I am a forgetful and careless person. In elementary school my teachers would always report to my mom and dad during parent teacher conferences, “She’s a bright girl but she rushes through her work and makes careless mistakes.” More than one of my bosses has listed “attention to detail” as a development area on my annual performance appraisals. Last week I had to fork over nearly $100 for a locksmith to let me into my apartment when I once again left the house without my keys (and the lockbox with my spare keys mysteriously disappeared from the fence in front of my building).
Standing in the middle of my grocery startup’s first pop-up market, I was wholly unsurprised when I looked at the unused pricing signs and realized that they all came from the same order, which was likely still sitting in the wholesale warehouse we’d left two hours ago. My earlier brush of off my sorority sister’s admonition to verify complete order fulfillment before leaving the warehouse had quickly come back to bite me in the ass.
A Race Against Time
I looked at Fitbit and 10:18 flashed across the screen. It being a Saturday, I knew that the vendors at the produce warehouse were either already closed or closing within the hour. For a brief moment I contemplated calling it a wash and figuring it out later. Then I remembered the $125 in cash I’d paid for those cases of bananas, plantains, eggplants, cucumbers, cantaloupes, and cauliflower that almost certainly didn’t come with a return policy, and I quickly Googled the vendor’s number.
“Hello?” a voice answered after three rings.
“Oh my goodness. Thank God you picked up. I was there this morning and I paid for my order but didn’t get it,” I rattled breathlessly.
“Yeah, they brought your stuff to the door you said you’d be at and you were gone.”
“Can I still come and get it?” I asked, half holding my breath.
“Yeah, but we close at 11 so you have to come now.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m on my way now.”
I checked my watch. It was now 10:28. The vendor was located on the other side of town. Even without traffic it could easily be a 25 minute drive. While Saturday mornings are not typical rush hours, given how my morning was going thus far (SCREW YOU BRITNEY), I left the world’s greatest ex-roommate and my sorority sister in charge of the register, flew out the door, and ran to my car.
The good news for me was that the highway was clear. The bad news is that neither the community center nor the produce warehouse were right off the highway, and everybody and they mama was out driving the city streets that morning. I bobbed, I weaved, I cutoff, and I cursed my way across town, keeping a watchful eye on the clock. 10:35. 10:42. 10:50. The minutes ticked by as every traffic light I encountered decided that that was the time it wanted to turn red.
I swung my car into a space in the almost empty parking lot at 10:56 a.m. and raced inside to the vendor’s stall.
“You left without your order!” the owner exclaimed as soon I burst into the office.
“I know! Is it too late? Can I still get it?” I replied.
“Yeah, I already called up the guys in back. What door are you at and they’ll bring it right out,” he said.
I gave him the door number and headed back to my car to await my cases of produce. Less than 10 minutes later my order was delivered, checked for accuracy (because I learn from my mistakes), and packed into my car, and I was on the road back to the community center.
When I arrived at the center I was pleased to see that the market was still going. My sorority sister and former roommate were ringing up several customers at the checkout, a couple of women were shopping the selection of fresh greens, and one of my business school classmates was walking toward me with a bag of produce.
“I was just about to leave,” he said as he approached me. “We did grocery shopping the other day so I didn’t get much, but just wanted to come by and support. Plus I didn’t see plantains.”
“You want plantains? I have them. Just picked them up,” I said, gesturing toward the entrance where I’d left the case.
I quickly placed all of the cases on the tables in their appropriate sections. Bananas went near the oranges, eggplants by the squash, cantaloupe by the melon and pineapple, and the plantains I placed in a wicker basket in the middle of it all.
“Go forth and shop!” I commanded my friend.
As I approached the checkout line, my sorority sister pulled me aside and introduced me to a customer.
“Liz you have to meet this woman,” my sorority sister said. “She owns a wellness company and is a vegan chef.”
“This is market is amazing. How often do you do these?” the customer inquired.
“Well, this is the first one. The plan is to do markets at least once a month,” I answered.
“Do you always do them here or are you willing to go to other venues,” she asked.
“Like I said, this is the first one. Where we go is dependent upon who gives us space.”
“Well you should really consider going to Maywood. I’m from there and they don’t have any grocery stores since the Aldi closed over a year ago. I gave your friend my card. Let’s keep in touch because I love what you’re doing and would love to try to work together.”
I promised to get in touch with her within the next week and thanked her for shopping with us that morning. I also silently celebrated the two bags filled with produce that she carried out in both hands. Meeting new business partners was the last expectation I had of the market, but I was elated for the unforeseen opportunity.
When I turned my attention back toward the market I realized that the last customer in line at checkout was bagging up the last of his purchase and there were no additional customers on the sales floor and none coming in the door. I once again looked at my watch. It was a few minutes before noon and the market was dead. Surveying the rows of untouched carrots, onions, celery, broccoli, strawberries, apples, and more, I thought about the more than $1500 I’d spent on inventory, most of which was unsold.
My watch steadily ticked past noon with nary a customer in sight. With less than an hour to go before we closed shop I resigned myself to waiting for the market’s end in silence. I told myself that for the first time doing it, I should be happy that my friends weren’t my only customers (just the majority of them). Just as I was about to Google food pantries to donate all of the excess inventory, I heard the front door open again and two customers entered the market. They looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place them.
“Hey Liz!” the couple called to me.
A moment later a friend from undergrad entered the room and I realized that I’d met the couple the prior weekend at my friend’s house party.
“Oh my God, y’all came!” I shouted. “Welcome to Forty Acres Fresh Market.”
Within a few minutes several more customers filed into the room, this time coming in from another area of the community center. The market once again flush with customers.
I forgot all about calling food pantries as I spent the next 45 minutes behind the register checking out customer after customer, who bought everything from bok choy to the last minute eggplant and bananas entrants. Even better more encouraging than the last minute burst of customers were their reactions to the market. Every few minutes I heard gasps of delight at the selection and quality of produce.
“That’s it?” customers marveled when I announced their bill total.
Although the market was at its peak, the end was drawing near. The community center’s owner and custodial staff were back in the room with large round tables in tow. Our time was up. It was 1:00 p.m. Another group had the room reserved for 2:00 p.m. and we had to be out of there immediate so it could be turned around.
Even with the last minute rush of customers, cases of produce covered all the tables set out for us. While we had to get it out of there immediately, we still had no place for it go.
Stay tuned to find out what happened to over 70 cases of produce with no one to buy it and nowhere to go. In the meantime, has anyone else had fun with perishable inventory? Are you much better at contingency planning than I am? Please share your story in the comments.
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