How to Start a Produce Business

A guide to starting a home produce business, including converting a pickup truck to produce truck, what to buy and where to buy it, pricing, and where to sell your produce.
By J. Winike
May/June 1975
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Possible conversion for a pickup truck to a fruit-vegetable truck.
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With food prices what they are, it should become increasingly less difficult to convince people that vegetables are the best buy on the market today. The economics of the way most Americans eat will catch up with them sooner or later . . . and some of them will then discover that a fruit-and-vegetable-based diet is much more than just a bargain.

That in itself is reason enough to go into the produce business, if you've been considering a small, low-overhead enterprise as a means of liberation. There's more to this occupation than good financial prospects . . . its aesthetics can get you higher than a kite in a desert.

The basic idea of my produce business is to buy fruit and vegetables at wholesale cost and sell them wherever I can. On weekdays I work door-to-door in neighborhoods where I have established routes. My customers appreciate the delivery of fresh produce (at road-stand prices) direct to their homes, and I enjoy the benefit of a paced, predictable income. On a given summer weekday, when I'm offering no specially priced leader items, I can expect to make a profit of $30.00 to $50.00.

Then there are the weekends . . . when business prospects are unlimited. Fairs and festivals, centennials, holiday picnics and gatherings, motocross and road rallies, and sporting events of all kinds abound in the summer. I've done a good trade at rock concerts, rodeos, art fairs, and craft shows. You can sell just about any place your imagination and salesmanship can get you into . . . and expect to make $75.00- to $100-a-day profit.

I started in the vegetable trade with a Ford Econoline and $80.00 cash. With some concentrated effort and very little time, I built up my income to a $100-a-day turnover . . . working only on the days I chose. Careful buying and distribution give me a high level of control over my profits: The amount of money I make depends directly on how much of a truckload I buy and how much effort I put into selling. I've found no other work situation in which I felt my income was regulated so fairly.

Getting Started in a Home-Based Produce Business

The formula for a produce business is simple, really. You'll need the following:

[1] A truck you're sure of. It has to be reliable enough to haul up to two tons of vegetables wherever you want to sell them. An unexpected breakdown could mean the loss of a day's produce (up to $100 worth) because you'll probably have no place to store and cool the stock while the vehicle is repaired.

[2] At least $100 cash to set up . . . $60.00 minimum for your first load, plus some incidentals: paper and plastic bags, a scale perhaps.

[3] A neighborhood with no competition. My first route — in a suburb of Chicago — consisted of four or five square blocks of residents who relied on supermarkets for fruit and vegetables. They lived too far from the city to benefit from wholesale produce dealers and found farm roadside stands inaccessible or at least inconvenient. All I had to do was offer better-quality truck produce than the chain groceries, at lower prices. (I found I could still maintain a wide margin of profit, because my overhead costs were so low.) My only competition came from the small backyard gardens some of my customers kept . . . and I gladly moved over for them.

To begin with, then, you'll have two areas to research: where to buy your produce, and where to sell it.

Where to Buy

In Chicago and cities of similar size, the buying of fruit and vegetables offers no problem. I visit the Southwater Street Market at 4:00 a.m., before the big buyers and supermarket representatives arrive. That way I get the best bargains and don't have to hurry to make my selections.

One thing to remember when dealing with a wholesale house is that their margin of profit is very slim. You can't haggle with their prices, and you can't waste their time. On my buying trips I make it a point to know exactly what produce is selling for in the stores, from one day to the next. (Local supermarkets often buy leader items by the boxcar, and if you don't keep track of their specials you can easily be undersold.) Then all I have to do is walk up and down the dock with a salesman and point to the goods I'm interested in. He'll throw a price at me, and I can tell whether I'll be able to turn the article over at a profit or not.

You can also get your stock from farmers' markets, or directly from growers. I've bought truckloads of fruit such as watermelons or cantaloupe right off the boxcar at the freight yards. It's just a matter of tracing the supply lines and meeting the people who can give you the breaks. The cheaper you buy, obviously, the greater your profit . . . and a little market research goes a long way.

What to Buy

The produce you handle will depend on your customers' preferences — which you'll determine from experience — and the availability of a given fruit or vegetable. I sell only what's in season, and stock regulars around which my patrons can build their diet.

I cover each route twice a week, with the first load heavy on vegetables: lettuce, cabbage, cukes, tomatoes, green peppers, beans, onions, and some breakfast melons. On the second trip I carry sweet corn and a large selection of fruit: plums, peaches, grapes, watermelons, apples, oranges, bananas, and occasionally strawberries and cherries.

Everything is effectively displayed in the truck so that customers can approach the side or back doors to see, smell, and feel their selections. Color and tactile qualities are important in the sale of fresh produce. An attractive item can literally sell itself.

Price

I display my prices on a chalkboard over the scale and money drawer on the front seat of the truck . . . and I give those figures very careful thought. I've learned that it's infinitely more acceptable to cut my rates two or three times in the course of a day than to be stuck with a whole case of some item at the end of it. Generally I find that if I sell for a few cents less than the supermarkets I can still make up to 90 percent profit on a load. That margin is of course affected by numerous variables — right down to how hot the weather is — but these variables can be controlled with careful market research and produce handling.

Where to Sell

The backbone of your business is the specific area where you sell regularly: your own neighborhood route. I have two — each four blocks square — and serve one on Mondays and Thursdays, the other on Tuesdays and Fridays. The houses are close together and set back only a short distance from the street, which minimizes the amount of walking I have to do. (By now most of my customers know when to expect me, and generally come out to the truck when I pull up . . . but in the beginning I did quite a bit of trudging back and forth knocking on doors.) Another point that led me to choose these territories is that the streets are quiet and shady with a minimum of traffic. This means that I can park my truck anywhere along the side of the road and not have to worry about creating an obstruction.

In the summer the sidewalks are crowded with children playing, and I always make friends with them first. Not only do they herald my arrival and save me a walk to their mothers' doors . . . they often gather around the truck and do most of the selling for me. "Look, grapes! Oh please, we haven't had grapes in a week . . . and strawberries!" Wherever there's a child who calls for fruit instead of candy, there's a mother willing to buy if the price is right.

Next to children, my most enthusiastic customers are old people. They may not use as much produce as a family, but they're infinitely more pleasant to deal with. On each of several streets in my territory live six or seven retired ladies who gather around the truck at the same time every delivery day to haggle, barter, and negotiate for the choicest produce bargains (and they usually have a better eye for a bargain than I do). They give me recipes to pass on and tips on what to buy when . . . and they usually purchase for friends and kin across town who don't have a vegetable man. My elderly patrons help me keep quality up and prices down, because they know, even more than I, what produce is worth.

There are several corner stores on my routes that soon found they couldn't compete with my prices, and began to buy from me. They benefit because I give them better wholesale rates than they had been getting from Chicago produce houses, and I make a small, quick profit by turning over cases of goods. In addition, this arrangement gives me more control over the amount of fruit and vegetables that comes into my areas.

I also serve a nursing home in the neighborhood. The two ladies who do the cooking for the establishment are delighted to have fresh, reliable delivery of the commodities they previously had to spend time shopping for. Not far away is a small private school that uses enough lettuce and tomatoes to justify the petitioning I had to do to get the account.

Another factor to consider in choosing a route neighborhood is the availability of taverns. I have five in each area, and among them I can usually count on selling whatever I have left in the truck at the end of the day. I just pack the remainders in plastic bags and hawk them from table to table or along the bar. It was hard going at first, until I established a good reputation, but even in the beginning my produce spoke for itself. A dozen ears of corn for a buck, two heads of lettuce for a quarter, and tomatoes for 25¢ a pound are bargains in any man's ears.

Most of the guys I sell to in the taverns have just gotten off work, have change to jingle in their pockets, and dig the notion of coming home from the bars with a good buy in vegetables. (There's a psychology to this business, believe me.) I'm glad to get rid of the produce even if I have to take a cut in profit, because I don't want to have to sell day-old truck produce the next day . . . and I usually accept three or four free beers in the process. Needless to say, this is my favorite part of the route.

Getting yourself established in the bars can lead to other possibilities, too. My regular tavern customers often approach me about buying produce by the case, for canning or pickling (or just for special occasions such as picnics). I give them a good cut in price and I still make a killing.

What to do With the Weekends

I make most of my money, and have the best time doing it, on weekends. I'm extremely partial to open-air music, art, and sporting events, because fresh fruit seems to complement everything so well and sells like mad at such a gathering. Grapes are hot items at rock concerts, peaches at art fairs. Watermelon goes anywhere if it's cold, even in the parking lots of theaters and carnivals. Plums, apples, and oranges are old reliables: I've even sold them to fishermen I spotted off the road as I cruised home from county fairs.

Some places I work require that I have special permits to sell, others do not . . . so I always carry a peddling license from the town in which I operate my routes. It cost only $10.00 and is official looking enough for most people. Generally, if someone refuses to let me sell on his premises, it's because he's afraid I'll take business from his operation in one way or another. . . by competing with a popcorn or hot dog stand, for example. But I'm a fast talker, and — as I seldom turn up at the same place two weeks in a row — I can usually convince somebody to turn his back for the afternoon. No one can deny that a peach is a superior refreshment to a hot dog, and that's a surprisingly strong argument.

How much to buy for a weekend depends entirely on the crowd you expect to serve. I sell regularly at a fairground that attracts from five to ten thousand people per event, and I usually unload six or seven cases of grapes, two cases of apples, a case each of plums and peaches, and five to ten watermelons. At smaller fairs and gatherings — say two to three thousand people — I carry more of a selection and a lesser quantity of any one item. Allowing for circumstances, I usually find I can raise my prices 10 to 25 cents per item and not get a complaint. It's not uncommon to triple my investment on weekend ventures.

Here are a few ideas for weekends:

  • Open-air music festivals: rock, jazz, classical, band concerts. The closer to the bandstand you can locate your truck, the better the sales.
  • Sporting events: motocross, road, and sports car rallies, hill climbs, Little League, Pony League, and minor league baseball, soccer matches, Sunday pickup football games.
  • Arts and crafts fairs.
  • Auctions.
  • Saturday markets, flea markets, even shopping center parking lots.
  • Drama presentations, especially big-tent, touring summer stock productions.
  • Any other tent shows: religious revivals, amateur shows, etc.
  • VFW or civic league picnics. Sometimes forest rangers will let you sell in state parks, sometimes they won't.
  • Recreational affairs: boat and air shows, displays of snowmobiles, motorcycles, and recreational vehicles.
  • Animal exhibitions: dog and horse shows, cattle judgings, grange fairs, rodeos.
  • Circuses and carnivals. (Permits may be required. Inquire a month or two ahead of time.)
  • Special event picnics: July 4th, Labor Day.
  • Dedications, inaugurations, town celebrations, centennials.
  • Large construction sites, or wherever many workers are likely to be assembled during lunch hours.
  • Roadside turnouts, close enough to forest preserves, wildlife refuges, or recreational locations to attract picnickers.
  • Parking lots of deserted gas stations at busy intersections.

You take it from there. You may not become a produce tycoon, but at the very least you can be a spontaneous entrepreneur who makes a comfortable income at a trade that's healthy for everyone concerned.


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