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Fruit and veggies aplenty: Roanoke produce wholesaler pivots to retail as college market withers in pandemic

Fruit and veggies aplenty: Roanoke produce wholesaler pivots to retail as college market withers in pandemic

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You want gooseberries?

Sarah-Jane Bova Jones has a lot of gooseberries. And a lot of other stuff, too. Tangerines, kale, cucumbers, potatoes, onions. Tons of it.

No, really. Actual tons of it. And she’d love you to have some of it — cheap.

Produce Source Partners in Roanoke, formerly Quality Produce, had its warehouse all stocked up with more fruit and vegetables on the way to supply Virginia Tech and Radford University ahead of students returning from spring break this month.

Only the students didn’t come back. The schools closed amid concerns about spreading the coronavirus.

And Jones, regional sales manager for the company her great-grandfather started, suddenly had a lot of lettuce and lemons to deal with. And gooseberries.

So the wholesaler that typically supplies universities, hospitals and restaurants like Olive Garden pivoted inside of 24 hours to become a retail seller. The company set up online ordering and put truck drivers to work breaking down 50 pound units of potatoes and cucumbers into retail size bundles and packing customized boxes for buyers to pick up with drive-thru service at the company’s Roanoke location at Fifth Street and Centre Avenue Northwest.

“We’re trying to save jobs and we’re trying to not throw away everything in our building, especially when there’s a need in our community,” Jones said. “Are we making any money? No. But we’re keeping from throwing stuff away.”

A lot of produce has also been shared with food banks, and Jones and her team are working on ways to get fruits and vegetables to frontline responders to the coronavirus crisis.

By Monday, the company had given away or sold produce for which it paid $20,000.

Jones said the company had loaded up its warehouse to supply Virginia Tech and Radford to feed students returning after spring break. And because so much produce this time of year comes from California, tons more was already on trucks headed to Virginia.

And suddenly, they had no place to sell it.

Jones and her counterpart at the company’s Ashland location had toyed with trying retail fruit and vegetable boxes this summer, but had backburnered the idea.

But Jones’s friends, who know where she works, started hitting her up to see if she would sell small amounts of staples they couldn’t find in grocery stores, which were getting hit hard by shoppers.

“We kind of yanked it off of that back burner spot that it was in and said, ‘How can we make this work?’ ” Jones said.

They had to look at their inventory and decide what products would most likely sell, and what products could easily be broken down to retail size offerings.

They also scrambled to build a website where customers could place orders and pay.

Within 12 hours last week, they had 125 orders — enough to overwhelm the system they had just put together. So they cut off sales to allow workers to catch up and put the boxes together. The website is only active when the company is taking orders.

Fruits and vegetables come in different grades, Jones said, and the wholesale quality Produce Source Partners deals in isn’t always as pretty as the peppers and pears on grocery store displays.

“Nobody seems to care right now,” she said. “Everybody’s in that mode where they’re just trying to get healthy stuff for their family.”

The website was reopened for a second wave of sales this week. With some practice, Jones said, they felt confident they could double the number of orders they could fill.

Jones, meanwhile, is short on sleep and is becoming a stranger to her husband and children, Kathryn, 6, and Isabella, 2.

“My kids have gotten zero home schooling done,” Jones said. “My poor husband [is] at home going, ‘Where are you going at 4 a.m.? You’re packing fruit boxes?’”

Other produce sellers around the country are calling to ask Jones how her company is pulling off the switch to retail so they can replicate the model.

Produce Source Solutions is looking at expanding the operation to other locations in Ashland and Hampton Roads.

In Roanoke, Jones hopes to keep going with two rounds of sales a week and regular pickups on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The leftovers from Virginia Tech and Radford won’t last forever, but the company is still supplying area hospitals. That means more trucks from California, so since they’re paying for shipping, they’re just ordering more produce.

But maybe not gooseberries, which aren’t selling so well. Jones has commissioned a colleague who’s a chef to concoct and post some recipes for the fruit that’s popular in England to try to create a retail market for them.

Gooseberry jam, anyone?

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