Check out images from Richard Turcsik’s trip to Shady Maple Farms Market.
With hundreds of items made fresh from scratch daily, local produce straight off the farm and a 200-foot buffet, Shady Maple Farm Market is a literal feast for the senses.
At Shady Maple Farm Market, customers are going donuts over bananas. That is not a typo.
While bananas are the top-selling item in most supermarkets, donuts have quickly become Shady Maple’s biggest seller since the grocer began making them fresh overnight and throughout the day a year ago in the store’s gargantuan second floor bakery plant. “People come in just because of our donuts,” says Lin Weaver, Shady Maple Farm Market’s general manager and co-owner. “Donuts are the No. 1 selling item in the entire store, which is crazy. I don’t know of any other store out there that is like that. We sell more donuts than bananas.”
Take one look at the four-sided service donut case and it is easy to see why. There are sour cream crullers along with glazed and double-glazed, apple fritters, blueberry fritters, unfilled long johns, cream-filled long johns and vanilla iced sprinkled, but it is the selection of jelly donuts that puts Dunkin’ Donuts to shame. Raspberry, raspberry cream, lemon, lemon cream, cherry, strawberry, strawberry cream and blueberry cream are just a few flavors. And given that some of these puppies weigh a good quarter-pound each, at $6.39 a dozen they are quite the bargain. In a nod to Krispy Kreme, a red “Donuts Hot & Fresh NOW” sign glows over the main bakery aisle.
Scrumptious donuts are just one of the dozens—make that hundreds—of reasons that people trek from near and far to shop at Shady Maple. Located in the hamlet of East Earl in the heart of Lancaster County, Pa.’s Amish Country, Shady Maple is a good 10 miles off U.S. 222, the nearest divided highway. Yet some 60% of the store’s customers drive 40 miles or more from Berks County (Reading, Pa.) and Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs to partake of the store’s offerings. Many even bring in reusable bags from Wegmans, 25 miles away in Downingtown.
“They come for the ‘wow’ factor,” says Elwood Martin, president. “When they go into our produce department, it is just like ‘Wow!’”
That’s because the produce department covers some 4,000 square feet, which is bigger than the 3,000-square-foot IGA store that Weaver’s family opened on the site in 1970. Weaver’s grandfather began the business by opening a farmer’s market underneath a maple tree, thus the Shady Maple moniker. Today an exact replica of the market, complete with a faux maple tree, lines one wall.
Produce pulls them in
“Produce is the keystone of our business,” Martin says. “That and the deli. Everything is from scratch, and you’re talking some 110 items out there. We have 300 items in our bakery and 85% of that is from scratch.”
During a late summer visit shoppers were swarming produce stocking up on the bargains, such as the the 99 cents a pound local Pennsylvania nectarines, half the price of those at Weis and two-thirds cheaper than Giant. Two days later only two cases remained in what was a four pallet display of stacked 25-pound boxes.
“On perishables we destroy [chains] on price; we’re way, way cheaper,” Weaver says. “On groceries I would say that we’re about the same.”
“People will drive past the chain stores for the uniqueness,” Martin adds.
It is with produce where being a one-unit independent is an advantage over 200-unit chains, Weaver says. “It is a total game changer. We can spot buy and get deals and things like that. If we had five or 10 stores our whole business model would have to shift and I definitely prefer this way. It has a different uniqueness.”
That is why unlike at the chains, Shady Maple customers can still buy fruit by the peck, half-bushel and bushel. “A lot of people in this area buy bulk,” Weaver says. “Like when Jersey blueberries are in season, I go down there and literally get trailer loads at a time. We’ll sell them by the 20-pound case and they just fly out of here.”
The way Shady Maple sources its traditional groceries is also unique. The store is supplied by Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu out of its Lancaster Acme Markets warehouse. “From my point of view, we are blessed to deal with Supervalu,” Martin says. “Because they are only eight miles away from us we haul our own groceries. That is huge for us. We leave a trailer there and pick it up every day. We take an empty trailer, drive it down and pick up our full trailer. That way we don’t run into any logistical nightmares. And they’ve been good. They have the trucks ready on time. That is important to us.”
Shady Maple uses Robesonia, Pa.-based AWI as a secondary wholesaler, along with dozens of other smaller vendors for specific items such as meats and cheeses. Another way Shady Maple keeps prices low is that about five years ago it established Weaverland Foods—its own wholesale operation—to source product for its store and Smorgasbord restaurant (see sidebar). Weaverland operates out of warehouse space attached to the Shady Maple store. “The other side of Weaverland Foods is that they have the opportunity to take out and sell to the schools, stores and restaurants in the vicinity, a radius of 50 miles or so,” Martin says.
A wholesale bakery is also part of the operation. “We sell to 40-plus wholesalers that go to three-day markets all over eastern Pennsylvania,” Martin says.
In-store, the bakery carries a wide variety of cakes and pies, including that Pennsylvania Dutch staple shoofly pie, but the breads are what draw many shoppers to the department. About two dozen varieties are stocked on a daily basis. Most are unique signature creations, such as bacon, egg & cheese bread, peach crumb bread and pineapple bread.
Just about the only thing that can top the variety of breads at Shady Maple is the selection of smoked meats, smoked at one of two onsite smokehouses. “Our display case is 24 feet of 100 different varieties of smoked meats that are all made in-house,” Martin says. “Nobody can really compete with that.”
Items include turkey parts, ham, kielbasa, sausage, ring bologna, chicken and local breakfast phenomenon scrapple, a brick-shaped concoction usually made from pork trimmings and byproducts such as pig snouts. “The best-selling item in this whole case is the scrapple,” Weaver says. “A lot of people make it using byproducts, but we use all quality pork products, like butts and thighs, some corn meal and a little molasses. You slice it thin and just fry it up until it is crispy and it is really good. It just sells like crazy for us.”
Another department doing booming business is the deli/processed meats case. “I think people’s budgets are a little more confined and instead of buying steak they are buying more lunchmeat and things like that,” Weaver says.
The economic situation may also explain the increased popularity of Shady Maple’s huge bulk section. There’s a wide assortment of teas, oats, coffee creamer, flavored gelatin and pudding mixes, pastas, several dozen kinds of candy, nuts and snacks, like okra chips and cinnamon honey pretzels. “We package everything in-house and everything is tamper-proof,” Weaver says. “It also keeps it much fresher.”
But in contrast, high-ticket gourmet items such as imported cheeses, are also strong sellers.
“We have two kinds of shoppers here,” Weaver says. “Some are on a really, really tight budget and then we have what we call the ‘high-heeled clientele’ for whom money isn’t an issue. They’ll buy the big lobsters and whatever they want. A lot of them are city people and they don’t even look at the price. They know we have good buys and the quality so they just grab whatever they want,” he says, picking up a chunk of $12.99 a pound Pecorino Romano cheese. “In Wegmans this would be $19.99 a pound. That is what they are looking at. To a lot of my [local] customers this seems crazy, but to a Wegmans shopper this is a bargain and so they are stocking up.”
Shady Maple Farm Market reaches those shoppers via advertising.
“We do a vast amount of advertising—newspaper, radio, TV, internet, social media,” Weaver says. “We put a lot of energy into marketing, but you have to. We can’t rely on the volume we already have to be successful because we are too big for that. We do Facebook and e-mail blasts; our website is getting close to 40,000 hits every week, and we have 70,000 Facebook friends.”
Given skyrocketing gas prices, Shady Maple needs all the loyal friends it can get. “When gas was over $4, about a year or two ago, it really hurt our customer count, but as long as it is under $4 we are OK,” Weaver says. “When it is over $4, consumers mentally shut down and can’t justify the drive.”
To combat gas prices, Shady Maple, which does not have a loyalty card program, instituted a Gas Rewards Program that gives shoppers 5 cents off a gallon of gas at a local partnering station for every $50 they spend in one visit. “If they buy $200 worth of groceries they’ll get 20 cents off a 12-gallon purchase at our local gas station. That incentive helps justify the trip,” Weaver says.
“We are definitely a destination and not a drive-by site,” Weaver says. “We have to survive on the destination theory. A lot of people tell us one of the reasons they come out is to get out of their city atmosphere and drive through the farmland, look at the beautiful scenery, experience Shady Maple and our restaurant. It is a mini outing for them.”
And when they get into their car for that trip back to the city chances are they will look at all they purchased and say, “Wow!”