To the parachuter landing on South Dixie Highway, the Celis brothers’ business may seem like an ordinary produce shop.
An outsider may not see the extraordinary, the crisscross of paths flowing throughout the tiny shop. But brothers Felipe, Alex and Camilo Celis are too busy working to notice what others may or may not notice.
For more than two years now, they have run a dawn-to-dusk produce operation that delivers organic fruits and vegetables to local customers, from Jupiter to Boca Raton. A year ago this week, they opened the little shop in West Palm Beach’s design district, where amid the produce bins and rustic wood touches they sell hand-mixed spices, Palm City farm eggs, locally roasted Subculture coffee, organic fermented sourdough bread baked by a local chef, and simple bouquets by local floral designer Halle Frey of Flower and Fringe.
Meantime, they’re architecting a new city within the city. It’s a city of indie souls seeking collaboration and a sense of belonging to something larger than their own focused enterprises.
All of this happened the way Celis avocados happen.
“It all came about in a very organic way. No pun intended,” says Alex Celis, 29.
Their journey as shop owners in the city’s new rising indie business universe came to a crest on a spring night this year in, of all places, the alley behind the shop. The nondescript stretch was transformed into an open air supper club, where a long, farmhouse-style table was set stylishly beneath a swag of bistro lights. There, the brothers hosted customers, fellow entrepreneurs and other locals.
“It was magical,” says Alex, who counted doctors, stylists and yoga instructors among that evening’s guests.
Says brother Felipe: “It was six hours of bliss and conversation. We got to spend time with our customers as friends.”
How the dinner came about was an organic thing as well, says Felipe.
Floral designer Frey and her friend Kaylyn Durrance, a local product stylist, were looking for the right place to have a collaborative spring supper. They found the perfect place for their spring supper in the produce shop’s back alley.
Like a grand stew made better by new seasonings, the supper effort came to include handmade menus, succulent and moss table décor and furniture brought in by a local vintage furniture rental business.
“Then my friend Sammy (Diaz), who’s a sous chef, comes in one day and says, ‘Bro! I’m in. I’ll bring my apron!’” says Felipe.
Also cooking that night was Ricky Perez of the Zipitio’s pop-up taco stand, the guy who puts the tacos in Subculture Coffee’s wildly popular Tacos and Hip Hop nights on nearby Clematis Street.
“We used to play soccer at Conniston Middle School,” says Felipe.
Ricky’s mom made flan with shaved coconut for the night, capping a menu of refined Latin American street foods (think tostones with grilled squid salad, guacamole-stuffed arepas, vegan sliders with long plantain chips, and guava-filled pan de bono). In all, 30 guests paid $60 each for multiple courses and camaraderie. Proceeds from the event were donated to Place of Hope, a charity supported by neighboring Shoppe 561.
All this at a produce shop.
That a wine shop hosts a wine tasting is expected. That a supermarket has cooking demos is expected. But a collaborative supper in the alley behind a produce shop? An air plant-arranging workshop at a produce shop? It’s all part of Celis Produce’s efforts to build community, a dynamic that’s spreading among other enterprises in the West Palm Beach area.
“People are hungry for this,” says Frey of Flower and Fringe. She’s taking part in a summer workshop series that wraps up on Sept. 1 with an open-t0-the-public gathering at Celis Produce. The series features local artisans including cake designer Janderyn Makris, calligrapher Carla Hagan and food photographer Libby Volgyes.
“ It’s just so nice to create and fellowship with people. It helps you shut off your mind and be present in the moment,” says Frey.
She met Alex on Aug. 11, 2015, the day before the brothers opened the shop. She went over to the not-yet-open shop after a friend suggested she bring flowers to the brothers.
“I didn’t know what would happen at the time, but they were describing a place where the community would come and gather,” says Frey.
It was a vision come true, she says. “I feel like, yes, there’s produce and juice, but it’s a community. It’s one of the little gems that are making this community about more than just making money.”
For the brothers Celis, finding meaning in the daily grind is just as important as making a living.
Theirs is the story of the first-generation American children of immigrant parents from Medellin, Colombia. And seamlessly it’s a native story. Sons of a produce distributor and a housekeeper, the brothers were born, raised and educated within the West Palm Beach city limits.
Their mother, Olga Elena, helped support the family by cleaning houses. Their father, Elkin, operated a produce market (the long-closed Continental Market) just south on South Dixie Highway for years when they were young boys.
“Seeing our parents work as hard as they do, even now…” says Felipe, his voice drifting. “We can work hard every single day and still not match my parents. They gave us a strong work ethic.”
Their father also gave them an appreciation for the produce business.
Alex Celis thought about this as he surfed the web one day some years ago. He was working in the insurance industry back then, in a job that never thrilled him.
“It was a safe job, but I didn’t feel whole,” he recalls. “I loved food, loved the Food Network and the Travel Channel. I wanted to do something I loved.”
He stumbled on a story that caught his eye online. It featured a San Francisco organic produce delivery business called FruitGuys. That story triggered more web searches and the discovery of a whole world of buying clubs and CSAs (community supported agriculture co-ops).
“I thought, ‘It would be awesome to do something like this here,’” says Alex, who enlisted his brothers for the business.
They built a clientele by setting up a Celis Produce kiosk at the green market in Palm Beach Gardens and later West Palm Beach.
Fast-forward to now and you’ll find that Celis delivers produce shares to 160 co-op members who pay from $28 for a small share to $58 for a large one, and more for more customized orders. You’ll also find the brothers making plans to share a produce-packing warehouse with their father and his business.
The brothers’ focus on organic goods is what sets them apart. Their relationship with vendors is what expands their community. They can tell you they buy locally grown turmeric and shiitake and oyster mushrooms from Gratitude Garden Farm in Loxahatchee.
“We found each other on Instagram,” says Alex, touching on another element that has been key to the business – social media. (The shop is reflected in almost ethereal images on both Facebook and Instagram.)
They can tell you they buy micro-greens and sprouts from Natural Nomad Farm in Boynton Beach and yard beans from Kai-Kai Farm in Loxahatchee. And it’s important to tell as much of the story behind the produce as possible, they say.
“People are more cautious as to where their food is coming from,” says Alex. “It’s more of a movement.”
There’s a parallel movement as well, he notes – one that would rather support a small, independent business.
This is what makes a simple produce shop not just a produce shop.
Says Alex: “It’s a lifestyle.”
- Located at 2814 S. Dixie Hwy., West Palm Beach; 561-410-5735; Celis-Produce.com
- Open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.