If you're selling the fruits of a natural lifestyle but finding your talents rotting in the fields, a roadside produce stand may be the answer to your marketing problems. It's a direct link to your customers without the bargain-hunting middleman reaching into your pocket. People are not averse to driving into the country to look for fruits and vegetables—but you must make it worth their while to stop.
The location of your produce stand is of utmost importance. Don't try to place it on turnpikes; people are not on these roads to shop and are too anxious to slow down for fear of being struck from the rear. Pick a quieter road with sufficient traffic moving along at a slower pace.
Then be an observer. You know when your particular crops will bear the heaviest, so find out in which direction traffic is heaviest at that time of year: It helps if drivers don't have to cross the road into an oncoming lane of traffic to reach your stand. Then try to place signs far enough down the highway, on both sides of the road, so that fast-moving traffic will see your stand and have enough time to slow down to a safe stop. Curves where people are forced to slow down are also a good place to show your signs.
Once you've picked a corner or a place on the road that faces into the traffic during your prime season—a place where approaching traffic can not only see your produce stand but look directly onto your displays—allow a wide area for pull-off so that cars can slow down before driving in. Obtain the necessary permits, and start building.
Make the stand attractive to prospective customers. Several long planks mounted on two sawhorses can serve your needs and be portable enough to be packed away in your barn when the season ends. With a little imagination you can place bushel baskets of fruit in front of piles of watermelons or pumpkins at each end of your "table" to lend a bit of showmanship. But such a stand is unlikely to be seen by passing motorists. If you're there to stay, make your stand a place that people will see and remember. Eye-catchers are needed (as a wood carver, I put in a totem pole). If possible, locate your produce stand under a large shade tree—you couldn't find a more natural way to display it, and it will give the stand a more rustic setting.
Strive for uniqueness in your display. Nail kegs sawed in half, polished and waxed, make nice display containers. Commercial-type glass-fronted refrigerators can be bought used, and the more perishable items stored in them. Even small stands use them. In areas where they will not get trampled on, flowers can be grown to add to the attractiveness of the place, and customers should be encouraged to pick a small bouquet free for the stopping. Or stand operators can sell flowers, offering half-price if the customer wants to pick them him- or herself.
A large area of growing flowers, constantly replanted through the growing season, would be needed if you wanted to use the flowers for something more than just a display item. If you can't spare the time and efforts for flowers, at least grow grass. Don't let your stand sit on barren rock or sand. You will find slack times during the day when traffic speeds up or tapers off when you can work on the aesthetics of the stand and still stay within sight should a customer drive up.
Having chosen your site and decided to build a permanent structure, you might consider placing a loading dock at the rear of it. It need not be at truck-bed level, but should have an area large enough to maneuver a hand truck into. Storage shelves can also be placed in the back to keep clutter down up front.
Aside from your seasonal produce, goat-milk products, eggs, and honey lend themselves very nicely to the atmosphere of a roadside stand. A small goat kid tethered nearby for children to pet might boost your product sales. (Children have a tremendous impact on the buying habits of their parents, as any breakfast-cereal company can tell you.) Be sure the goat kid is clean and well brushed and of a gentle nature, or the results might be just the opposite of what you'd hoped for.
Honey is also a good item for a roadside business, especially the clear types which can be displayed on shelves at the rear of the stand (place a mirror behind the jars to reflect the light through them). Some merchants use a glassed-in display of bees on a comb, which makes a good motion display. Just be sure the bees and the customers don't mix (you don't want angry customers trying to soothe big red welts).
You will learn the best ways to display and care for your items, including ways to preserve them for the longest time possible. Sweet potatoes, for instance, are hardy items. I have left them in bins for days at a time, pulling them only to cull them or clean the bin. (A brisk sweeping with a corn broom is one of the best ways to clean a potato bin.) Berries in season will probably be your hottest-selling item, so display them well. But remember that berries are fragile. Store them in a cool place at night.
In some areas, the roadside stand has fallen into disfavor. I have always tried to offer my customers top-grade items, and thrown out spoiled material. But when visiting other stands, I've found items not fit for the compost heap. I've also seen second-grade stuff bought in town, trucked back out to the stand, and sold as first-grade items. Don't expect your customers to reach down and dig through a dirty hamper-full of overripe or half-spoiled fruit. Chances are they won't, and you can't blame them.
Keep older items moving ahead of the new ones to reduce spoilage. A markdown counter can help relieve you of those items that are close to spoiling. The markdown table is the boon to the home canner without a garden—it's a paradise for bargain hunters and those with big families who cook in large quantities to feed their hungry brood. Count your items out in units of tens, metric-system style, to make a quick assessment of what items you have and which are selling fastest.
Keep your stand scrupulously clean at all times. You're handling food that people are buying to eat. Never leave a towel lying on a counter; it will give the place a sloppy appearance. Have a sink large enough to wash merchandise in (an old kitchen sink will do). Keep your personal appearance up to par—clean shirts and trousers for men and clean blouses for women (we've found that aprons on the girls denote country living, and with it, an atmosphere of wholesome life). Clean hands and fingernails go over like a big smile when it comes to making a sale. It's surprising how long people will remember "that dirty little man who runs the fruit stand out on the highway" once they've stopped there and never gone back. You're a business person—so look the part.
Also, keep the area around the stand picked up and the place painted. Shabbiness suggests something unpleasant to the average passing motorist, and the more cars that pass by, the less your chance of selling those items that are slowly going bad right before your eyes.
Place your scale under a light where customers can read it, but keep money in a place where it cannot be reached. Use old-fashioned, honest selling, of which not enough is being done today. Incidentally, you do not necessarily have to give your products away in a roadside stand. People who stop are looking for bargains, but so are the folks uptown. A guide to the prices they're paying in town can be found in the edition of the local paper that carries the ads for local supermarkets. In my area it comes out on Thursday, with glowing, full-page ads. Also find out what the people in the towns around you like best. A German or Italian restaurant has certain demands for ingredients you might be able to grow and sell in large quantities. These customers might seek you out if your products are better than those sold in the local stores.
You will need paper bags to package the items you sell. These can be bought in bundles of 500 from local wholesale houses and come in different sizes. The handiest bag sizes are sizes 6–8, 12–20, and 25 (sizes are measured in pounds). The very small bags tend to waste the world's dwindling supply of paper and are of little use unless you want to package one cucumber or one bell pepper, which can usually go in on top of something else. Mesh bags are fine for displaying fruit. The fruit is precounted, and the customers can see the items they buy through the mesh.
If you want to run your stand on a community-type basis, with several groups pitching in, a percentage of the sales should go to upkeep and taxes. There is an advantage to this in that it could eliminate a series of small stands placed all up and down the highway and allow the land needed for the stand on individual homesteads to be used for something else. One large stand could accommodate several groups. Common problems such as pricing, percentages, etc., would have to be worked out among your group, either around a big table or in New England town-meeting fashion.
There are an infinite number of ways to make a stand pay. The fruit-and-vegetable stand is one of the last bastions of real free enterprise, one of the last true family businesses left that has not been swallowed up into a conglomerate. The barber shop and shoe-repair shop remain small vestiges of the old system, but even they have bowed to the high-rent status of the shopping center.
The roadside stand is one of the few enterprises left that can be started off with small capital and built up. It is seasonal, for the most part, but it offers the owner a chance to be him- or herself and know a degree of freedom when a season ends that the clock puncher will not know until he reaches old age and retirement. The work is sometimes hard, but there are slack moments when you can chat with friendly customers and find out what's going on in the world, should you really care.
I have found people out for a drIve in the country more relaxed and in a cheerful frame of mind. Even the harried businessman will be more receptive to a friendly greeting and find stopping at your place a welcome break in his hectic routine. The fruit-and-vegetable stand is a branch of farm life and nature with an air of a country store about it. Once you're in it successfully, you'll like it. For fun, profit, and a ready outlet for the things you grow while you live the natural way, a roadside stand is hard to top.
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