Produce stores rely on customers' integrity
Rural businesses thrive on the honor system for sales
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Putting faith in the honesty of neighbors has proven to be the right business model for Sally Walker and her family, who own the U-Pick Red Barn produce store in Idaho Falls.
Customers can choose pumpkins from a patch or purchase peppers, corn, squash, eggs and chicken from the shop, housed in an old barn they restored near the city's zoo. When there's no staff present, customers are on their honor to leave payment for purchases in a cash box.
As with most family produce stores that rely on the honor system, they empty the cash box several times per day. They acknowledge a few customers have taken advantage of the system, but the problems have been negligible.
"It's grown throughout the years. For the last two years it's been very profitable," Walker said. "I think the basic message we want to put out there is people are basically good, honest people."
Her son McNeil, 18, and his 19-year-old cousin Chase raise and harvest the crops and run the store with help from their fathers and friends. The boys have added a small children's train to their operation and recently built a haunted straw bale maze for the Halloween season.
Walker said the family started the business about eight years ago to instill a work ethic in the boys while providing them a source of revenue.
After seeing that the honor system could work at the Walkers' store, Richard Johnson, owner of Grove City Gardens in rural Blackfoot, stopped staffing his store.
He said his family was too busy to spend hours waiting for customers in the small shop, and hiring a worker would have been cost-prohibitive.
His On Your Honor Store, in front of his home along 200 North Road, sells 150 fruit and vegetable varieties grown on his farm, along with his homemade jams and pie fillings and a neighbor's eggs. Most customers are local, but through advertising, he's had visits from Montana, Utah and Wyoming buyers.
"The gross on that, it's a sizable amount. It's a healthy five-digit revenue generator," Johnson said.
He's unaware of any thefts, but he's often had people who picked up produce and didn't have cash handy return later to pay.
He leaves enough change for a $20 bill in his pay box. To avoid unnecessary risk, he empties the box frequently and has the store within eyesight of his home.
"It's important that we trust one another. If we have a mutual trust, I think that entices people to be more giving and more trusting," Johnson said.
Karen Bates does about $75,000 per year in business at The Apple Farm, an honor-system fruit stand in Philo, Calif. She staffs it at busy times.
She, too, leaves change for a $20 bill for customers who buy apples, self-serve apple juice, jams and chutney. Bates has never pressed charges against anyone caught taking from the till.
"You can take a certain amount of loss compared to having (a paid worker) stand there," Bates said. "We find if we trust people, they rise to the occasion."