For years, I’ve stopped at Robert is Here fruit stand after visiting Everglades National Park. It is a ritual. The fruit always is beautiful, milkshakes are the best on the planet, the vegetables superior. But I never knew how many other people stopped as well. Some of them don’t even go to the Everglades, but have made Robert is Here a South Florida destination.
Now, Cesar Becerra has told the complete story of the fruit stand, Robert and the Moehling family in a wonderfully readable account called, what else? “Robert is Here, Looking East for a Lifetime.”
Just about everyone should know, by now, how the stand got its name: when he was 6 years old, Robert was plunked down on a lonely street corner with 2 bushels of cucumbers to sell. No sign, no shade and no customers. The next day, two handmade signs went up – one for each direction on the corner -- saying “Robert is Here.” All the cukes sold. But behind the sign was life in a crucial state. Robert’s father was trying to make a living as a farmer growing vegetables and selling eggs from his Slick Chick Egg Farm. It was hand-to-mouth for the family that had migrated from Illinois.
Over time, the fruit stand grew from a kid on a street corner, and it has never left that corner. Today, there are 60 employees (45 are part-time) and on peak days during the winter season, as many as 3,000 to 5,000 people a day stop in. Daily, some 1,500 milkshakes are made in 24 commercial blenders from freshly cut fruit and vanilla ice cream (the record day totaled 1,971 shakes on Dec. 27, 2014). An office houses monitors of 24 cameras located around the stand. All the children and their spouses work here.
But the stand did not become a South Florida landmark just by being there. The incredible work that goes into it every day is mind-boggling. Becerra also steps behind the scenes of the family as well as the fruit and veggies, giving us a real sense of the struggles and successes. Robert’s mother was murdered just a few days before Hurricane Andrew hit Homestead. The Moehlings – Robert and his wife Tracy; sons Brandon and Little Robert and daughters Victoria and Savannah -- rode out the 1992 hurricane in the bathroom of their house just minutes from the fruit stand. It took Robert three days to reach the remains of the stand, but the double tie-downs on the roof meant repairing, not starting all over again. Yet, road signs, fences, 1,000 mango trees and customers disappeared. Without hesitation, the family began rebuilding – physically and emotionally – by selling lunches to the cleanup crews who crowded into the devastated landscape. That it’s little wonder that Becerra calls this the Robert is Here Ecosystem.
For years, Robert drove daily to the produce market in downtown Miami before dawn to buy produce and get it stacked in perfect pyramids inside the stand, which opens at 8 a.m.Now that the stand has refrigerated storage, Little Robert makes the trip twice a week.
In Becerra’s history, you learn that Robert wants the fruit and vegetables to be stacked continually throughout the day to be constantly attractive to his customers; that anyone who applies for a job at the stand must take a math test first because costs still are added on the side of paper bags. You’ll find out why all the children are staying with the fruit stand. And you’ll discover a new term: fruit-standing.
Cesar Becerra is a South Florida historian and native of South Miami. He has documented logging in the Big Cypress, and is working on an Everglades collection at Florida International University’s archived. He ha hiked the Appalachian Trail in all seasons, and driven all 50 states, blogging as he went. He teaches environmental education and is tour leader manager for Educational Field Trips. And yes, he inserts himself into this book, but he does not get between the reader and the story he tells. Instead, he marvels at the story he tells.