The Roadside Stand Advantage: Is it Right for You?
As a young farmer in an already-saturated organic farming community, I have had to find creative solutions for marketing my produce. Our local coop and other stores selling local produce already have producers for most crops, so normally my only option would be to get in line with the other new growers, hoping to get a foot in the market door. After several years, I finally made it through the waiting list to become a fill-in, then finally a regular vendor at our local farmers market. Sometimes the competition makes me ask myself, why am I treading water just to stay afloat as a new farmer in an area where there are already so many others? The answer, for me, is that I absolutely love growing food and I want it to be my main job.
Truth be told, I have a wonderfully unique situation being a second grower on an existing organic vegetable farm. The current growers are envisioning future retirement and have invited me to take on crops they are no longer interested in producing, or ones they were never interested in to begin with. And not just for wholesale accounts, but retail as well, such as the farmers market and the roadside stand that sat empty before my arrival. As for direct marketing opportunities, I can’t say enough about our roadside stand. For a few important reasons, it has offered my family the opportunity to become more diversified and bring in more revenue than with any other avenue of sales. Consider a farmers market, by comparison: the farmers market only happens for 3 hours a week, has rules about buying in produce or other products, and a capped number of vendor spots for things like eggs – the roadside stand has none of these restrictions. This brings me to share the unique advantages of a roadside stand. But first…
Is a Roadside Stand Right For You?
A roadside stand isn’t for everyone. It could be a great boost to your farm income, or it could eat up more time and resources than it’s worth. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Do you have good exposure?
Location plays a huge role in whether or not your farm stand will prove to be successful. We are located on a pretty well-traveled road, on the major route to the Canadian border, less than a mile from a main road, and also en route to our closest local tourist destination in the summer, so while it could be better, the location is pretty good. I have heard of more rural, back-road farm stands doing well, but it probably takes a lot more signage and a hard-earned, dedicated customer base, which can take time to establish. In this instance, the frequency of impulse shoppers is less.
Your stand should be very obvious from the road so that it feels convenient to the driver. You may have a great array of produce, but we live in a fast-paced world, and people want what’s quick and easy. If there is no option for something clearly visible from the road with room for easy parking and turn around, then lots of catchy signage might bring people off the beaten path. In September, after the tourist season is over (when business slows down for us) we move our stand up to the barn and offer produce with self service, and I know we lose business because people don’t want to drive up the hill, even with persuasive discounts.
- Can you afford to staff it with a knowledgeable sales person, staff it yourself, or set it up to be self-service?
Staffing can be tricky. Paying a friendly, knowledgeable person can be expensive. If you have a flower garden or some of your fields are in direct view of the stand, having your salesperson do some weeding or other field work during downtime can be advantageous. We tried to staff the booth with inexpensive help, such as local high school students, but we found that they didn’t have the customer service experience and understanding of the produce that was necessary to keep folks coming back. Another option might be to pay someone minimum wage and increase their compensation with a produce trade.
We have found that hiring experienced staff is only an affordable option for us a couple of days a week. The rest of the time my daughter and I spend our days helping customers. We start the day with harvest and set-up, hang out for the day, and then I do some more farm work after dinner…and boy can that take its toll!
Yet another option is to run a self service stand. The upside is that you do not need to pay an employee, which, for some, is the only viable way to run the stand. However, there are a few disadvantages to this option - not everyone is trustworthy (and we have been robbed several times, no matter our attempts to lock down the money box), the customer has no ability to make change, and there is no one available to answer questions. Many customers are baffled by the checkout process, no matter how clear the written instructions.
- Can you offer pricing that is competitive with other local produce stands?
I struggle a bit with this. I am a smaller operation than some of the other local stands, and being organic, higher prices are necessary. That being said, I have to be competitive with the food coop, and I have to make some sacrifices in the prices in order to lure in neighbors who don’t usually buy organic.
The Roadside Stand Advantage
If you are considering starting a fresh produce venture, it is worth looking at the advantages of having a roadside stand, which set it apart from other avenues of sales. First off, the only limits or rules are ones created by you or the government. And aside from having a regular weekly schedule, where customers know they can always find fresh produce, there are so many innovative ways you can improve sales and attract customers:
- Offer an increased selection by buying in additional produce or other local products
- Incorporate the CSA model to help with cash flow and offer discounts to loyal customers
- Offer neighborly discounts
- Plant colorful display gardens and pick-your-own flowers, herbs, etc.
- Offer a “seconds” section for discounted, slightly blemished produce
At the farmers market, I couldn’t sell eggs or blueberries if I wanted to because there are too many others with the same product, and the market has limits. We’ve got lots of eggs to sell and my customers get excited about pastured, farm fresh eggs. Additionally, we planted a stand of blueberries that will be producing to the point of profit in a few more years, and my only outlet for these will be the stand. Right now, in order to provide blueberries to my customers, I pick-my-own at another local organic farm and resell them, in order to stock a fruit I do not yet have. This is the only crop that I buy in, but one that my customers love, and soon we will be able to provide our own. When our own berries are ready, our customers will already be accustomed to buying their berries from our stand.
I also buy in sourdough bread from a neighboring business, Patchwork Farm and Bakery, which has quite a following. Many of my regular customers plan their shopping around bread delivery day, and always leave with their veggies, a freshly-baked loaf of Charlie’s bread, and a satisfied smile. I’ve had inquiries from local artists and herbalists wanting to sell their products as well, and I plan to expand to include even more local goods. These extra perks give my customers more selection and a bit more of the one-stop-shop experience that consumers have come to expect.
Using the CSA Model
Why limit CSA discounts to weekly pick ups? This season we will be offering our CSA discounts to produce stand regulars – they will pay up front in the spring for a share of “Riverside Dollars” at a discount rate of 10%. They can then spend these dollars any time they like, on anything they like throughout the season. This is not something that we have tried before, but plan to incorporate as a way to increase revenue in the spring. We settled on this format because I have had customers explain that they used to be a part of our CSA, but either a ½ share was too large, or they wanted to the freedom to pick their own varieties. The CSA will allow us to offer a discount both to those customers who want a weekly pick up as well as those who want to shop at a smaller scale or have more choice in what they get.
Many of our neighbors do not usually buy organic produce and find that our regular prices don’t work for their budget. However, I would like them to be able to shop at our stand, so I often offer a “neighborly discount”. This way I get to know our neighbors better and can send them home with produce grown right in their backyard, and it makes us both feel good. They have told me that they can taste a real difference, and if this helps them make a shift toward a healthier diet, then I am happy to know I’ve made a difference.
Display Gardens and U-Pick Options
Having a display garden with colorful flowers and herbs is not only visually attractive from the road, but also gives you the opportunity to offer pick-your-own for certain things. For me, flowers bouquets were not a big seller, but allowing customers to pick (and choose) their own made them more popular. I plant my greens and herbs close to the stand as well – I keep a couple of bunches available at the stand, but without refrigeration they might wilt before they sell. With the greens nearby I can run out and harvest more if needed. I keep a bucket of fresh cool water on hand to cool the fresh-cut greens and instruct the customer to put them straight into the refrigerator. Customers always feel they’re getting a super deal by getting produce that’s picked fresh on the spot.
Not everything I harvest is picture perfect, and I have had a great response from having a “seconds” basket. Looks don’t matter to everyone. Most of the time, blemishes don’t affect flavor or storability, and for these I offer a small discount. In other instances, such as for punctured or cracked tomatoes with decreased storability, I offer a bigger discount. Folks on a tighter budget scoop up the otherwise undesirable vegetables with fervor. The competition and available space at a farmers market doesn’t allow for blemished produce, making this just another benefit of the roadside stand.
The Possibilities are Endless!
In a short time, I have watched our business grow through several outlets, but mostly through the stand. I always look forward to the seasons to come, bringing with them new ideas and new faces. New ideas for signage, ways to attract visitors, a recipe rack, new crops to try, better ways to display and keep produce fresh and looking good, and having an increasing customer base, many of whom I will learn to know by name, keep all of us coming back for more.