The year 1935 was in the middle of the Great Depression, but that didn’t stop Richard Mooney and his son Jim from starting a novel idea: selling fruit from a boat on the Milwaukee River. What they didn’t know was that fruit boat would become a fixture of Milwaukee business 80 years later. That business is Fruit Ranch, and it evolved a lot in the years since its founding.
“A lot of local people, like the older people, they know about the fruit boat,” says Tanya Gearhart, president, CEO and fourth-generation owner of present-day Fruit Ranch.
From the fruit boat, Fruit Ranch opened two store locations in the 1950s under the name Fruit Ranch Markets. Both locations, located on the north and west sides of Milwaukee, were very similar to grocery stores today. The company’s focus was to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for the people. It also had delis. But the novel thing about them was the decorations.
Tanya’s grandmother was into collectibles—”You know, like Precious Moments,” Tanya says—and decorated the stores with her collections.
With emerging competition, Fruit Ranch decided to refocus their business to something they’ve been doing since they started: gift baskets.
“We have a little storefront and we make fresh fruit baskets every day,” Tanya says. “We also carry an assortment of Wisconsin-made items. Fresh deluxe nuts, and cheese and sausages gift baskets.” They also offer baskets that celebrate the Green Bay Packers.
The Gift (Basket) of Growing Up
Tanya has a storied history with her family’s business. Her first job in the company was as a candy girl, selling penny-candies. Then she started taking orders for fruit baskets.
“Then I just moved around in the company,” she says. “We had a garden section at one time where they would sell plants and stuff outside. It’s crazy all the things I have done. Then our wholesale became pretty big and that was more my Dad’s division. I ended up moving over to wholesale and doing accounts receivables.” That was in the 1980s and 1990s.
Tanya and her sister Teri inherited the business in 1998 after their father unexpectedly passed away. While Tanya focused on managing operations, Teri worked on marketing and sales. They were partners until 2013 when Teri got into a car accident that affected her ability to work. Tanya bought Teri’s shares in 2014, but Teri still maintains a presence at the company.
“I still talk to her about advice,” Tanya says. “She’ll help me out if I need her at Christmas, you know. That’s our busy time. Now she has a new job where she’s traveling and not physically at a desk anymore all the time. That’s a lot easier for her.”
Teri was the one who initially introduced Fruit Ranch to WisconsinMade Artisan Collective, which helped increase sales of gift baskets for the almost twenty years of the partnership.
Like WisconsinMade, Tanya is inspired by sharing Wisconsin-centric gift baskets. She vets her vendors by tasting their products herself (“I sacrifice my body to make sure that the stuff is good,” she laughs) and only partners with the best of the best. That’s what puts smiles on her customers’ faces.
“I love making baskets,” Tanya says. “You’re going to make someone happy to receives this. It’s going to enlighten their day. If they’re feeling down, it’s putting a smile on their face. So that’s really inspiring.”