulk," Overton said. "I buy my beets there because they have three different kinds, where most stores only have one. At Detwiler's, I can get red beets, golden beets and Chioggia beets to pickle."
Overton has been a member of our tasting panel since its inception 15 years ago. So when she told me about another option for buying groceries, I was all in.
The two of us made a recent trip to Detwiler's Palmetto location, the fourth and newest of the family-owned stores.
According to Steven Larkin, a spokesman for Detwiler's, the owners describe the businesses as "farm markets" rather than grocery stores.
They say they source as much local produce and meat as possible, and look to stock mostly organic products.
Henry and Natalie Detwiler started selling produce on the side of the road in Sarasota in 2002 and later moved the stand indoors, opening their flagship market in 2008. The founders and their nine children and 15 grandchildren, many of whom work in the business, also operate two stores in Sarasota and one in Venice. Their son, Sam, is president of the markets, which are decorated as red barns with rustic trimmings.
Like recent new-to-Florida stores such as Lucky's Market, shopping at Detwiler's is an experience. Customers can grab a coffee while they explore the market. On our visit, we sampled some fresh peanut butter at the entrance and some Cajun seafood dip near the deli. When we asked about corn cob bacon, advertised like everything else in the store on bright, handwritten posters, an employee said he had just prepared a batch and offered us a slice. The bacon is smoked with corn cobs for a slightly sweet flavor.
We had an equally satisfying experience at the meat counter. Overton bought her chicken breasts and we each selected short ribs for a new recipe we wanted to try. When Overton's four short ribs weighed more than mine, the butcher found a selection of meatier ribs for me. They were $5.99 a pound.
The produce department is one of the main attractions for St. Petersburg resident Kay Hodnett. Also a member of our food-tasting panel, Hodnett often joins Overton on her trips over the Sunshine Skyway to the market. She goes for the variety of apples and pears along with specialty items like rainbow carrots.
Seasonal vegetables and fruits are available in bulk. Asparagus bundles were stacked high enough to need a ladder on the morning we were there. And just beyond the vegetables was a display of pineapples that reminded me of the piles I used to see growing up in Hawaii. The store also has a self-service pineapple coring machine that we tried on our two-for-$5 pineapples.
Picnic tables are scattered about so customers can also fuel up on an acai bowl or a lobster roll prepared at the market.
In the 45,000-square-foot Palmetto store, which opened in July 2018, the Detwilers have stocked their first health and wellness department with vitamins and supplements. The newest location is the family's largest store. The original market is 6,000 square feet.
If you're looking for rows of Oreo cookies, Detwiler's isn't your store. The shelves have snack foods similar to what some health food stores feature. They also sell imported pastas and jarred sauces and Amish canned products.
"If you're looking for processed, sugary cereals or mechanically separated chicken nuggets, you might want to check out another store," reads the company website.
On any day, shoppers can enjoy ice cream, smoothies and milkshakes made from Big Olaf ice cream, a family brand from the nearby Amish community in Sarasota. And in the bakery you'll find things like molasses cookies, muffins, filled croissants and still-warm sourdough bread.
Ryan Fletcher, marketing administrator for the company, said Henry and Natalie Detwiler spend most of their time in the bakery department these days.
"The Detwilers have their family recipes that have been handed down over generations along with new recipes created over the years," he said. "Even Grace Detwiler, one of the youngest kids, is bringing new recipes to the store. We scratch-make pies, plus homemade cookies and breads. We love to work with local vendors and their products in our grocery aisles. Everything from milk (Dakin Dairy) to eggs (Sutter's Farm) to coffee to seasonings and sauces" is local, he said.
The store also sells local raw honey, locally squeezed orange juice and real maple syrup.
"And we're constantly improving," according to the website. "We're using less sugar, we're moving away from artificial sweeteners in our sugar-free products, and we're moving towards using free-range eggs in all of our baked goods."
Contact Kathy Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org.