Nestled on 40 acres in Wexford, a northern suburb of Pittsburgh, Penn., Soergel Orchards has been drawing folks to its country store and garden center for more than 40 years, evolving from a roadside stand to a thriving, multifaceted business today.
With the exception of berries and apples, which the company grows in Wexford, the majority of its crops are grown in the neighboring county of Butler. In all, Soergel’s operates 450 acres of farmland, and some of its produce is certified organic.
Inside several interconnected buildings, visitors can shop for groceries, baked goods, wines, home décor, furniture, gifts and plants. Customers can dine at the café, which sells homemade salads and sandwiches.
On weekends, the place is perpetually abuzz with activity, from outdoor pumpkin festivals and hayrides in the fall to corn roasts and strawberry picking in the summer. At any time of year, children can be found playing on outdoor wooden structures resembling trains and houses or visiting the barn animals. Many school field trips are held at Soergel’s, while birthday parties and bridal showers frequently take place in the rambling barn.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” says Amy Soergel, 31, granddaughter of one of the founders and an operations manager of the family-run business.
Though customers return time and time again for tried and true favorites, Soergel’s likes to keep things fresh and relevant.
That is where Naturally Soergel’s comes in.
Soergel realized that there was an unfulfilled need in the community; there was no centralized place to buy groceries for those on specialized diets. Seven years ago, she was largely responsible for the creation of Naturally Soergels on the grounds of Soergel Orchards.
Not only was this good business sense, it was personal.
After years of feeling sick, Soergel ultimately was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2007, an autoimmune disorder in which the body cannot process gluten without risking intestinal damage.
If that wasn’t disconcerting enough, obtaining food she was able to eat was nothing short of challenging.
“I was finding that there was nowhere locally to purchase any of the food I was needing,” she says, referring to her gluten-free, dairy-free, and egg-free diet. “I was finding more and more people with similar diets.”
Naturally Soergel’s primary market is the gluten-free customer, though they attract people who have many other dietary restrictions. The store also carries foods that are egg-free, dairy-free, nut-free, sugar-free, vegan, soy-free organic and vegetarian.
The store has clearly marked, separate sections for the food items covering the specialized food categories, though there are some crossover categories. An entire room is dedicated to gluten-free food, as well as a freezer for gluten-free items, as often they are made without preservatives and need to be refrigerated or frozen.
Naturally Soergel’s sits in a charming log cabin, a renovated building that was once a wagon shed and is perched on a hillside across from the main store and caddy corner from the barn animals. Over the years, Soergel has added on to the building on two separate occasions. The 1,500-square-foot interior is a downsized, charming version of the country store, with high wooden beams for a rustic feel.
Most of the prepared food items are from well-known companies, though Soergel makes sure to offer fresh baked goods from two gluten-free area bakeries: Gluuteny in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and Truly Wize in Greensburg, located in neighboring Westmoreland County.
Since opening, Naturally Soergel’s has doubled the number of product offerings, and they’ve tripled their customer count and sales.
In addition to the bountiful food offerings, Soergel hosts regular events such as cooking demonstrations, tastings and educational seminars about gluten-free diets.
For befuddled customers trying to navigate through the myriad food options, Soergel often lends a helping hand, drawing upon her educational background and years of experience working in the family business.
With a desire to understand the body’s response to food, Soergel attended Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in public health, and obtained a master’s degree in epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh. She also studied holistic health counseling with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, something she puts to good use should customers have questions about the products.
Although the business is doing well, it is not without its challenges. “I would say that the biggest challenge of running Naturally Soergel’s is getting our name out there,” she says. “Sometimes, people assume that Naturally Soergel’s is located inside of the main farm market, but we are a separate store behind the main building.”
Soergel regularly attends food and trade shows, trying many new food items in order to beef up her offerings, as there are always new ingredients and trends on the market. For example, she said, foods made with beans as the primary ingredient, such as chips or pasta, are popular now. She also listens closely to her customers, who often suggest or request that she stock certain products, and Soergel tries to accommodate when possible.
“We’ve tried to really keep up with the trends and what’s happening around us and what the community is looking for. That being said, we also take a lot of pride in keeping [the] basics, keeping the tradition of what we’ve done in the past, too,” Soergel says. “Certainly the business has evolved as time has evolved, but not necessarily to the degree that we’ve lost track of who we are.”
This niche market has served Soergel Orchards well and fits in well with the other components of the business. Just like other specialized categories at garden centers, Soergel says it’s essential that there is an expert on staff to help explain products. “It has brought a lot of awareness not only to gluten free but it is a great addition to what we already do,” she says. “It was a great fit for what my interests are, what the community is looking for, and what we can offer.”