Three years ago, Tom O’Brien decided that he wanted something more to do than helping run his family’s C&D Fruit and Vegetable Co., a $20-million-a-year produce grower and distributor.
“We always had the dream of opening up an educational center to get more kids and parents involved in eating healthy and learning where fruits and vegetables come from and how they get on those store shelves,” O’Brien says.
The result is O’Brien Family Farms in Manatee County — a side business to C&D Fruit that includes a farm store and educational center. O’Brien estimates the educational component hosts as many as 2,000 children on school field trips a year, plus other tour groups. The center shows visitors how fruits and vegetables are grown and distributed and lets them taste produce fresh off the vine.
“I can even get the kids to eat squash,” O’Brien says. “Their parents say they can’t get them to eat squash at home on their best day.”
While C&D Fruit grows strawberries, tomatoes, squash, beans, peppers and other produce at 25 farms in the Southeast and ships throughout the U.S. and Canada, O’Brien Family Farms is located on 115 acres east of Bradenton. The farm, which generates between $500,000 and $1 million in sales at its produce market, uses both traditional and hydroponic growing techniques. The farm also sells produce to local restaurants, including O’Bricks Irish Pub & Martini Bar, the Anna Maria Oyster Bar and Carmen’s Italian Café.
"Chefs are coming to the stand to pick out their own product,” O’Brien says. “The locally grown concept has really taken off in the United States, and the chefs are jumping on board.”