As published on LinkedIn Influencers on August 21st, 2018.
Almost 20 years ago, while I was still a partner at Goldman Sachs, I bought a small orchard in my hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia. At the time, I looked at it as a real estate investment, with the added bonus of it being a bit of a retirement project for my hard working and incredible father, Ed. And what a project it has been! Over the years he has transformed 25 acres of old apple trees into a robust, high-density farm, producing close to a million pounds of apples, pears, peaches, cherries, nectarines, and plums every year. Needless to say, it’s become a little more than a hobby.
In 2002, I left full-time work at Goldman Sachs, and since then my family has travelled to Kelowna to work on the farm during the summer months. When the kids were little, we would leave the day they got out of school and return just a few days before they were set to begin again. As the years progressed, however, our time in Kelowna has become shorter and shorter as the kids’ commitments for sports and internships has increased, as well as my own commitments regarding preparations for our annual Women Moving Millions Summit that happens each year in September. But this year is different. Our youngest child has graduated from high school, and therefore there was no need to rush back to Utah in early August for volleyball camp. Instead, this month marked the official start of my ‘gap year’ of sorts, giving me more time to help at the farm. This is why my daily routine of the past three weeks has been selling fruit at our roadside stand.
First it was cherries. We arrived at the tail end of cherry season, and thankfully we only had a few days to go of selling them because they are not fun to sort let me tell you. If you’ve ever wondered why cherries are so expensive to buy at the store, it is because it is almost a miracle that a cherry can be grown, picked, sorted, stored, and sold and still remain tasty. Even when it goes directly from a tree to a roadside stand a few hundred feet away this process is hard. This year the heat tended to make them go soft, and it was… not fun. But we did make some awesome cherry jam.
Next came the peaches. There are a number of life experiences that I have had that have convinced me that there is intelligent design and a higher-power, and the act of picking and eating a perfectly tree ripened peach is one of them. I love peaches. Every morning, during my ritual of walking the dogs around the orchard, I stop and pay worship to the peach trees. Then I carefully search the trees for the most perfect one, pick it with love and intention, and then I eat it. More like devour it. A few hours later we are at the stand sharing the peach love to our customers who pull over to pick up a basket full of goodness for themselves.
So what are a few observations from my decades of selling fruit roadside, in particular peaches, that might be worth sharing?
1) Deliver the best product at a competitive price. Emphasis on the best product. We hand sort every single basket and box that leaves our stand. Our customers come back year after year, and they tell their friends to do so as well, because we take pride in what we sell. If it is not perfect, it goes into the seconds bin that is sold at a discount or to compost. I cannot tell you how many people tell us that we have the best fruit in the Okanagan, and this is why. It can be so tempting to want to sneak in the blemished ones at the bottom of the box, because every peach you sell at a discount is money lost, but you just can’t compromise quality if you want to have a sustainable business. Deliver that quality and your customers will come back again and and again. Second, the price. Occasionally we have a customer who tells us that they can get cheaper peaches down the road, around the corner, or somewhere else. To them we always reply, “That is awesome, feel free to buy them there, but our price is our price.” It takes so much time and energy to negotiate, and for us it is not worth it. When you know you have a great product at a competitive price, stand by it and put your energy elsewhere.
2) Differentiate your customer service. Make it fun and personal. Every person who walks up to our stand is offered a generous slice of peach to taste the product. We do our best to acknowledge regulars and to thank them. We load up on quippy ‘peach’ humor like, “Have a peachy day!” or “Are you feeling peachy today?” Our daughter Allie picks out the BEST peach she can find that day and gives it to one customer as a gift. Her own version of the golden buzzer from America’s Got Talent. Our goal is to make buying peaches at Hoffman Orchards a highlight of their day. Granted, we are a tiny business, but I really think this idea scales. In a world where we are increasingly disconnected, let’s make a commitment to reconnect. When was the last time you went into a business you frequent often and you were either acknowledged for being a regular, or better yet, recognized and thanked by name? If your answer is not often this makes no sense to me. None. With each passing day it is becoming easier and easier to purchase everything you need online, and therefore customer service and making it personal is what is going to matter to help you stand out. Really matter.
3) Tell your story! On most days we have three generations of Hoffman/Zehner women selling fruit. We are a family owned and operated business and proud to share our story with you. If you would like to meet the crew, take a look at our instagram page @HoffmanOrchards. I really believe that people want to know more about the people behind the products and services they purchase.
4) Everyone should have a job doing manual labor, in particular farm labor, at one point in their lives to more fully appreciate and value those who do it year round to bring our food to us. When you are consuming food, how often do you stop to think about what it took to make it happen? If you are like me, likely not often, and yet agricultural jobs are not only some of the hardest jobs in the world to do, but they are also some of the lowest paying. Not only that, but agricultural workers are often migrant workers and are easily abused and exploited. The same is true for restaurant workers. One way to say thank you to the thousands of people who bring beautiful fruits and vegetables to you and to those who serve you is to ensure that they have their rights protected. Join me in supporting two organizations that work to protect the rights of the people working in our food systems. The first is the National Immigration Law Center, dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of low-income immigrants. The second is Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), whose mission is to improve wages and working conditions for our nation’s restaurant workforce. (If you have other suggestions please post in the comment section)
5) This last one is from my mom. As I am working on this article she is across from me, in the kitchen, canning peaches. I asked her for an observation, or lesson learned, about selling fruit roadside, because she has been doing it a lot longer than me. This is what she said. “I love it. Especially when you are ‘retired’ what you can miss is connection. People come by the stand who are friends, or have become friends because they come by all the time. It’s about the people. I have heard so many great stories.” Right on mom!
Have a peachy day!