PLANT CITY, Fla. — As thousands enjoy the 88th annual Strawberry Festival in Plant City, one of the longest-running strawberry growers and distributors, Wish Farms, is celebrating 101 years of sweetness.
The inaugural Plant City Strawberry Festival happened in March 1930. The Wishnatzki family’s history goes back to 1922.
Nestled right off busy Interstate 4, you’ll find the busy growing and shipping operation of Plant City-based Wish Farms and they produce millions of berries each day.
Gary Wishnatzki, the third generation owner, opened the doors to show us how his family’s story is a fairy tale come true.
"We’re striving to become a national brand," he said. "And that’s what I think our future is."
Not surprising, every detail inside of their headquarters is a reflection of the Wish brand and its pixie mascot.
We were met by giant trees pulled straight from a story book. We followed a blue stream that took us upstairs and along the way, Gary would stop and talk with an employee as most have worked with the company for decades.
"I think the main lesson I learned from my father was to treat people kindly and always have some empathy for folks," he said.
Gary also brings some whimsy, too. He took us outside to his tree house. It’s one of the many innovative meeting rooms and is a void of TVs and other digital distractions. Back inside, he showed off other rooms that nod to the company’s foundation and past employees.
We finally found a spot to sit and talk but it took a search as Gary surprised us with a hidden door that opened to a secret room where we were almost sure to spot a fairy tale creature.
“This is our Pixie Room," he said. "This is just another one of our crazy collaborative meeting places that we have here."
It is all a far cry from how all of this started in 1922 with his grandfather, Harris Wishnatzki, a Jewish immigrant.
“He just had a few dollars in his pocket at the time and he started selling fruits and vegetables from a pushcart in lower Manhattan, which developed into a whole business of a fleet of push carts," he said.
By 1929, the business brought Harris Wishnatzki to Florida and Plant City.
“My grandfather, I don’t think he would have any idea. He couldn’t imagine something like this and how the business has grown not just in terms of us getting into the farming side of the business and us getting into all the other berries and being a year-round supplier,” he said.
That includes adding a new variety of berry to the mix with the blush pink pineberry that was created at the University of Florida.
“A lot of people look at it and don’t think it’s ripe, but it’s got a totally different unique flavor profile,” he said. "We were one of the first ones to trial it."
"Three years ago, we had six acres," Gary added. "Last year, we had 75 acres and this year we’ve got 200 acres."
Gary prides himself on the company’s innovation and that means looking forward.
“So the next 100 years it’s going to be way different," he explained. "And we really need to solve this with robotics, because if we don’t we’re going to be looking at a world where strawberries become a luxury item, other fruits and vegetables become luxury items because there’s not gonna be enough people to pick the fruit therefore prices are gonna go up and you won’t see them in the stores readily available as they are today."
He's clear that robotic picking won’t replace, but rather elevate, the work available by creating higher paying and less stressful positions for the children and grandchildren of workers now.
“That’s one of the hallmarks of our company, I would say, is that we treat people, our workers, all workers with respect and freedom," he said. "Pay them well and pay them fair wages."
That extends to the Tampa Bay community as The Wish Farms Family Foundation gives back. Every berry purchased supports local children and families who are in need.
“There’s three pillars. It’s community, youth education and food insecurity,” Gary explained.
To do and sustain the sweet success, he says it comes back to one thing: providing the best tasting berries.
“It all centers around the eating experience of the consumer because if somebody doesn’t get the berries home and enjoy them, we have failed," he said.
With that, it was time to “slide on over” – yes there is an actual slide inside Wish HQ – to one of the many farms that provide those tasty berries.
That’s where we met the fourth generation of Wish Farms, Gary’s daughter Elizabeth and his son Nick.
“It’s just really quite a journey we’ve been on,” Gary said.
“I’m third generation," he added. "I’ve got the fourth generation in the house working and the fifth generation is to come, my grandsons.”
Gary’s hope is that these future generations will be running the business and writing the history of the next 100 years of Wish Farms – but only if their heart is in it.
“I love berries! I eat berries every single day. And I think that’s why I’m so youthful looking,” Gary said with a laugh.
With about 3,500 acres dedicated to growing, Wish Farms berries are shipped and sold in all 50 states and in Canada.
Gary Wishnatzki recently wrote and published a book that chronicles the history of not only his family and Wish Farms, but the history of strawberries and the Tampa Bay area community, too.