Written by Paul Clark | Photos by Ellen Gwin
The light touch works well at Maw’s Produce, a roadside vegetable stand near Banner Elk, North Carolina, where Susan Kirkland treats customers as lovingly as she handles the fruit. In a kind voice sounding much younger than her 75 years, Mrs. Kirkland greets each customer as they come in the shop beside the busy highway that whisks people into Boone. As her soft hands weigh the merits of each tomato and peach on display, she pauses to ask her regulars about the latest family news.
[dropcap]R[/dropcap]etail is personal at Maw’s Produce, which may explain why this unprepossessing produce stand in Foscoe, North Carolina, is in its 20th season. For Mrs. Kirkland, the business is more than just the business of selling fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s about providing a service to local residents and to people who spend summer months in second homes at resorts that surround this ranch house by the road.
“I just love the people,” Mrs. Kirkland said one sunny day in August as the traffic roared by. “You get to know them. We’re real flattered that they come here.” She was wearing light running shoes, prepared for the busy afternoon she knew was ahead. The pie lady had already been there, and Mrs. Kirkland was expecting the peach guy at any moment. That afternoon, she had to go pick up some produce, and she was enjoying a break in the action.
Maw’s gets its produce from Danny Kirkland, Mrs. Kirkland’s son. Danny Kirkland and his wife, Jackie, run Lett-Us-Produce, a large wholesale operation in Boone that supplies produce in the Boone, Blowing Rock, Banner Elk, and Linville areas to more than 100 businesses, restaurants, resorts, country clubs, hospitals, and grocery stores, as well as to Appalachian State University. Seven days a week during the high season, its six trucks go out twice a day to make deliveries. Danny Kirkland started the business in 1993, two years after he graduated from Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk.
“I wanted to come back up here,” he said of his return to the mountains from Savannah, Georgia, where he moved after graduation. He worked at a couple of produce businesses down there, picking up valuable knowledge. But he preferred the mountains and what he said was its simpler way of life. Opportunity came when a friend in the High Country needed tomatoes for his restaurant. Kirkland started hauling them from Columbia, South Carolina, working long hours to increase the size of his business and the breadth of fruit and vegetables he offered his customers.
One of which is Maw’s, started in 1995 by Kirkland so he’d have a retail outlet to complement his wholesale work. He tapped his mother to run the store. Mrs. Kirkland was in Savannah, where she’d wrapped up three decades of working with serious juvenile offenders for the state of Georgia. “I’d been retired a month when he called and said, ‘I’ve rented this little building, you need to come up here,’” Mrs. Kirkland said. “He thought I’d be glad to get out of Savannah, because it’s hot down there. Also, I’m kind of blessed with a lot of energy.”
She was happy he called. At 55 she was not really ready to quit working. Running a produce stand near her son’s home meant she’d see a lot more of him and his family, and she wouldn’t be far from her other son and daughter-in-law in Atlanta.
Mrs. Kirkland, her yellow running shoes tucked under her as she sat and talked, opened a scrapbook filled with photos, magazine articles, and other mementos of the business’ history. She flipped to a picture of Maw’s first building, a little up the road from where it is now. There it is, she said—a tiny shed with an awning, next to a gem mining tourist attraction. “It had a little bitty room,” she said. “Danny had this great old big sign made that said ‘Maw’s Little Shack of Produce.’”
[quote float=”right”]“Danny had this great old big sign made that said ‘Maw’s Little Shack of Produce.’”[/quote]He bought Maw’s current location in 2000. It used to be a quilt shop, and before that it was someone’s home. The owner of the quilt shop was an acquaintance of Mrs. Kirkland’s. She called her one day to say she was going to retire, and she thought the building would be a good location for a produce stand, which turned out to be true. Echota, a residential community with beautiful views of Grandfather Mountain, opened the next year. Foscoe, North Carolina, started to grow commercially, attracting visitors from rentals and second homes on Sugar and Beech mountains. Tourism in the High Country was strong. “It has turned out to be a wonderful location,” Mrs. Kirkland said.
She spoke while sitting on the stairs that lead to the upper floor of the business, where she sells quilts, wooden toys, and other crafts by local artists on consignment. The walls of the stairwell around her are covered with photos she had taken, many so old they are curling and turning blue, of customers and friends in the shop. She had artfully cut the pictures so all the extraneous features were gone, leaving only the people she obviously loved. Which says everything, it seems, about the way she runs Maw’s Produce—it’s about the people she meets.
“Hey,” Mrs. Kirkland said to a young man who came in the store with his mother. “How was practice?”
“It was good,” said Jamie Gough, 14. A rising freshman at Watauga High School, he had been at football practice that morning and was on his way, with his mother Julie Gough, to get his sports physical. He works at Maw’s Produce, alternating shifts with his 13-year-old brother. Peter, who had been in the back of the shop, came up to see why Jamie and their mother were there. Julie Gough handed him a bag of tacos.
“Hey bud,” she said, tousling Peter’s hair as he eyed lunch. “You have to share.”
Mrs. Kirkland laughed and smiled generously. She met Jamie last December, when he came in looking for a job. “He was so cute, but I didn’t need any help because we were closing,” she said (Maw’s is open May through December). “But he knew how to say ‘yes ma’am,’ so I kept his name and phone number.” And now she has him and his brother. “It’s a good working relationship. If one of the two brothers can’t work, the other one can,” she said. They live close by and ride their skateboards to work.
“I just send one of my sons over,” Julie Gough said, laughing. She mentioned another son, waiting in the car, which made Mrs. Kirkland speculate that maybe she would have a third Gough boy working for her one day. Which is entirely plausible. The boys’ mother stops in to chat a lot.
“Have you been real busy?” she asked Mrs. Kirkland.
“Yeah, we’ve been real steady,” she said. Afternoons tend to be busier than mornings. She suggested that Peter—“Petey,” she and his mother called him—eat lunch while he had the chance, but he was already carrying a box of vegetables out for a customer. Julie Gough called to the woman by name while Mrs. Kirkland nodded in appreciation of Petey’s manners and work ethic. She was as proud as a grandmother could be. She had previously employed another set of young brothers, and that arrangement worked out also. When one boy is busy, the other one usually isn’t.
“You’ve been a very important lady to a lot of people,” Julie Gough said. “A lot of people have had their first jobs here. That’s a big thing for a young man.”
“They all know how to say ‘yes, ma’am,’” Mrs. Kirkland said. “All of them do.” Good manners has its reward. She recalled a boy who worked for her years ago who, after getting his master’s degree, returned to the shop and mentioned that he wanted to go into international missionary work. She put him in touch with some people at the Boone-based relief organization Samaritan’s Purse who may help him get started. “So there are a lot of good stories around here,” Mrs. Kirkland said.
“That’s a perk of being in a small town,” Julie Gough said.
Maw’s Produce has had the same customers for years, a big accomplishment when you count all the produce stands in the area. Mrs. Kirkland said she has done well because “number one, I have such quality produce, and we’re so customer-friendly. And the other thing is, everything in here gets picked up and checked every day,” she said, waving her hand over the tables of peaches, bins of corn, baskets of apples, and buckets of melons. She and her crew—the Gough boys and 18-year employee Brenda Klinger—handpick each item they put out, a practice that Mrs. Kirkland learned from Danny Kirkland.
“This son of mine, he’s real particular about stuff,” she said. “To this day, he goes through every box of tomatoes before they leave the warehouse to the customer. There’s not one bad tomato in a box that he sells. You’ve got to have pretty produce. And then you’ve got to be customer-oriented. To me, those are the two key things. If you don’t have pretty produce, people won’t come back.”
She flipped the scrapbook open again to point out little notes her son had written her about salesmanship as it applies to the produce. People driving by a stand have to see some vegetables out front, so they know you’re open. That’s rule number one. There’s a rule for stacking cantaloupes, and one about selling wrinkled yellow peppers. “That says a whole lot about what we do here,” Mrs. Kirkland said about her son’s note about the shriveled peppers. “They should not have been out here for somebody to buy,” she said. “There had better not be a bad tomato.”
“These tomatoes that have a little bitty spot on them,” she said, “you put them under the counter so that when someone buys peaches, you can give them some of those tomatoes. What that does, that tomato—one I would eat—it’s going to taste real good. So they’ll come back, and they’ll get tomatoes.” She smiled and started to laugh. “They think I’m giving food away. But that’s not what it’s about. That’s another little trick of the trade.”
Another point of good salesmanship, she said, is remembering the names of people who stop in. They’re flattered and pleased. “I can’t always do it, but I think that’s real important,” she said. “The other thing that’s important is that, when someone walks in, someone needs to speak to them, whether you know their name or not. Everybody who works here works hard so that nobody will pick up a wrinkled yellow pepper.”
Danny Kirkland buys as much as he can from Watauga, Ashe, Avery, and McDowell counties. He keeps much of the rest of Maw’s Produce local as well. Two wood cook stoves act as sideboards for homemade pound cakes made by a woman in Lenoir and delivered every Thursday. A woman in Blowing Rock makes the cinnamon rolls, dropping them off on Tuesdays. Maw’s sells Ashe County Cheese and English Farmstead Cheese, made in McDowell County. It sells North Folk Farm beef, chicken, and pork from nearby Zionville, and Moravian beef and chicken pies from Winston-Salem. It carries breads made by a bakery in Boone. Mrs. Kirkland makes a snack mix that’s popular with hikers of the trails on Grandfather Mountain. She has sticks that Petey has cut and cleaned for roasting marshmallows for s’mores.
She was about to make her run for more produce, when she put the scrapbook back on the shelf behind the cheery green checkout counter. She seemed light on her feet, despite the miles she had to go before the season ends. “This is a perfect thing for me to get to do,” she said. “It’s a good life. And I tell you what, you sleep real good at night because, you know, you’re tired.”
A tasty testimonial for Maw’s Produce
Michael Story, a recent graduate of Appalachian State University, was driving home from work in June when he stopped at Maw’s Produce for a snack. “Not only was I warmly greeted,” the Lenoir resident, now a graduate student studying landscape architecture in Arizona, writes on his blog: “But with my purchase of a locally made apple fritter (which was delectable), they gave me half of a cantaloupe, a band of green onions, three peaches, as well as three russet potatoes. By the time I was walking out of the door I felt as if I were leaving my grandmother’s with satchels of delicious loot.”
Out of appreciation, he created this recipe for Maw’s Garlic and Onion Mashed Potatoes.
Maw’s Garlic & Onion Mashed Potatoes
3 Russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
5-6 green onions, chopped, separated into white and green
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 cup of milk
4-6 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
1-2 tablespoons of mayonnaise or sour cream (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to boil and cook potatoes until soft, about 20-25 minutes.
In a small pan, sauté garlic and white part of the onion in a tablespoon of butter.
Drain potatoes and put in mixing bowl.
Add sautéed onion, butter, milk, salt, pepper and the optional cream or mayonnaise.
Mash. Sprinkle with remaining green onion.