Visiting the gift shop at a local citrus grove is a combination of the old and the new. These shops offer an atmosphere of Americana and provide glimpses of Old Florida. At the same time, they fit in beautifully with the current interest in locally grown food. And although citrus grove gift shops might seem like an endangered species now, some are still thriving in Vero Beach.
Among them is Schacht Groves on Twelfth Street, a family business that has spanned four generations. Louis Schacht explains that it was started by his grandfather in 1950. “He always wanted to own a grove,” Schacht says, packing grapefruit as he reminisces. His grandfather had lived in North Carolina and cherished memories of a visit to California’s citrus country; yet he found himself seemingly trapped in a mundane job as a traveling auto parts salesman. “He got a little disenchanted with that,” Schacht explains. Then, he took a trip to Florida to see his son—Louis’s father—play in a college baseball game. On the spur of the moment, he decided to buy some property. “It’s a tad random,” his grandson says with a smile, “but I guess that’s how everybody gets into different lines of work.”
For his part, Louis Schacht enjoys the seasonal nature of the work, with very busy winters and somewhat slower-paced summers. He also loves the continuing variety. “You’re dealing with the land, you’re dealing with the weather, you’re dealing with people. No two days are alike.”
Along with fresh oranges and grapefruit, there are familiar items that can be found at any citrus grove shop: marmalades and preserves; local honey; orchids and other flowers; and old-time Florida souvenirs such as jars of seashells or the teeth of alligators and sharks. The selection consists of “things that go hand in hand with a fruit stand in Florida.”
While the souvenirs are deliberately retro, Schacht Groves’ Farm-to-Table dining concept is very up-to-date. In collaboration with chef Michael Lander of Michael’s on 7th, as well as various local producers, Schacht Groves holds outdoor dining events with menus including beef, chicken, pork, and fish. Healthful and delicious local food is paired with beer and wine, and meals are accompanied by live music. The events are often sold out.
Browse through the fruit selection at Peterson Groves and Nursery on Sixty-sixth Avenue, and, depending on the time of year, you may find a few surprises along with the usual suspects. How about variegated pink lemons? Yes, that’s a real fruit. It’s an exotic-looking specimen with green stripes on its yellow skin and a rosy hue underneath. Guavas, papayas, coconuts, and lychees can all be found growing near the orange and grapefruit trees. “We’re learning about all kinds of different plants and trying them out to see what works well in the soil,” says Eric Barkwell, who owns and runs Peterson Groves along with his wife, Tiffany.
The Barkwells purchased the company from the Peterson family in 2013. The land had been cultivated by the Petersons for a century before that, and some of the buildings on the property date to the 1920s. The Barkwells are appreciative of that history and thankful to be able to carry on traditions. With a red-and-white barn on the property and chickens that sometimes wander into the gift shop parking lot, Peterson’s has an unmistakable vibe of rural Americana. Another attraction is homemade ice cream in the popular vanilla-and-orange flavor combination. The orange ice cream is, of course, made with the groves’ own freshly squeezed juice.
For family history in Florida citrus, it would be hard to get much farther back than Sid Banack of Countryside Citrus. He traces his ancestry to a Minorcan indentured servant at the New Smyrna colony in the eighteenth century. New Smyrna was established during the period of British rule in Florida. The colony’s founder, a doctor named Andrew Turnbull, recruited colonists in the Mediterranean and then brought them to Florida by ship. The colony was a failure, destroyed by disease, drought, crop failures, and charges of cruelty by overseers.
Banack relates that his ancestors were among those who broke away. “Turnbull did not fulfill his promises to them, and they started their own citrus grove.” In more recent generations, Banack’s father and grandfather both built railroads for the United Fruit Company and worked for the Panama Canal Company. In fact, Banack was born in
Panama and came to the United States for high school and then college, at which time he got involved in the Florida citrus industry that had long been a part of his family’s history.
Countryside Citrus has a beachside shop on Ocean Drive, but the Farm Store itself is located on Eighty-first Street. The history of the property is associated with Banack’s brother-in-law, Fred Van Antwerp, now aged 82, whose grandfather bought the property and whose father planted many of the groves. Today, Countryside Citrus is still a peaceful place that includes a wooded area with nature trails and a pond inhabited by turtles. Van Antwerp’s father used to feed the turtles twice a day, every day. The tranquility of the spot seems to have done him good; he led a contented life, and he lived to be 100 years old. For the intermarried Banack and Van Antwerp families, Countryside Citrus is a special place.
Van Antwerp’s wife, Florence, mentions another benefit of such traditional groves—one that dovetails with the current interest in locally grown food: “It gives the families of the area a place to bring their children in safety and enjoy a farm.” It is a way for the children to learn “that a chicken is not just something that came from the Publix freezer!” The intimate atmosphere also benefits the product, allowing the fruit to go through a level of quality control that would be impossible on a large scale.
Of course, everyone who works at a citrus grove must have his or her own favorite fruit, right? For Banack, “it’s the honeybell, for sure.” Eric Barkwell agrees: “The flavor is very good, and they’re very juicy.” Barkwell also loves grapefruit, especially the dark reds. “And I actually like the old Duncan whites,” he adds, though this old-time variety is less popular now because it has a lot of seeds. Louis Schacht selects the temple orange as his favorite fruit; it also has more seeds than newer varieties, but he finds the flavor to be well worth it.
Along with enjoying their own products, the folks at Schacht Groves, Peterson Groves, and Countryside Citrus all share an appreciation for the Florida traditions they are helping to preserve. “There used to be a ton of Florida roadside stands, and now there are hardly any. Vero’s pretty fortunate,” says Schacht.
Banack recalls, “When I was a little boy and I would come to Florida on vacation, it seemed like every farm that had a little grove would have a fruit stand. You would see a big sign saying, ‘All You Can Drink Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice—5 cents.’ Now, there are very few of these fruit stands left.” That’s all the more reason to appreciate the grove shops that we
still have. `