Apronomics: Dan Mitchell

In 1978, Carol Mitchell opened a produce stand in her hometown of Gray Summit, Missouri. It was called Summit Produce, and its slogan was ‘Peak of Perfection.’ Over 29 years, the business has grown steadily, now operating out of the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market and recently opening a pop-up shop in Chesterfield. Carol retired in 2008, leaving the business to her son Dan Mitchell and daughter Kristine Clark. “I decided I was going to work at the stand when I was 18,” Dan Mitchell says. “My sister and I knew if the business was open, someone in the family would be running it.”

Mitchell recalls his mother driving him to work in the stand’s box truck after it first opened. He’d make her drop him off away from the school’s parking lot so his classmates wouldn’t see. Embarrassment, however, doesn’t feature in his other memories of visiting and working at the stand as a kid. “When I was 12, I used to ride my bike there,” he says. “I’d help out and talk to customers. This business has been in my blood my whole life.” Mitchell’s most important teacher has been his mother, who taught him entrepreneurship and how to create lasting relationships with customers. “I couldn’t wait to get back to the stand after school to help her,” he says. “She always left customers with a warm, fuzzy feeling. That’s how you develop loyalty. People have to like more than just the product; they have to like the people they buy it from.”

When the company moved to its larger location in Kirkwood in 1984, it expanded beyond fruits and vegetables to include a pumpkin patch and Christmas trees. It was this change that led Mitchell to transition from his mother’s employee to her business partner in 1998. “It was very exciting and gratifying to take on a leadership position,” he says. With his title change, Mitchell brought other changes to Summit Produce. It started selling plants, expanded its holiday offerings, and went from being open only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays to seven days a week. “I don’t want Summit Produce to get stagnant; we’re always moving forward,” he says.

Even with all of the changes, it has remained a family business. Mitchell says he loves working with his family but admits it can be difficult when work gets in the way of fun activities. To make up for it, the staff throws Christmas parties and goes on summer float trips. Along with his sister, Mitchell also works with his nephews and says all employees become like family. “We’re very blessed,” he says. “There are a lot of people who go to work and don’t like their jobs. We enjoy the thrill of trying to do our best, and we care about what we do. We’ve loved it since we were kids.”

Summit Produce’s logo is a cheerful, red tomato, and Mitchell estimates that particular produce accounts for 20 percent of overall sales. The next biggest seller? “Peaches, but their season is much shorter,” he says. Mitchell prefers the Christmas trees. In fact, the holidays are his favorite time of year at the Farmers’ Market. “I like the cool weather and the smell of the trees,” he says. “People are really happy. They’re always pretty happy in Kirkwood, but even more so at Christmastime.” Along with the fast pace of the market and the fresh baked goods, he enjoys that the season is a celebration of faith and good will toward others, things Summit Produce embraces year round. “My main objective is to help other people and be helped by others,” he explains. “It’s not just about the money.”

russian tea cakes

1 C butter, softened
1/2 powdered sugar
1 t vanilla
2 1/4 C all-purpose flour
1/4 t salt
3/4 C finely chopped pecans or English walnuts

» Beat together butter, powdered sugar and vanilla in large bowl.
» Stir in flour, salt and nuts.
» Shape dough into 1-inch balls and place 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.
» Bake in preheated, 400º oven for 8 to 9 minutes, or until set but not brown.
» Immediately remove from cookie sheet and roll in powdered sugar.
» Let cool completely on wire rack, and roll in powdered sugar again.

Photos: Bill Barrett