Produce stands jockey for prime real estate

HOUMA, La. (AP) — With local food becoming more popular, small town roadside fruit stands have been busy carving out their own market share, bumping and edging one another out for prime locations.
The signs start a few hundred yards up the road from a produce stand on U.S. Highway 90 heading east.
"FRESH STRAWBERRIES! LOUISIANA GROWN! $16 PER FLAT! PICKED FRESH! STOP HERE!"
In a small cutaway section of farmland sits Michael Capadona's bright yellow stand. Flats of bright red strawberries greet visitors who pull in and out of the gravel lot next to Lafourche Parish's busiest thoroughfare.
"It has gotten kind of ridiculous," Capadona said. "My family has been in the produce business forever, but things have really gone away from family farms. It's too risky for a lot of people."
On Friday morning Cap's saw a steady flow of traffic. In about 20 minutes, no fewer than 10 cars stopped on either side of the highway. Capadona maintains locations on both sides of the road.
Some came and went purposefully, quickly stocking up with large quantities of produce. Others took more time to smell each piece of produce.
Capadona juggled flats of fruits and vegetables and took several phone calls with suppliers and distributors.
The produce business is perpetually a race against the clock, Capadona said. From the time fruit is picked, the biggest distributors have dibs.
Capadona maintains his own orchard nearby the stands to help supplement what he gets from suppliers. He counts on his relationships and family's generational history in the produce business to help keep profit margins steady.
"It provides my living right now," Capadona said. "We've been blessed to be here for a while."
Capadona set up his stand, Cap's Produce, three years ago after spending a couple years with a group of nomads who jockey for public space along state roads. Last year the stand even starting taking major credit cards using a smartphone device.
That public space has become more difficult to come by for the tailgate sellers who typically jockey for the attention of motorists. Cap's has become a staple in large part because of the advantage his leased location gives him.
"Business has picked up pretty steadily I would say. We do see a lot of return customers now. People really recognize us," Capadona said. "We are blessed to be here. We are literally the first."
Two exits west of Cap's, where La. 182 passes beneath the 90 overpass, Kylie Leblanc of Chauvin was not having quite as much luck spurring business.
Leblanc wakes up in Chauvin at 5 a.m. to make his haul in the back of a Chevy pickup, which he drives to and from Ponchatoula strawberry farms to set up on state-owned lands in his native Terrebonne Parish.
"Eight years ago my wife and I would work in Houma on Martin Luther King," Leblanc said. "It was good back then. We were making $200 or $300 a day, easy."
This year Leblanc lost one of his prime selling locations, near the intersection of Prospect Boulevard and La. 182. "That lady there, she got a lease. We showed up one day, and she had the lease papers."
On Friday Leblanc was relegated to an echoey enclave underneath the U.S. 90 overpass. The land shuddered as tractor-trailers passed. Discarded cigarette packets and soda bottles blew around.
Up the road is Carmen Zeringue of Raceland. Her boss secured a lease for the tract of land sitting just beyond the intersection where the road between Houma and New Orleans widens and cars throttle up to highway speed.
After a cold winter choked off the strawberry-growing season, food stands large and small are scrambling to catch up on late sales. Bigger stands are garnering an advantage in their size and consistency.
Zeringue was showing off ferns and flowers along with her produce.
Capadona coordinates with distributors to offer a full range of produce, in addition to the seasonal specials.
Barring inclement weather, Cap's stays open 365 days a year.
Leblanc still had the price advantage on Friday, with flats going for $15 compared to $16 elsewhere. But without a visible and inviting selling location he struggled to draw a crowd.
"It's getting to the point where, unless you have a lease, it is difficult to make things work," Leblanc, 43, said. "We have a church in Boutte where we sell sometimes. We give him strawberries, and he lets us stay there."
But in an increasingly scaled retail world — Wal-Mart now sells a majority of groceries in some rural markets across the country — bigger stands a bigger chance at surviving and keeping loyal customers.
Capadona said he feels blessed to be in the position to do it.
"This is my passion, to represent those farmers," Capadona said. "We don't have an interstate here. People come through here, and they are looking for a piece of Louisiana. We just try to be one place where they can find it."

JOHN HARPER, The Courier

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