6 Critical Business Lessons I Learned Selling Ripe Tomatoes

06 Aug 6 Critical Business Lessons I Learned Selling Ripe Tomatoes

The weather has been odd this summer.

As a result I have yet to bite into a ripe tomato from any of my heritage plants. Normally by this time we would have more than we can use.

My parents raised tomatoes. That’s how I acquired a taste for unusual varieties of vine-ripened tomatoes. Tomatoes that one simply cannot find in the store even in the farm-to-table times we live in.

When I was a kid at about this time of year, when the novelty of summer vacation had long since worn thin, I would look for new ways to amuse myself. One such early August my mother suggested I try selling some of our over-abundance of tomatoes to our neighbors.

Looking back now I realize Mom had in mind a learning experience for her son. That it was.

You see, in our neighborhood it was not at all uncommon for our neighbors to have gardens- too. They likely had a more-than-ample supply of tomatoes already. Selling them would be no walk in the park.

Unaware and undaunted I set out door-to-door with a heaping, fresh-picked inventory in my red Radio Flyer wagon. I soon learned what every seasoned sales person knows. Rejection came at almost every door I knocked on.

Over a cooling sandwich of sliced radishes, bread, butter, salt and pepper my mother prepared, I told her about my experiences. Well, I complained. She told me to keep trying. As the afternoon cycle of knocking, selling and rejection wore on I reached the Gold’s house at the top of the hill.

The Golds ran Phoebe Goldberg’s, the finest dress shop in Wood River, Illinois. It was also the only dress shop. The Golds had two daughters, one older than me and one younger. Mr. Gold ran the store with his mother. Mrs. Gold took care of the kids. There was no time left over for gardening.

When she answered the door I launched my pitch: “Tomatoes unlike any you can find in the store, picked just minutes ago, perfect and delicious…” To my surprise, she asked how much. I told her five dollars.

Mrs. Gold told me to wait a minute and retreated into her house. A couple of minutes later she returned with a five-dollar bill, which was quickly exchanged for a quart box of tomatoes.

This was decades before organic became a thing and Whole Foods commanded your whole paycheck. That is to say, $5 was a fortune to pay for a quart of tomatoes, no matter how fresh and good and special they were.

I was too excited by my sale to chance more rejection. Feeling wealthy and successful, I raced home to tell my mother of my triumph.

She was mortified. Straight away she marched me back to the Golds and made me knock on the door again to return Mrs. Gold’s money and apologize for gouging her!

Mrs. Gold graciously refused the refund, saying they were the best tomatoes she’d ever tasted.

I learned five important lessons about business that day: 

  1. Never give up.
  2. Don’t let rejection get you down.
  3. Bring a compelling product to the marketplace.
  4. Choose a customer with a need.
  5. Remember that the value of what you sell is determined in the mind of your customer, not by what you want to charge.
  6. Never brag to your mom!


Happy summer.

-Paul Camp

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