Produce-ing Customer Satisfaction: An interview with Jason Charles

When I entered the home of Jason Charles, owner and manager of Charles’ Family Markets, I was immediately enveloped in their family’s welcoming atmosphere. I could tell that I was arriving soon after their dinner time together. The smell of a home cooked meal wafted throughout the floorboards, and his three children sat on the couch, digesting their latest meal. After greeting his wife Trinket, I was able to sit down with Jason and ask him a few questions about his line of work.

 

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I met Jason last summer, when I had the opportunity to for work him and man one of his produce stand for a couple of months. I sold a variety of produce throughout the summer season, ranging from strawberries to tomatoes to corn to even pots of flowers. Even while I was working for him and selling his fresh produce, I did not really take the time to think about the impact that I was having on the surrounding society. The fact that I was supporting local farmers and selling healthier choices to farmers went right over my head.

Jason manages several produce stands throughout Lancaster County. Between managing a large farmer’s market located in my hometown, Lititz, and also managing three smaller produce stands around the County, he manages to keep pretty busy!

“Thank you so much for having me!” I said gratefully, trying my best not to allow myself to be distracted by the stimulating aroma of mashed potatoes still lingering in the house.

“Of course!” Jason replied, lounging back in his chair. Even in his own home, it was obvious how important quality of food meant to him and his family.

“How important would you say customer satisfaction is in your line of work?”

“It is probably the most important part of selling produce, besides of course providing satisfactory produce to the customers. And that is what gets us customer satisfaction!”

“I just think back to when I worked for you,” I continued. “I know that there were some people who would come up to the stand and look at the prices and say, ‘Well, gee, I can get this for a quarter cheaper at the supermarket!’ So what keeps these people from coming back?”

“Well, you know,” he answered. “We do live in a part of the country that actually values fresh produce and fresh foods. We’ve grown up around farms our whole lives, and we pass horse and buggies every day! We aren’t living in an urban setting that could really care less about where the food comes from. We are actually aware of where our food is grown and how it gets to the shelves of supermarkets. There are a lot of people who come to our stands because they do not want foods that have been intoxicated by pesticides, or they really are just interested in supporting the local farmers. I really have found that people in Lancaster County value fresh produce. When customers come to us, I can tell them that the produce we are selling was just picked last night or early this morning. That is something that a worker at the local Giant could not tell them.”

“So do you think that a business like yours would not be able to survive in an urban environment?” I inquired.

“I wouldn’t say that,” he said. “You do see places in cities that sell fresh produce and foods. I just think that it does impact people when they are driving to work every day and pass local farms along the way. It is a part of our culture here in Lancaster. So I think it is easier to persuade people to support these local farms.”

“What other positives would you say stem from buying produce from local farmer’s markets and produce stands?”

“Well,” he replies. “You cannot really beat the quality of food that we provide for our customers. The farmers that we work with only sell the highest quality of products. They are usually organic and not sprayed with pesticides. That’s really a big thing for some people these days!”

I think back to all of the negative things that we hear about the production of foods these days. I know that personally, I feel much more comfortable eating fresh foods grown locally than those that I have no idea where they came from.

“You probably have relationships with these local farmers,” I said. “So what is it really like for them? Are they really struggling as much as everyone says? Is it difficult for them to compete with foreign markets!”

“Hell yeah!” He responded, sitting up a little in his seat. “They’re working their asses off! Oh, excuse my language. But really, I can’t imagine doing what they do. We do have local supermarkets that support the local farmers, but they have a higher quality of food than those of the foreign markets. And they can’t just pay themselves a dollar a day or anything like that. They have to live in America and be able to afford that lifestyle. It’s definitely not easy. So, you know, when we have those customers that come up to us and complain about a quart of strawberries being a quarter more expensive than down at the supermarket, I kindly remind them of all the hard work that went into just picking those strawberries! And then that does not even include growing them and caring for them until they are ready to be picked. It’s a crazy amount of work. So I think it is great when we have the locals come down to support these farmers who really are working their butts off.”

“That actually brings me to something else I wanted to talk about,” I said. “We hear a lot about how we should support our local farmers. How important is our support to them?”

“It’s super important! Without our support, they cease to exist. When it comes to the large plantations in foreign countries that pay their workers next to nothing, it is hard to compete against that! They can obviously sell their goods for low prices, and it really isn’t a big deal. They can get away with basically abusing their workers by paying them super low wages. Like I said earlier, our farmers can’t live off of wages like that. So they’re competing against these big guys. Small farms pretty much have to grow their own food and then sell it themselves. They aren’t large enough to sell bushels and bushels of products to the supermarkets. They just can’t do it. So supermarkets won’t bother buying it from the local farmers. That’s where the problems begin! So farmers markets are really a huge reliance for them. It’s where they can sell their products! They try their best to give a great quality product to get the locals to keep coming back for more. And it really can work, and it is really cool to watch it all happen.”

 

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“Do you think we can really make a difference?” I asked. “If we choose to buy locally instead of visiting the supermarket, can we really save these farms?”

“Of course that is the case! We really are the ones that make the difference. The big plantations and corporations are really taking over the country, and I don’t really think that is a completely good thing! There are a lot of flaws in America’s system that we have going right now. And a lot of people don’t really know what all goes on in these large plantations. Of course we have the animal rights activists who are against how harshly the animals are treated, but most people just tend to ignore these types of issues. They tend to ignore how the food gets placed on their tables in the first place. I think that most people just find it easier to live with themselves that way. They don’t want to know about all of those bad things because they don’t really know what they can do to change it.”

“Is it important for people to get educated about these issues?”

“Absolutely. It baffles me how willing people are to just pick something off the shelf, put it in their mouth, and eat it without having the slightest clue where it all comes from.”

“So you’d consider yourself against these large corporations then?” I asked.

“Definitely. I buy locally as much as I can. I buy organic foods. That’s really a big thing for me and my family. There’s so much genetic tampering with meats and animals these days. And only God knows what gets sprayed on all those crops. I know how unhealthy these types of things can be. So I try to buy the ‘clean’ food, if you will.”

“But will buying locally really solve the problem? I mean, can these local farms handle feeding everyone that lives in the local area? You said before how hard these farmers work. Is it possible for them to feed everyone? Maybe these large plantations are destructive yet unavoidable?”

He sits there and takes a long look at me for a while. He then finally responds, “You know, you’re right in some ways. This isn’t an issue that can simply be solved overnight. We cannot expect everyone to suddenly go buy local foods and for the farmers to be able to handle such a dramatic increase in demand for their product. But it is something that can be changed over time. It is dangerous for us to be so reliant on these large corporations to handle our food supply. We see the contaminations that happen each day with these foods, and we still choose to ignore them. I just think that if we get people to be more aware of this issue and really devote more time to educating people about it, there can eventually be a huge difference. It is something that just has to change slowly. But it can change. Absolutely. I have faith in that.”

I thanked him for his time and for welcoming me into his home. I left, amazed at the things that I was able to learn from this man. He was right. I was so skeptic about being able to suddenly change the way people view buying local foods. However, it cannot be a sudden and drastic change. People are just uneducated about where our food comes from, and maybe we should take more time to really become aware of what we are allowing into our bodies.

 

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