Switch to retail, delivery pays off

CARLSBAD, Calif. — A third-generation grower who has been in business for more than three decades, Jimmy Ukegawa has seen plenty of ups and downs, and had to regroup and retool his strategies to adapt with the times.

But the pivot he made as the coronavirus pandemic began and shelter-in-place restrictions were imposed in California has paid off in ways he never expected.

He grows strawberries on 25 acres in Carlsbad, a coastal city in San Diego County, and hosts U-pick days when the public can visit and pick all the berries they want. Before COVID-19 began, he had begun expanding operations, using warehouse space to put up a farmstand.

When the lockdown happened, he realized people needed a safe place to go and he thought shopping outdoors would provide that opportunity, especially for families with children who find it challenging to remain indoors for long periods.

Ukegawa expanded the farmstand into a farmers market of sorts, sourcing locally grown produce and locally made foods such as jam, wine, salsa and guacamole, in addition to strawberries.

“It’s been going gangbusters,” Ukegawa said. “Our business has increased 300% to 400% since the pandemic began. People are looking for places to go where they can do something.”

The fact that he is located right by the Interstate 5 corridor has also helped boost agritourism.

He also began including produce he sources from the wholesale market in the deliveries he makes, enabling area customers to choose a la carte items or buy a produce box that varies from week to week and is delivered to their doorstep.

His oldest daughter, Robyn, manages web orders and posts what will be available for delivery each week. She also helps manage the retail stands that are open from 8 a.m to 5 p.m daily.

Ukegawa makes sure he carefully vets the goods and produce that he sources.

“It’s so important for the products and produce to taste good, so customers come back,” he said. “This is a lot like back in the day when shopkeepers would help customers fill out their grocery list.”

Word-of-mouth referrals have helped boost sales in a region that’s known for its strong community roots.

Ukegawa recalled how different this is from when he worked with his father, who ran a 1,500-acre tomato farm and 200-acre strawberry farm. In those days, he was up until 2 a.m packing boxes of tomatoes. Cheaper imports and the high cost of water meant the family had to wind down the extensive operations and sell land.

He took over in 1996 with 25 acres devoted to strawberries, and is now focused on expanding retail and delivery operations for local goods.

“So many people asked us to continue this after the pandemic, so this will become a permanent part of our business,” Ukegawa said.