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Keys to success

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These homegrown Charlotte stands keep it fresh

When David White started Providence Produce in 2002, he wasn’t new to the concept. He’d been selling backyard-grown watermelons, tomatoes, corn and squash to passersby and neighbors since he was 8 years old and pulling a little red wagon.

What White (then 20 years old) didn’t know was how to recruit, train and retain great staff, how to handle weather-borne supply issues or how to manage an expansion.

In short, he was green.

And now, more than a decade after the Providence High School graduate-turned-entrepreneur opened his first stand in a gas station parking lot near the intersection of Providence Road and Ballantyne Commons Parkway, the 31-year-old is savvy – even when dealing with an extremely challenging year for growers and produce retailers alike.

White has 55 employees and four open-air stands in south Charlotte, Matthews, Mint Hill and Waxhaw. The Waxhaw stand along Providence Road South opened in May.

All covered by black-and-white-striped awnings, White’s stands are open daily from March to October. They sell fruits, vegetables, preserves, herbs and occasionally fresh flowers, most of which comes from local growers.

White also supplies a couple of local restaurants and small independent grocery stores. His wife Christine, also runs her own business, On a String bead shop in Myers Park.

Here are some of his keys to success:

A-list employees: White is frank about his early hiring decisions. “We had a bunch of D-listers.”

Here’s why, he says: He paid minimum wage and the training was relatively nonexistent.

After a couple of years, White decided to overhaul his pay structure and offer competitive hourly wages. He also added an intensive three-day training program.

Now his average employee has worked for him three and a half years – “outrageous for part-time, seasonal work,” White says.

They now get 10 to 20 people per week clamoring to work there, says office manager Karen Roberts. “They’ll drop their resumes off at the stands. They’ll call, fax. They’ll put them in the mailboxes at our houses.”

Now, White says, “Personnel is our No. 1 asset.”

Sophisticated scheduling: As the business grew, scheduling became unwieldy. So last year, White found a solution called ShiftPlanning, an online workforce management application that lets employees claim their own shifts.

The software also comes with a message board, where staff can message each other and get real-time alerts. For example, if there’s a price increase on an item, White will write a quick post explaining why, so employees know what to tell customers.

“Here, there are no silly rules about locking your phone in your car,” White says. “You have to have a smartphone.”

Transparency: The rainy spring and summer made business difficult for farmers and sellers, White says. Some local farmers White buys from have only one-fifth the amount of crops they usually have, and the shrinking supply brought higher selling prices and tighter margins for White.

He’s also had to find more vendors. Now he has 100, and though many of them are in the Carolinas, some items aren’t in season locally. In 2011, White decided to be more transparent with customers, adding signs above every produce item that say who the grower is and where it was grown, whether it’s heirloom tomatoes from Hendersonville or apples from Washington State. “We’re never trying to dupe the customer,” he says.

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