Produce vendors worry economy will pinch business

WARNER ROBINS – Must be spring, the roadside produce stands are back in business.

But even the fruit and vegetable vendors are finding business isn’t blossoming as fast as normal in this year of recession.

“People don’t have as much money to spend. I know I sure don’t,” said J.R. Crosby, who with his wife, Dianne, opened a stand on Watson Boulevard next door to the Chick-Fil-A in the International Square Shopping Plaza parking lot about six weeks ago.

“Business is beginning to pick up as people learn we’re here, and I can take credit cards and debit cards, so that helps. But I hope it will get better as it warms up,” he said.

Charlie Jones, who has run a vegetable stand at the corner of North Davis Drive and Green Street for about 15 years, also hopes sales heat up with the weather.

“The cold weather hurt some, but I think the economy is more of it. I’m only doing about half the business I used to do. Folks ain’t got the money,” he said. “It’ll pick up when it starts getting hot, but I don’t think it’ll get back to normal this year.”

The Crosbys were married last June and moved to Warner Robins from Graves, S.C., in September looking for better economic opportunities and to be closer to his brother, the Rev. Willie Crosby.

“He and his wife own the Crosby Furniture Store in the same shopping center. That’s how I found this place,” Crosby said of the old photo kiosk he has built his stand around.

“Graves is really small. The whole town just about could fit in this parking lot,” Crosby said. “I’d lived over here for a year or so before I got married and liked it. There’s more going on and the people seem friendlier.”

Crosby said he mostly has worked in restaurant management, but he had operated produce stands in Hampton and Columbia, S.C., in the past.

“I decided to try it again here,” he said. “It is something my wife and I can do together. We both enjoy meeting people and talking to them. We already have some steady customers who come by just to talk and visit even when they don’t need anything.”

And despite the slow economy, he believes a produce stand can be profitable.

“People want fresh vegetables and fruit, and they know you can get them at a place like this, because we have to have fresh, quality items to stay in business. The big grocery stores don’t have to rely on their produce because they have so much more to offer. And they buy in bulk so you don’t always know how fresh it is. Here it has to be fresh or people won’t come back.”

Still, Crosby said he has diversified some with his new stand.

“We have some gift items my wife wanted to try, and we’re selling snacks and cold drinks. And I’ve added flowers and some hanging baskets. I never sold those before, but I figured I’d try them to see if it brought more folks in, and so far it has.”

The Crosbys’ stand opens at 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday. And they keep it open until 9 p.m. except on Wednesdays, when they close at 5 to attend church.

They go to the Atlanta Farmer’s Market every Thursday morning to buy fresh produce, and again on Monday mornings if they are running low.

“I’m looking forward to adding some locally grown fruits and vegetables when they are ready,” Crosby added. “I’ve already talked with a few area farmers who will have watermelons and cantaloupes, and I’m looking for folks with tomatoes and vegetables.”

Jones, who operates a smaller stand out of a trailer and panel truck he can take home at night, said he buys his produce directly from farmers in the Valdosta and Thomasville area early in the year and then from local farmers later.

“People enjoy fresh vegetables. And I can usually sell as cheap or cheaper than the grocery store. I get a lot of customers from all over who work at the base, plus some local folks,” he said.

Jones, who is 81, said he worked for cleaning companies most of his life, then began selling produce after moving to New York.

“I lived up there about 8 1/2 years, but then I came home and decided to sell vegetables here. That was about 15 years ago.”

He said his sons help him stock his produce and operate the stand.

“But I’m here six days a week, 9 to 5:30. I take off Sunday to go to church.”

Jones also said he enjoys talking with customers who stop by his stand, but mostly he said it has been a good way to make a living.

“You can bring in $1,000 to $1,500 a week when business is good. That’s why I’m hoping this economy turns around, and we can get back to that.”

To contact writer Chuck Thompson, call 923-6199, extension 235.