For a quarter-century, Doug Diehl's produce stand in Park Plaza has withstood the test of time and competition.
But two freak accidents -- one last year -- nearly prevented the 48-year-old Severna Park resident from celebrating his 25th anniversary this month.
"A guardian angel has been watching me, I guess," Diehl said.
The first mishap occurred in 1973, two years after he opened his stand in the parking lot across from the Severna Park branch of the Anne Arundel County public library system.
A fast-moving thunderstorm forced Diehl to close early. Soon after he loaded the produce into his van and left, a bolt of lightning struck and burned a giant oak tree that had shaded the stand.
"If anybody had been underneath that tree, it would have been history," Diehl recalled. "I dodged a bullet on that one."
Last October, a thick branch from a nearby tree fell on top of the red and white striped canopy that now covers the stand. Luckily, the branch missed Diehl by about three feet, and no other employees were working at the time.
"They were concerned because it was the day before pay day," Diehl joked.
Employees and a large stand were not always a part of Diehl's business. After he graduated in 1970 from the University of Maryland College Park with a degree in government and politics, Diehl taught fourth grade at Brooklyn Park Elementary School.
A year later, he sold corn, tomatoes and cantaloupes from the Eastern Shore out of the back of his van near the intersection of Ritchie Highway and Arnold Road. It was such a success that several months later Diehl opened a stand at his current location and eventually gave up teaching to devote full time to the business.
A lot has changed since his first venture. Instead of operating the business by himself, Diehl now has 16 employees. He also has three drivers and five trucks to pick up the produce. And he has had to compete not only with supermarkets, but also with a nearby farmers market in Arnold.
Two things that haven't changed, Diehl says, are his commitment to selling the freshest produce and to serving his customers. He has sent his drivers to Pennsylvania to buy cherries, blueberries and apricots and to Virginia to buy tomatoes.
And Diehl and the rest of his employees go out of their way to help customers.
"It's nice service," said Diana Coslick of Severna Park, who has been buying tomatoes at the produce stand since it opened. "They've always got a smile."
But how long will those smiles be there? Diehl says he has 10 more years until his lease expires and notes that he is not getting younger.
Maria Morris would not even consider the idea of Diehl retiring and closing his business.
"He's a mainstay of this community," said Morris, who has been buying his peaches since she moved to Cape St. Claire in 1975. "He's a fixture."
Diehl's 14-year-old daughter Abby has already voiced her intention of running the business if her father ever retires. But for now, Diehl will continue to sell what he calls "the cream of the crop" in produce.
"I created the business from scratch," he said. "It's my business, and it's what I do. I like it."
Pub Date: 7/25/96