N.J. farm market emphasizes the best
Like many farm markets, Sickles Market in Little Silver, N.J., has had to evolve over the years. “The true farm markets are communal now, like Union Square in New York City,” says Bob Sickles, 55, third-generation owner of the Jersey Shore institution. “Change is relentless; you need to adjust every six to eight years in the retail business.”
Sickles’ grandfather sold produce from the farm in the early 1900s; his father sold to both wholesale and retail customers. Bob worked with his dad as a kid and obtained a degree in horticulture. After taking over in the early 1990s, he decided to stay open year round. That meant expanding into other areas, so he hired an architect and changed operations dramatically. Today Sickles Market is a garden center extraordinaire, a gourmet food store, a general store, a butcher and a gift shop.
Walk into Sickles Market and you immediately notice the personal touch in every department. French chocolates are arranged in the gift area, and free samples are laid out invitingly in the fresh food section. In 2011 the Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurship at Fairleigh Dickinson University named Sickles Market the New Jersey Small Business of the Year, and the business garnered the No. 1 spot in New Jersey Monthly magazine’s “Best of New Jersey” reader poll last year for garden center, gift department, gourmet shop and florist.
It’s no wonder, since the market offers top-of-the-line specialty products not widely available. “We’ll never be able to compete with the cheapest oatmeal, but we can offer the finest steel cut oatmeal from Ireland,” Sickles says. “We also offer other top-shelf items like coffee that’s not the norm, but the best. It’s a sustainable, profitable business model for us.”
Sickles Market had occasionally filled overseas orders, but last year it established a website and has a burgeoning online business. The market also dove into social media last year and can be found on YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. Talks with an Italian exporter led to a new venture—leading tours to Italy. “Horticulture and food dovetail nicely,” Sickles explains. Travelers will visit the homes, kitchens and workplaces of Sicily’s artisanal food producers.
To increase his knowledge and stay abreast of new products and techniques, Sickles has turned to mentors that include Zabar’s in New York and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich. From them he’s learned about “selling the best of the best and providing great customer service.” He’s used Zingerman’s training program to train his staff.
Sickles’ daughter Tori, 28, is a marketing assistant at the company, and he has another daughter in college and a son in high school. He’s not sure whether the younger two will join the family business, but it will be there for them. Sickles has only six acres left from the original 80, which were part of a land grant from an English king, so there’s no possibility of selling to developers. But he wouldn’t consider it anyway. “I’m happy with the business, I have family interested and I have a great staff,” he says.
When asked what makes a Jersey tomato, Sickles laughs and says it’s a long explanation. “The short answer is that the southern peninsula of New Jersey warms up early in the season, so we get them at the end of June. They’re allowed to get vine-ripe, which doesn’t mean red-ripe; they just need to have a nice blush to them,” he says. The tomatoes ripen naturally, in contrast to tomatoes that are shipped around the country, which are often gassed with ethylene. Most important, they are delicious. “I like to say a nice dollop of extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt can cure any tomato, but in reality, the best tomatoes are the ones from your own state, in season,” Sickles says.
Patricia Olsen is a New Jersey writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, On Wall Street, USA Weekend, Hemispheres and other publications.
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