Afton Apple: Come for the berries, stay for the friends
The strawberries are ready to go at Afton Apple, and so is Randy Sambolt, one of the orchard's longest-standing employees.
With a smile on his face and a love for the loyal berry-picking community, Sambolt drives his golf cart filled with picked berries back and forth from the fields to the hut where the berries are sold.
This will be Sambolt's 18th season at Afton Apple, 14421 S. 90th St. in Denmark Township, near Hastings. Sambolt has worked for Afton Apple longer than any other staff member, aside from the family of owners.
"There's nothing like being outdoors and there's nothing like meeting the public, especially faces that you have seen before," Sambolt said.
This year's berry crop is looking good, according to co-owner Cindy Femling. Between now and the next two weeks, the berries will be ripest, Femling said.
It's not just about the berries, though. Afton Apple offers other attractions, including a petting farm filled with goats, llamas, sheep and donkeys, as well as a jump pad for kids that will be open on Saturdays and Sundays.
The attractions, combined with Femling and her family's dedication, has kept them open since 1989, Femling said, while other local orchards haven't faired so well.
"When we first started, there were three other berry growers around here," Femling said. "Now, we are the only ones left."
And it isn't just about the berries for Sambolt, either. It's about the people and their experience.
"You could go pick berries off the shelf at Sam's Club and you don't have to deal with the 95-degree heat, but you're not experiencing anything," Sambolt said.
Being a family-owned and operated business for 27 years, the staff at Afton Apple have noticed one major change that's popping up right behind their fields: the emerging neighborhood of houses. The area filled with homes to be a simple cattle field, Sambolt said. That's why every day and every strawberry is important to appreciate, he added, and no one knows that better than Sambolt.
"Places like these are becoming few and far between," he said. "This isn't going to be here forever."
Luckily, Afton Apple sees many returning customers each year, Femling said, and both Femling and Sambolt have been able to form close connections with their regular guests, they said.
"One of our regulars had heart surgery four days before, and he insisted, 'I have to have my fresh berries. I've been craving them,'" Femling said. "He tells everyone about us now."
Sambolt watches both young and old come to pick berries. From the little ones who stuff their faces as strawberry juice drips down their chin, to the older couples who have made the yearly trip to Afton Apple a tradition, Sambolt hopes that no matter their age, everyone is able to leave with more than a bucket of berries.
"They're not just a customer, they're a friend," Sambolt said. "We're not corporate. We're not huge. But we are interested in you."
For Afton Apple's hours, call 651-436-8385, or visit facebook.com/AftonAppleOrchard.