In the Gardens of Sugar and Pineapples, Part Two : The Tomato Salesman
Author Ismael Tabalno
I carefully inspected the baseball-sized blemish free tomatoes before placing them into shoe boxes. Each tomato I picked should have the smallest spot on the bottom of each tomato. My brother-in-law once showed me how to choose the best tomatoes by selecting only the tomatoes that had the smallest spot on the bottom opposite the stem side. The smaller the spot on the bottom of the tomato meant a better grade tomato. The cultivated garden of fresh, juicy, red tomatoes belonged to my sister and her farmer husband. Their house was surrounded by tomato gardens on the left side of the driveway. It didn't take long before I had four shoe boxes full of varying ripeness of juicy tomatoes. My sister asked me on several occasions to help her sell tomatoes and other vegetables around the neighborhood. Today was one of those days.
"Menal, you come with me today and help me deliver some vegetables." It was a question and a statement rolled into one. "Okay, I can help you." "But you better change you shirt because that one you wearing looks really dirty," she pointed at the white t-shirt that was nearly brown from playing around with my dog, Willy. I wore a pair of rubber slippers similar to shower shoes although I often preferred going barefooted. A pair of shorts and t-shirt was the common attire for an adolescent like me in Hawaii. I scraped some of the garden mud from my slippers before jumping into the front seat of my sisters four door Chevy sedan. The rear seat and trunk was loaded with various types of fresh vegetables. "Okay brother, when I stop, you go to the door and ask the people what fresh vegetables they want to buy today. Say 'Tata' (if man), 'Nana' (if lady). For example, say, Tata, my sista and me had picked fresh vegetables this morning and bring to you. Then you ask them what they like buy. If they ask if we have certain kind, you say, we get and come back and tell me. Okay, say this way, okay?" "Okay manang, I try."
I wasn't as convincing as her but I did it because I knew she was there watching every move I made and could follow up with any other sales presentation and transaction. My farmer sister out of all the other three siblings had the most aggressive personality of all my sisters. She had the street smarts and knew exactly what she was doing. "Salina, your baby brother said you had some squash but I need only half that size you have," the customer asked pointing at the football size squash. "No problem," said my sister holding the squash in one hand. "I normally sell the whole thing for forty cents but if I cut it in half, you pay only 30 cents." "But, the price is more that half!" The man was a bit skeptical. "I know manong (brother in Filipino), but if I no sell the other half and it become rotten, then I loose money. If I loose money I no can sell fresh vegetables to my customers. Then my customers like you have to go to the store where you pay almost double the price." My sister spoke calmly and fast. She was very witty and had answers to all the customers' questions or concerns. "Okay, I pay..." my sister was already cutting the squash in half."I pay only 25 cents." "Oh, manong, I cut already, sigh, okay give me 27cents," she hands the gentleman his half squash on a newspaper wrapping. Deals like these were a typical bantering dialogue. She alternated the beginning and the ending of her sales route.
At the ending when most of the vegetables were almost gone she reminded the customers of the regular price and offered discount prices for the remaining produce. It worked every time and we returned home happy with empty boxes. I learned fast and my sister did not have to step out of the truck often except to collect the money. I learned my sales pitch and the negotiating quickly by hanging around my sister. I was the one that went to the doors to tell people what we had for sale and asked for their order. The majority of their garden produce was tomatoes. It was easy. So, I sold a variety of pre bundled string beans, lettuce, cabbage, corn, and the best seller, tomatoes. The downside of my sister's operation is that I never got paid cash. Well, I kind of got paid, but it was with vegetables to take home. The thing I learn was her selling techniques and price structure then it hit me; I could sell the produce myself and keep the money. I had planned on making some side money by selling tomatoes to our neighbors in Spanish camp and some other neighbors just outside of Spanish camp. The customers I targeted were single men that worked in the plantations and were regular customers of my sister. I just wanted to make maybe couple dollars. I figured if I sold four boxes of tomatoes at fifty cents a box that would earn two dollars.
The typical trips my sister and I made were between 7-10 days intervals. Not all the customers bought during those intervals so that meant some required replenishing sooner or much later. This is where I came into the sales planning. Each time I visited a customer's house, I noted the people that didn't buy and asked them when they would be ready and made myself a mental note to visit those customers on my own. My strategy worked like a charm. I loaded my boxes of tomatoes in my newspaper saddle bags and rode out to the waiting customers. I re-visited the customers the day they said they would be ready for more tomatoes and sold all four boxes with no problem. I kept all the money to myself. I was so happy! Willy my dog ran along side of me as I pedaled home as fast I could. I continued helping my sister and made my own runs again selling tomatoes. I did it three times until one day a customer mentioned to my sister that he wanted the same type of tomatoes I was selling all the time, only the best! My sister was shocked by the added information about my solo sales and went straight to my mother. "Menal, you wait until I tell Mama what you been doing with our tomatoes." Well, I am glad she went to my mother instead of my father.
Mamma of course assured my sister she would handle the problem and she did. Mom pulled me aside one evening and chided me for what I did. "Mael, why did you go and sell tomatoes from your sister's garden?" "Mama, because Sista neva give me any money. All the time I go with her she neva give me anything. She make plenty money." "But she gives us a lot of vegetables for us to eat." "Yes, I know Ma, but sometimes it's only the left over's, the ones she neva sell to customers." "Yes, but we don't have those vegetable in our own garden." "Ma, look at all the vegetables we have in the kitchen, we need other stuff like meat too." I explained to my mom that I felt my sister could have paid me something for all the time and all the labor I was helping her with. "Mael next time, you think about something like this, come and talk to me first." My mom's voice was firm. "Okay, Ma, I will." I was only hoping she or my sister wouldn't mention to my dad. Dad was a harsher disciplinary, but that's another story. Mom asked me to apologize to my sister and volunteer to do additional work around their gardens to make up for the choice tomatoes I sold. She then smiled and reminded me that she still loved me.
I eventually went to my sister and apologized. Ever since then, my sister gave us more vegetables and tomatoes. She told my mom that I could sell the extras she gave us but stay away from the gardens. I agreed and I told her I still love her.
Pineapple Sam originated as a fictional character from the mind of Ismael Tabalno from Hawaii. He is a Kauai local individual of Asian descent who decided to write as a hobby when he retired. Pineapple Sam loved to "talk story" as they say in the islands, now many of his friends and family can still listen or read about his adventures.