Employees at the Florida Caverns State Park gift shop pull double duty as tour guides and storytellers.

July 3, 2024

In 1935, the state of Florida acquired the land that is now known as Florida Caverns State Park in the Panhandle near Marianna. While Civilian Conservation Corps employees began the heavy lifting to construct the building that would become the park’s gift shop, Robert DeGroot made his way into the world that same year. Eventually, he became a ranger at the park and when he retired, he ran the gift shop.

As DeGroot got older and needed help, his daughter, Brenda Shirah retired from the military and moved back to Florida along with her daughter who had just graduated high school. When he passed away in 2021 at the age of 86, Shirah took over officially as the new owner. “And I’ve been running it since,” she says.

The retired United States Air Force “weather girl” says the tale of the family- owned business began in 1976 when she was a little girl.

“I’m not 100% sure when the gift shop began; it started off really, really small,” she recalls. “It was upstairs in the museum where people used to check in for their tours. They had a cabinet with a few little trinkets and eventually they moved downstairs.”

In 2002, the gift shop opened in its current location for the only state park where visitors can take a guided tour through a cave system to “see spectacular examples of cave formations,” the official website boasts.

Short-sleeved name-dropped T-shirts are usually popular souvenirs at the gift shop.

Sixty-five feet below the surface, visitors explore the endless rooms that make up the three-quarter-mile-long tour conducted by a fleet of 18 employees — most of whom begin their career journey with Shirah at 15 or 16 years old.

“These kids have to learn all about geology. They have to learn the whole history of this park,” she says of her employees. “They have to know where everything is in this park, how the cave was discovered, how it was made and who found it. They even have to know who the president was back then, so they have to know their history.”

Local Connections

When they’re not conducting cave tours, employees are busy in the gift shop helping customers pick out their favorite T-shirts, magnets, toys, books, stone animals, jewelry, backpacks, ranger vests, walking sticks, mugs, helmets, lanterns, postcards, stuffed animals, crystals, patches, pins and of course — the cool treats.

“My top-selling item, believe it or not, is ice cream,” Shirah notes. “Especially in the summer. And slushies.”

It’s no wonder, seeing as the gift shop’s target demographics are fifth and sixth graders. “That’s usually the age group that they come in as a school,” Shirah explains. “And when the parents are bringing their kids, that’s usually the age that they’re bringing them.”

For this reason, Shirah says, she tries to make sure her toys and crafts are educational and have some tie to nature, such as the National Geographic volcano and crystal building kits, books written by a local historian, and even a treasure map that is as accurate as it is fun.

Among the most important criteria for selecting items for the shop, Shirah says, are reasonable prices and products that are locally sourced whenever possible. Her go-to roster includes a Native American who makes items for her that sell “as fast as they come in,” a female artist who makes T-shirts “right here in town,” a small business that makes homemade honey butter, and Silver Streak, a local vendor that not only supplies stone animals and shark’s teeth but hires individuals with disabilities.

No one goes thirsty at Florida Caverns State Park gift shop with its large inventory of name-dropped drinkware from several sources.

Shirah adds she tries to keep her prices competitive with those of big-box stores and chains to help community members save money.

“During Christmas a lot of the locals will come and they’ll purchase their Christmas gifts here,” she says. “So I try to get Paw Patrol and this and that, and I try to get as cheap as I can so they save money instead of going to Walmart.”

When it comes to wholesale items, Shirah says Squire Boone Village and Wilcor International provide some very popular items, which currently include lapel pins and magnets.

While she normally sells hoodies and long-sleeve shirts, Shirah decided to switch it up this year and buy zip-up hoodies. T-shirts are the most popular, however, because as Shirah notes, “It’s usually hot.”

Year-Round Perfection

Even the cave, which holds steady around 68 degrees, is very humid year-round. However, the former weather forecaster notes, it’s always the perfect temperature down there.

“[In the summer] the real field temp in the cave is about 73 so it feels nice and refreshing,” she explains. “In the winter when it is 30 degrees outside, and you go down into the cave and it’s 68 degrees with a real field temp of 73, it feels really warm.”

Thirty-three steps and a walk down a sloping hill delivers guests to the beginning of the tour and the lowest point of the cave in the Introduction Room. This is also where Shirah’s employees shine as they take the lead in guiding guests through the various rooms of the cave.

The gift shop includes products that appeal to kids, such as plush, toys and activity kits.

“When you’re in that room, that is where the tour guide’s going to start your story,” she notes, explaining that the tour guides all share the story of how the cave was formed and discovered. During tours, they explain the various minerals found in the cave and educate guests on stalactites, stalagmites, columns, formations, fractures and all the little tidbits of information that enlighten and entertain the crowd.

And the most common question from guests? “Are there bats?” Shirah says with a laugh. “And yes, there are bats.”

The Golden Rule

All jokes aside, it is here where the secret to the success of the Florida Caverns gift shop is revealed — in the strength of the workforce.

Shirah says her close-knit relationships with her employees make all the difference in the day-to-day operations.

“If you treat your employees well, your employees are going to treat the guests well,” she explains. “And 99% of the guests will treat the employees well right back.”

Shirah notes the reason she likes to hire younger individuals is to “get them before they have bad habits,” and then invest the time to help them develop a skillset that they can use throughout their careers. She says she believes their duties help to build confidence.

In slower times in the winter, Shirah rotates employees so that each one has an opportunity to be manager on duty on weekends.

“They do schedules, everything,” she says. “It’s important that they learn these skills, you know? How else are they [going to] get it?”

In return, her employees pledge their appreciation by doing a good job and pouring their acquired skills into the heart of her business.

“I’ve been very successful. These kids, they start with me at 15, 16; If they go to college here, they stay with me up until they find their careers, and I encourage them to go on and get a career,” she says. “I don’t have a very high turnaround. Once I get my employees, I keep them.”