PLANT CITY — Question the utility of a slide shooting down through faux live oaks in the lobby of Wish Farms’ corporate headquarters, and owner Gary Wishnatzki will be quick to set you straight.
“I use it almost every day,” Wishnatzki said. “It’s the quickest way to get down.”
Aesthetically, the slide works in Wish Farms’ whimsical new Plant City headquarters, even if it feels generations removed from the old railside quarters where Wishnatzki’s father and grandfather grew a North American strawberry distribution dynasty. Those buildings have nothing on Wish Farms’ new 36-acre corporate compound, including a 138,000-square-foot warehouse, nearly 30,000-square-foot headquarters and cozy corporate treehouse just off Interstate 4.
The packing warehouse opened in 2020, the headquarters in 2021. But it’s this year that Wish Farms’ long, grand reopening — which in some ways is also a rebranding — has finally hit full steam.
2022 marks Wish Farms’ 100th anniversary — a century since Wishnatzki’s Russian-Jewish immigrant grandfather started selling produce from a pushcart in New York City. Wishnatzki has chronicled the business in a new book, Generations of Sweetness: Stories That Shaped My Family and the Journey to Wish Farms, which serves as both a family memoir and overview of the history of Florida’s strawberry trade.
Wish Farms is still an international agricultural concern, but it’s embraced a quirkier local image through its pixie iconography and trendy pineberries — a whitish-pink strawberry cultivated by Florida researchers and marketed as “Pink-a-Boos.” And it’s opening its colorful new campus to more and more visitors. On Nov. 12, the company will host its second Pixie Rock charity concert, headlined by ZZ Top and benefitting charities like Feeding Tampa Bay and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association.
No one is happier to see the place come to life than Wishnatzki.
“I figure I’m only going to build a new headquarters once, and it’s part of my legacy,” he said. “I oversaw the whole project from start to finish. I didn’t really want anybody to make too many crazy changes. I had all my crazy ideas already incorporated.”
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Old business, new digs
Decades before any of Gary Wishnatzki’s ideas came to fruition, his grandfather Gershon “Harris” Wishnatzki and partner Daniel Nathel had their own big plans. They’d travel from New York to Plant City to buy fresh berries at auction and ship them by rail to wholesalers around the country — a feat of timing in those days that was tricky to perfect, and helped cement Plant City’s reputation as the winter strawberry capital.
Two of Harris Wishnatzki’s sons, Joe and Lester, took over the business in the ‘50s; Gary took the reins in the ‘80s. He was eager to evolve the brand, experimenting with a retail store and getting into the business of growing its own berries, not just buying from others. But until the Nathel family spun off half the company in 2001, the company then known as Wishnatzki Farms was still more or less a traditional distributor, working out of buildings near the Plant City Farmers Market.
But as Wishnatzki writes in Generations of Sweetness: “I began to recognize that we needed a stronger identity if we wanted to be a leading national brand. Something easier to sell — and pronounce — than Wishnatzki.”
Misty is the strawberry blonde pixie from Wish Farms’ logo, the one who adorns strawberry baskets from coast to coast. She was a creation of Tampa ad agency ChappellRoberts, Wishnatzki said, and the company put her front and center when it rebranded to Wish Farms in 2010.
The cute name and logo belies Wish Farms’ scope and scale. The company processes more than 100 million pounds of strawberries, 35 million pounds of blueberries and 14 million pounds of blackberries and raspberries annually. Less than half of that comes from Florida, and only 40% of the Florida crop comes from Wishnatzki family farms. The rest comes from growers not just across the Southeast, but California, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru.
Yet something about the rebrand took root. When the time came to build a new headquarters, Wishnatzki took a more modern and fanciful approach, turning to St. Petersburg architects Behar + Peteranecz and Tampa interior designers Create+Co to create a modern campus inspired by nature and whimsy.
The office is decked out with wood reclaimed from the trees that once stood there, paneling rooms and desks and propping up glass tables. In the lobby stand three giant artificial trees crafted by a company in San Francisco; even up close, they’re indistinguishable from the real thing. Natural light filters down to the lobby through a glass floor off the third-story boardroom.
On the second floor, there’s a bridge stretching to a cozy adult-sized treehouse, designed by a team from the reality show “The Treehouse Guys.” And tucked away behind a hidden door off a hallway, there’s a speakeasy-like enclave dubbed the “Pixie Room,” filled with jungle-like greenery and couches for anyone who needs a moment of privacy.
Wish Farms is still locally known for sponsoring country concerts at the Florida Strawberry Festival, and for its giant cutouts of farm workers propped up off I-4. But inside, it’s a thoroughly contemporary office with cozy wellness rooms, a large gym and a full-time chef preparing meals for employees. It’s the sort of expensive-looking, Silicon Valley-inspired space where you’d expect a trendy product like Pink-a-Boos to be marketed to digitally savvy consumers, many of whom have featured the fruit in TikTok videos garnering millions of likes.
“I think we got the effect we were going for,” Wishnatzki said. “It probably wasn’t economically the best thing, but it fits.”
An agricultural evolution
When Hurricane Ian hit in late September, Wish Farms had not yet put its first berries in the ground. Had Ian arrived a week later, “it would have been worse,” Wishnatzki said. “We’d probably still be able to overcome it, but it would have definitely done more damage than this one did. We consider ourselves lucky this year.”
For all Wish Farms’ modernization, it’s still in the farm business. That means sweating out late-season storms and fending off developers looking to snap up local farmland. The site off I-4 where Wish Farms built its new home base would today be a prime destination for a third-party shipping facility, like an Amazon warehouse.
“It’s worth more for warehouse land than it is for farming lands,” Wishnatzki said. “It comes down to basic economics, so it’s unfortunate. This strip of land from just east of Tampa is probably some of the best strawberry ground in the country, if not the world. It’s just really good soil.”
The company doesn’t publicly disclose annual revenues, but Wishnatzki said this fiscal year has started slower than last year, due partly to rising labor costs. Wish Farms has increasingly turned to seasonal foreign workers for harvesting through the government’s H-2A temporary agricultural program.
“We used to always hire domestic people to do that work,” he said. “We’re able to get the crops harvested and picked that way, but H-2A is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The demographics are such that labor’s going to get tighter and tighter, and even the H-2A program is at some point going to get strained to be able to take care of all the needs of feeding the world.”
A decade ago, Wishnatzki co-founded a robotics company dedicated to developing an automatic strawberry harvester called a Harvest CROO, or Computeried Robotic Optimized Obtainer. Companies across the strawberry industry, including some competitors, have since signed on to invest, but the device still a work in progress.
“It’s been a process,” Wishnatzki said.
But progress is happening, and the new headquarters is proof. In late October, Wish Farms planned to host buyers from Walmart, Costco, Aldi, Meijer and other retailers during the International Fresh Produce Association’s annual convention in Orlando — the first one held in person since before the pandemic — showcasing its campus to some of its biggest partners.
In one testing corner of a frigid packing warehouse, the company is tinkering with what Wishnatzki could be its next phase of evolution: Pixie Snax, a freeze-dried fruit snack Wish Farms has been test-marketing at local grocery stories. Like their berries, Wishnatzki thinks the company can take them nationwide.
Wish Farms has other ideas on the drawing board, including expanding its blueberry growing operations in South America. But in the short term, there’s another strawberry season around the corner. The day after the Pixie Rock concert, the new warehouse will start humming with activity as workers prepare to pack and ship berries around the country.
It’ll be only Wish Farms’ second strawberry season in its new home. Wishnatzki is confident there will be many more.
“We’re just settling in,” he said.
Wish Farms’ fundraising concert featuring ZZ Top, Bishop Briggs, Saint Motel and more is at 4 p.m. Nov. 12 at Wish Farms, 1301 Frontage Road, Plant City. $125 and up. For details, see wishfarms.com/pixie-rock-2022.