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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 8, 2017 1 year ago

Veggie Venture

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Sharyn Vross' marketing background helped her expand White Picket Produce from living room produce-packing parties to a growing delivery venture.
by: Grier Ferguson Staff Writer

Like many companies, Sharyn Vross traces the beginning of her business to the living room.

In the first week of her Sarasota-based organic produce delivery service, in 2015, she did eight deliveries, filling boxes of fruit and vegetables for her customers in the living room of her house. “There was produce everywhere,” she says.

Today, White Picket Produce does about 140 deliveries a week to homes and businesses in and around Sarasota and Lakewood Ranch. It has also expanded its delivery area to include North Port and Englewood with plans for further expansion. White Picket's produce comes from organic produce vendors nationwide and a host of local farms.

A glance at how Vross has grown White Picket Produce reveals several lessons for any startup that seeks to gain market traction. The list includes:

Eat here: Vross grew up in Sarasota but lived in Charlotte, N.C., before moving back to the region in 2013. She found several produce delivery businesses in Charlotte, so she was surprised when she didn't find the same thing in Sarasota. Her solution: start her own.

An apple a day:
When she first started the business, Vross pounded the pavement with apples, bananas and a stack of business cards. She went to yoga studios, gyms and chiropractic practices — “anywhere I thought people who would be my customer would go.” She left her card and a piece of fruit. Says Vross: “We grew that way with grassroots marketing.”

Marketing maven: One reason Vross says she's been able to get ahead in business is her background in marketing. She used to work at an advertising agency in Sarasota doing social media, scriptwriting and design. “I'm a geek,” she says. “I read marketing blogs at night about what's new and what I can do.” After the first press release she sent out got picked up in the media, Vross says the company started doubling in size every week.

Foodies unite: Initially, when White Picket Produce didn't have space to pack produce, Vross asked local restaurateurs if they could provide walk-in cooler space. She got a response from Tommy Klauber, owner of Polo Grill and Bar in Lakewood Ranch, who said she could use cooler space at his restaurant. “It was a real gift for him to have reached out,” Vross says. “If he wouldn't have reached out to me, I don't know if I would have succeeded.” When White Picket Produce grew out of the space, she bought a walk-in cooler and started renting warehouse space.

Flexible vegetables:
Unlike some produce services where customers receive a set box, White Picket Produce allows its customers to make substitutions and additions through the company's website. People also don't have to get a box every week. Her mission — make it as easy as possible for her customers.

All in the family:
Vross' son delivers for White Picket Produce in the company's “veggie van.” He also handles delivery routing and manages the warehouse. Vross' daughters help with social media and customer service. Vross says she's used to family members working together because her parents always did. Today, her mom does day-to-day accounting for White Picket Produce, and her father, a CPA, helps with financial statements. “When we go over for Sunday dinner, he always wants to go over financial statements,” Vross says. “I say, 'I just wanted spaghetti!'”

Ask around:
Vross didn't come into the business knowing everything about her products. “I didn't know anything about produce,” she says. She learned from organic food company sales representatives and local farms. “I'm very curious,” Vross says. “I want to learn. I ask a lot of questions.”

Know thy customer: White Picket Produce customers are mostly female, Vross says, with babies, toddlers or older children in college. “That was a learning process for me,” she says. “The biggest challenge is finding your customer. It's not always who you think it would be.”

Ahead of the Game: “Delivery is where things are going,” Vross says. “If your business isn't delivering, you're going to be left behind.”

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