PMA Fresh Connections - Retail April 10-11, 2019 - Philadelphia, PA

Wish Farms: A Labor of Love

Gary Wishnatzki’s story begins in the midst of 1974’s nationwide trucking strike. As road closures continued and supplies piled up, Gary, along with his father Joe and Uncle Lester, knew that something needed to be done. The three men alerted the local media to spread the word: They would be selling strawberries to the public off the dock.

Gary Wishnatzki, Owner, Wish FarmsPeople responded immediately, forming into what Gary recalls as a “circus atmosphere.” One woman walked around the line and came up to Gary as he passed strawberries into the crowd below. She asked him, “Sonny, could you tell me where Frantic Farmers is?” Puzzled, Gary replied, “I haven’t heard of them.” Not to be deterred, the woman pointed to a newspaper in her hand, which bore the headline: Frantic Farmers Selling Strawberries For $3 a Box.

“That would be us,” Gary told her.

It would also be his first week in the produce business.

For the owners of Wish Farms, tracing the roots of the company’s responsiveness and integrity goes all the way back to the early 1920s, when Gary’s grandfather, Harris Wishnatzki, partnered with Daniel Nathel and began selling fruits and vegetables that were bought on the New York auction market. The two sometimes purchased more than their pushcarts could handle, prompting them to start up a wholesale business. As business continued to boom, Harris decided to visit Florida to see where his strawberries were coming from. Stepping onto sunny Florida ground after a blustery winter up north, he immediately loved the area; by 1930, he’d set up buying and shipping operations in the state.

Talking to Gary, it’s easy to see that his quick-thinking and ingenuity have served him well these past 44 years. The stories he tells me connect directly to the company’s core values of quality, integrity, and responsiveness.

“We do the right thing even when people aren’t looking,” Gary explains to me. “The responsiveness, that’s really important to me, because in our business you’ve got fruits and vegetables that need to be moved right away. With such highly perishable items, you’ve got to be on your toes and be able to respond. I live that every day.”

If it’s not something that I would want to take home myself, we don’t grow it. I don’t want our farm or our grower partners growing varieties that I wouldn’t be proud to eat.

-Gary Wishnatzki, Owner, Wish Farms

To become a year-round berry supplier, and a company that’s withstood the test of 97 years, Wish Farms went through several cycles of change, or rebirth, as Gary, along with his son Nick, Marketing Projects Manager, and Director of Marketing Amber Maloney, share with me.

“When I first started, there was a bit of regrowth. My dad and my uncle were getting up in years when I started working for them, and in me they saw some youth coming back into the business. At my encouragement, they started investing some money. We bought a new facility so we could use forklifts and not have to load everything by hand,” Gary says, before telling me that this investment in modernization brought a resurgence in the company.

After dividing the business in the 1990s, Gary stuck with the Florida shipping operation while the two Nathel brothers kept the New York wholesale business. This prompted another rebirth, as Wish Farms began doing more of its own berry growing and processing. This was followed by developing a traceability system that bloomed in the mid-2000s.

Brothers Joe and Lester Wishnatzki throughout the years

But things truly began to heat up for the berry provider when it rebranded in 2009.

“We were known as Wishnatzki Farms after we split the business, and we weren’t recognized at all by consumers. During a brand survey of 400, only one could name us unaided—and that person misspelled ‘Wishnatzki.’ So I said to myself, ‘There’s an opportunity here,’ and in 2010, we launched the new brand.”

With the launch came a major surge, as growers took a shine to Wish Farms’ new icon: Misty, the Garden Pixie.

“Gary is very innovative and marketing-minded,” Amber tells me, noting that not everyone was immediately on board with Wish Farms’ new look. “Some of our growers were wondering, ‘Oh, what’s he thinking now?’ but we’ve recently had growers tell us that they wear the pixie proudly. Our growers and employees are proud of the brand that we’re creating and they’re excited about the direction the company is headed. And a lot of that is due to Gary’s forward-thinking.”

Nick is quick to second her, explaining that his father’s old-school business knowledge, coupled with his ability to see what the business needs to keep innovating, has transformed Wish Farms.

With such highly perishable items, you’ve got to be on your toes and be able to respond. I live that every day.

“He sent some people kicking and screaming into the future,” Nick says with a laugh.

Like his father, Nick doesn’t compromise on quality. As our conversation steers toward the addition of raspberries and blackberries to the company’s product mix, both men pause to tell me their rule of thumb regarding the varieties.

“If it’s not something that I would want to take home myself, we don’t grow it. I don’t want our farm or our grower partners growing varieties that I wouldn’t be proud to eat,” Gary says.

In order to provide a year-round supply of its caneberries, Wish Farms bought a farm in Santa Maria, California, on which it produces blackberries and raspberries. The company also imports berries from Mexico, and recently invested with a grower in North Carolina to build a cooler for blackberries. With East Coast, West Coast, and Mexico, Wish Farms has enough production to have year-round supplies.

“We provide all of these berries in both conventional and organic options,” Gary explains. “Our organic strawberry program is strongest, but we have supplies in all of other berries as well. We’re working to offer year-round organics across all varieties. We started an organic blueberry farm—20 acres—here in Florida several years ago.”

Family photo from left to right: Joey Peterson, James Peterson, Elizabeth Peterson, Will Peterson, Gary Wishnatzki, Therese Wishnatzki, Nick Wishnatzki, and Stephen Cramer

Leading the charge in organics in the early 2000s, Wish Farms moved out of the greenhouse and into the open field.

“We were one of the first, and now we’re up to a couple hundred acres of organics. We’re one of the largest organic strawberry growers in the state of Florida,” Gary shares.

And Wish Farms only continues to push the envelope, looking across the berry fields and toward a horizon bright with promise. The latest development in the company is its new headquarters, due for completion at the end of 2020’s first quarter.

“I truly believe we are going to be the best business in Florida to work for,” Gary begins excitedly. The new headquarters are a passion project of his, and it’s obvious from the moment he begins speaking of it. “We’re going to have a large warehouse, a four-acre organic blueberry farm, 18,000 square feet of solar, and a treehouse meeting room.”

A treehouse fit for Misty, no doubt.

Gary leaves me with a final thought, one that neatly sums up Wish Farms’ ingenuity: If you aren’t innovating, you’re not growing. And if you’re not growing, you’re dying.