by Kelly Gates
In the early 1940s, a Fort Dodge, Iowa physician named Dr. Paul Otto welcomed an old friend, a horticultural professor from Minnesota, to his home. While enjoying a visit, the men discussed the various types of plants and trees that might grow well in the region, including apple trees. The conversation was so enthralling to Dr. Otto that he opted to plant apple trees shortly thereafter, offering the fruit they produced to his patients.
“As the story goes, Dr. Otto’s trees were producing so many apples, he decided to open a small stand. On Saturdays, at 1 p.m. under the shade of an old oak tree, he would sell directly to the public,” said Bev Baedke, current co-owner of the company that eventually emerged from Dr. Otto’s hobby. “Cars were backed up for more than a mile and he sold out entirely by 1:30.”
It was then that the doctor decided to turn his part-time growing operation into a business called “Community Orchard.” He continued cultivating apples until he had so many trees, he ultimately had to hire someone to help tend to them.
According to Baedke, her father-in-law was that chosen employee. And in 1971, Bev and her husband Greg joined his parents at the business.
They worked side-by-side with Greg’s parents until their retired in 1990 and today the Bev and Greg manage Community Orchard together as co-owners.
“When we got involved, we only sold apples, cider and honey,” said Baedke. “Now, aside from around 15 varieties of apples, we sell delicious foods that are loved by our customers. We have a home décor and gift shop, a market, a scratch bakery, a restaurant, a number of fun activities for guests and we also host all sorts of events.”
The home décor and gift shop is stocked with a plethora of unique products ranging from lamps, art, furniture, throws and pillows to seasonal items throughout the fall and Christmas.
The bakery is filled with quite an array of offerings too. Everything is made from scratch in a commercial kitchen staffed by five full time workers.
“We got into the pie-making business in the 1970s, before we even had an oven onsite,” explained Baedke. “Back then, we would assemble the pies and sell them frozen. We now have five ovens so we sell a lot of baked pies, apple dumplings, caramel apple flat pies, crisps, crumble, muffins and turnovers. But we still sell plenty of frozen, unbaked pies since our customers have come to expect them from us.”
The company’s mail order business begins in the fall with the shipping of primarily apples. The last six weeks of the season is very busy with gift baskets being delivered and shipped across the country.
Baskets come in a wide variety of sizes, but few request baskets without the bakery’s infamous English Toffee, which is sold from Oct. 15 until Christmas.
The Apple Orchard Cafe is also quite popular among customers.
“We sell muffins and turnovers, coffee, hot cider and hot chocolate starting early in the morning, but most of our business is done at lunchtime,” said Baedke. “We have 10 different sandwiches, two soups per day and four salads and are almost always packed during lunch.”
A second commercial kitchen was put in last year to help accommodate the overflow of customers during the busy season and to cater to events like family reunions, corporate get-togethers, weddings and school tours. The space is connected to a new pavilion that was constructed in 2012.
When apples are ready for harvest, the property is filled to the brim with families in search of a pre-packed bag of honeycrisps, haralsons and the 13-plus other varieties of apples grown and sold there.
“People love to come get freshly picked apples, but they also come for our wide assortment of products in our market, including sweet corn salsa, apple butter, our own maple dip and caramel apples, to name a few,” said Baedke. “We work hard to keep our retail spaces clean and fresh. Every year, we take out merchandise and movable displays, breaking down each space to the bare walls for a thorough cleaning and painting before setting up a new layout for the following year.”
Each nail hole is filled and the walls repainted. Even the floors are repainted annually. And, special care is taken to design the displays differently than before, giving customers something new to explore from year to year.
“We promote our business through social media like Facebook, but when I think of our main marketing strategy, it’s definitely setting up our store in a unique way each year,” said Baedke. “We not only clean everything, we come up with a creative new way to arrange the space. We’ve had people tell us that they can’t wait to see what we come up with next year, which means this is working for us.”
Presently, the Apple Attic, the orchard’s home décor space, is arranged into a front porch space, dining room, living room and bedrooms, giving shoppers a sense of what the products they contain might look like in an actual home setting.
While the adults gush over the retail spaces and products, the children are usually anxious to ride the cow trains, climb the tire mountain and enjoy the animals, jumping pillow, farm tile slide, pedal karts, mighty trikes, corn box and other activities in the Back Forty play area.
Community Orchard certainly has something for everyone of every age. And the Baedke family plans to continue adding attractions, products and facilities in the future to keep people coming back time and again.
“We’re always creating something new, but we don’t want to grow too quickly,” said Baedke. “After adding the pavilion and increasing the number of events we host, we hired an events planner. So now, one of our biggest need is more office space to accommodate our growing management staff.”
by Kelly Gates