These purveyors bring farm and fish to table in South Florida
Written by James Biagiotti, Marie Speed and John Thomason
Fresh and seasonal have become bywords on menus at home and in restaurants for the last several years, and never was this more valued than in the past year, when farmers and growers and fishermen and bakers have plied their trades to keep us close to homegrown food. Names like Swank Farm, Kai Kai Farm, Old School Bakery, Bedner’s and Hatcher’s mangos remind us that we live in a place rich with an agricultural legacy. Meet a few people who are trying to keep that dream alive.
CAPTAIN CLAY: Sea To Store in Hours
If the unassuming exterior of Captain Clay & Sons Seafood Market in Delray Beach belies its caliber, the regular line of customers waiting their turn to get in tells the only story that matters. Before the market’s namesake was Captain Clay, he was Clay Brand, a Miamian who was raised in the Caribbean during his formative years. Following his return to South Florida in search of a better education, Clay and a self-described “incredibly close-knit” group of local fisherman cohorts spent years fishing in South Florida and selling their catch to markets up and down the coast.
Eventually, at the suggestion of his wife, he opened his own market, and his fellow fishermen proved to be a crucial part of the equation: “All my friends and I, who used to sell to other places, were now coming right through the back door of Captain Clay’s.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing from the start. “At first it was really a slow go, and it was hard,” Clay shares. “I was fishing hard just to keep the doors open. But over time, people realized where they could come and get the freshest fish they could possibly get, where it’s coming right out of the water.”
A day in the life of one of South Florida’s finest purveyors of fresh seafood starts well before dawn. Captain Clay wakes between 2 and 4 a.m., often stopping on the way to his boat at the market to sharpen its many knives. His fishing locales can be as far north as Sebastian or as far south as the Keys, and he rarely makes it home before dark.
The market’s specialty isn’t so much a single item as it is the freshest catch. When Clay spoke to Boca magazine, he had just returned from a particularly fruitful lobster dive, racking up 70 pounds of the spiny Florida delicacy in just two days. “We had a guy who was fishing for golden tilefish yesterday, and he came in and dropped it off into our refrigerator last night and it’s here this morning for sale. That’s the kind of thing that makes us popular.”
Even amid the pandemic, a time when his colleagues in the restaurant industry have struggled mightily, he’s proud to relay that his seafood market is busier than ever. Though patrons are weary of going out to eat, he says, “they still want to eat well, so they’re coming in to get a prime piece of seafood. … And they’re taking it home and eating it.” He takes pride in what he does, and in doing it well. There’s an unwavering confidence in his voice when he discusses the difference between fish from a local market—“the freshest fish you can possibly get”—and what buyers find at their neighborhood grocery store. “By the time supermarket seafood departments around the state get their fish, I would not sell it.
“If you want really good fish—and fresh is everything in seafood—you have to go to get it from the people who are pulling it right out of the water and know how to treat it well. That would be my market.”
Even after decades of fishing commercially, his passion for reeling in impressive catches hasn’t waned. “I still do it, and I still love it,” he states with assurance. “I take people out for charters as well. I get a kick out of watching other people’s faces when I get them hooked up to a nice-sized fish and watch them pull them in.”
As for whether the market’s eponymous “& Sons” still work with Clay, he says, “Absolutely. They’re the reason I can go out and play out on my boat. … They’re indispensable.” Asked what it’s like for him to get to spend time with his family and still do what he loves every day, he says: “It was all part of the plan.”
ROBERT IS HERE: Tropic Zone
Everyone knows by now the story of Robert Is Here, the iconic fruit stand at the corner of Palm Drive (Southwest 344th St.) and Southwest 192nd Avenue in Florida City—and the tale of little Robert Moehling installed at the same corner when he was 6 years old to sell the family’s excess cucumbers from their adjacent farm. Unfortunately, the grass and foliage were too high for passing drivers to see the boy, so his father painted a large sign that said “Robert Is Here,” pointing to him.
And that was the beginning.
Now, that little boy is 68 years old, and that bump in the road where he once sold cucumbers is arguably South Florida’s most famous fruit stand—and a tourist destination—especially for those headed to the Keys.
The stand is on its third iteration now, from the modest tiki hut Robert and his father built in 1961 to the latest one, built in 1979, that has world-famous milkshakes, all manner of fruits, vegetables, exotic tropical fruits, preserves, prepared and canned foods, coconut monkey heads, seashells and even an outdoor “barnyard” with tortoises, an emu, goats, you name it.
The farm is 60 acres now, and Moehling grows everything from avocados and corn to mangos, jackfruit, sapodilla, mamey, sugar apples, tamarind, coconuts, guanabanas (which he swears by as a great antioxidant, at the very least). If he does not grow a particular tropical fruit, area farmers will bring him the ones they do, like dragon fruit, papaya, passion fruit, you name it—or he’ll import it from around the world.
“My place is different every five or six weeks,” he says. “There is so much of this or that that comes in throughout the year with the tropical fruit seasons.”
His most robust time of the year is in July-August, but the famous natural milkshakes, made out of a million great tropical combinations, are a high draw in all seasons.
Moehling knows he’s a farm boy, and he also likes to educate his customers on the exotic fruits he sells, offering samples, letting people know how to pick a ripe this or that. But he isn’t as upbeat when it comes to the future, the rampant development that is encroaching further and further into South Florida’s Redlands.
“We have no control over what is going to happen; there is asphalt and concrete going everywhere. It’s going to be very painful when we don’t have the capability to produce our own food.”
In the meantime, Moehling seems to take comfort in the fact that his children and their spouses are helping him now at the market and things are going smoothly.
“All their different ideas are really good. Everyone’s got the love for it. It just works. The hardest thing to work with generally is family—but it’s also the best thing if you get it working.”
HERITAGE HEN: Raw Deal
Marty Simon works odd hours. On Thursdays through Saturdays, the co-founder of Heritage Hen Farm leaves his house in Lake Worth Beach around 7 p.m. to make his rounds. Driving a dairy-white truck with a RAW MILK vanity plate, he’ll visit dozens of homes in South-Central Palm Beach County, depositing a Styrofoam cooler on the doorstep of each. In the early hours of his shift, he may encounter a customer or two, but most of his work is solitary and ninja-quiet, completed in the shadows. When 7 a.m. rolls around, he’s usually finished.
“I wouldn’t say I enjoy [the graveyard shift],” he says. “It has pros and cons. No. 1 is the traffic, and being in South Florida, the sun is down. We wouldn’t be able to do these numbers if it wasn’t for the nighttime.”
Simon and his wife, Svetlana, prepare and legally deliver unpasteurized milk and its byproducts—buttermilk, kefir and whey—contributing to a food movement that is viewed as unsafe by some, and as medicinal by its growing number of proponents. Their cows graze on a farm in the Panhandle, whose practices Simon trumpets as “the best in Florida.” The turnaround from udder to doorstep spans 48 hours at most.
Simon has been shepherding these products for two and a half years, and has embraced the image, as well as the commute, of a vintage milk deliveryman. He dresses in full regalia: crisp white dress shirt, black bow tie, black shorts and a puffy hat with a wide black bill. He refers to himself, with the self-effacement of someone who’s in on his own joke, as “the milkman.”
Simon’s attire is decidedly different from the dirt-stained clothes of his previous life. For nine years, Heritage Hen was a traditional farm, with up to 400 chickens and 24 breeds of hens on a leased property in Boynton Beach. The Simons sold raw milk and farm-fresh eggs at the Delray Beach GreenMarket. While they still sell free-range eggs, mostly from a farm in Feldsmere, the Simons’ business model changed a few years ago when their lease expired.
“If you never own the land, it’s hard to put roots down,” Simon says. “We had a tough time with the city, with the county, with the animals.
“It was kind of a joke in the beginning,” Simon adds, about his new persona. “If we’re not going to be on the farm, then what are we going to do? We’re going to be out of the game. Delivery was a popular thing even before COVID, so we said, maybe that will be our answer. Then it was like, maybe I’ll be the milkman, ha ha ha.”
It may have started as an ironic gesture, but Simon has had the last laugh. At the weekend of this writing, his deliveries spiked to 150 over three days, including a dozen first-time customers. To place an order, visit heritagehen.com/shop.
BEDNER’S: Fifth Generation Growers
Bedner’s may now be a household name in Palm Beach County, thanks to its three farm markets, from Delray to its newest one in West Palm. But it earned that distinction through more than U-pik-ems and pumpkin patches.
Today, the Bedners are into their fifth generation of farming, a presence in South Florida since 1950, when Pittsburgh farmers Arthur and Henrietta Bedner bought their first farm in Broward County. Marie Bedner, married to one of Arthur’s sons, Steve, says the family was pushed out of Broward County due to development and bought what she calls the “home farm” here in the 1960s. They now farm 200 acres in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties “because we are losing land to development in Palm Beach County now.”
The farm’s historic crops have been bell peppers and cucumbers, but the Bedners are also known for their famously sweet homegrown corn and, now, for their retail markets—especially the original one on Lee Road by the Loxahatchee Preserve.
“My father bought that in 1980,” Bedner says. “We had been farming it when we saw the need in the community to have educational programs on the farm. Today, it’s 80 acres of U-pik strawberry, tomatoes, bell peppers, sunflowers.”
She says Bedner’s has an educated consumer who “knows the difference between a fresh cut romaine or one that’s been sitting in a bag in some big-box store.
“You can guarantee the freshness—it’s just picked; we have a minimal carbon footprint. … And you are supporting your local farmer, keeping the money in the local community.”
But it’s never been easy. Bedner blames NAFTA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) for competition, along with rising prices and layers of local, state and federal regulations. But for now, she says, the Bedners aren’t going anywhere.
“We’ll hang on, and hopefully get some changes made with the new trade agreement,” she says. ”We’re just asking for a fair playing field, and that we can continue. ‘Stay calm and farm on!’”