The fruit stands along North Expressway 77 have seen their share of ups and downs due to progress and the inevitable passing of time. These fruit stands are the “last chance” stop for visitors to the Rio Grande Valley heading north. Jesse Martinez owner of Gonzalez Fruit Market and Edgar Schwarz owner of Sebastian’s Pottery know the importance of friendly competition.
For Schwarz, eighty percent of his business comes from out of town visitors and truck drivers with enough cargo space to load some Mexican handicrafts to take back. Since its opening in 1999, the holiday season is what brings the most customers to Sebastian’s Pottery. These are not necessarily Winter Texans who according to Schwarz, are living in smaller spaces that cannot accommodate large pottery, but who do stop to buy some last minute souvenirs. Dove hunting season brings in a few customers, but even that is down. “Droves of people headed to the valley for dove hunting years ago, but the construction of underground water canals and developments destroyed many habitats.” Schwarz almost lost his business when the expressway overpass was built. “I was almost bankrupt when I got rid of perishables because everything would spoil due to low sales. I have not sold produce since,” he said reflecting on this past experience.
Today, people find a fine selection of Mexican pottery, talavera and large scale pieces like the popular chimeneas. The turbulent situation in Mexico has proven to be a double edged sword for Schwarz’s business because while gaining the customers that no longer shop in Mexico, the same situation deterred many others from visiting the valley. Valley residents do pay a visit to this locale especially during the spring when landscaping is at its peak.
The neighboring Gonzalez Fruit Market is a family business that began almost 50 years ago in La Feria, Texas. Sylvia Gonzalez, the family’s matriarch still stops by to help out her son Jesse Gonzalez who runs the business with six other employees including his own son. Sylvia remembers the early days when they were referred to as plataneros –those who sell bananas- because they sold plenty of bananas that arrived in stalks via the port of Brownsville. “Things are much different now,” said Sylvia, “we used to buy cantaloupes and other fruit by the truck load; we have to buy them in boxes now which is more expensive; even bananas are boxed and more expensive today,” she said.
The new expressway overpass did concern Gonzalez who invested in land at the next expressway exit to protect his business. Produce is the main business for the Gonzalez Fruit Market. Their number one customer is the nearby federal prison followed by area restaurants, convenient stores and even supermarkets like El Globo. He buys his produce mostly from Texas farmers and the rest from what is available at a competitive price without sacrificing quality.
Being the owner does not deter Gonzalez from waking up before dawn and heading out to help load and unload trucks. “I am a country boy, and I love being out here,” he said. Gonzalez Fruit Market also sells Mexican pottery, honey, vanilla, cold beverages, plants and spices. Gonzalez agrees that travelers account for most of his retail business, especially truck drivers. Citrus are what most travelers take home. “We have a good number of local customers that head out here on weekends because they know we value their business,” affirmed Gonzalez.
Both businesses are coming back, and they are not afraid of competition for they both believe it is customer service what keeps bringing people back. Gonzalez and Schwarz agree that the more stands, the better, for a cluster of businesses will simultaneously attract more people to a one stop shopping destination. Schwarz contemplates the possibility of creating something similar to an area in northern Mexico, known as Los Cavazos where thousands of people visit to eat local delicacies and shop for pottery, furniture, plants, art and so much more. The Gonzalez family has already opened a second fruit market just a couple of minutes north where Gonzales had previously purchased land. Schwarz plans to bring in more native plants, cactus and succulents and finish remodeling. Both establishments are open 7 days a week off the 2629 Farm Road Exit in Sebastian, Texas.
“Competition makes us all better, it keeps the cost down and gives people different choices,” affirmed Gonzalez who looks forward to harvest season when things get busier. Although retired, Sylvia keeps visiting the stand because she loves talking to customers. She loves the business just as much as her son who fondly remembers his father’s words: “No matter what you do, as long as you enjoy it by heart, it is not work.”
This article was published in the October issue of the Valley Business Report. www.valleybusinessreport.com