2021 July 23, Friday
You see it daily. The big “produce stand” by Casey’s in Blair by Woodhouse and Sid Dillon? Sure, you know it. You can’t miss the flags with, “PRODUCE” out front.
But, did you stop yet? I want you to go before you read this interview. If it’s between 10AM and 7PM, seven-days a week, stop reading, and go now. Spend time with Michelle Luschen or her husband Quintin.
Then, come back and read the rest. You need to feel the energy, love, and drive from Michelle in person. Otherwise, the words on this screen may seem contrived.
(1) BLAIR TODAY: Who is “Sugar P?”
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: It started out “Sweet P’s.” And, “Sweet P’s” kinda came from a little bit of a knockoff from, basically, what my mom started off from, a “Sweet T’s.” She owned and operated a business where you stick a quarter in a candy machine and you get a handful of candy out. Shucks, she had about 250 of those candy machines. And, I helped her since I was 14 years old all the way up to my 20s. Just kinda getting those all filled up, counting the change, helping her find new locations… It was a fun go. We had a good time together, too. I learned a lot about business.
I have a lot of business-related family members who owned and operated businesses. I just kinda jumped into it.
You know, this year we had to change our name from “Sweet P’s” to “Sugar P’s” because I wanted to get a logo and trademark – and, “Sweet P’s” was already taken. So, I was like, “shucks, let’s put a spin on it, and let’s go with ‘Sugar P’s’, and see if I can get a hold of some ‘sugar PEAS.'” And, I’m close. Hopefully, this coming season here, someone’s growing me some sugar peas…
(2) BLAIR TODAY: When I think of business ideas, a “produce stand” doesn’t seem like a way to “get rich…”
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: No…
(3) BLAIR TODAY: Well, as a way to make money, what drew you to this model?
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: You know, it was kind of an opportunity that sort of landed in my lap. I was filling in a position at a local truck stop. A gentleman approached me – somebody who owns a trucking business, and he operates for a farm – he offered me a position to run my own stand. He purchased me a trailer, and I worked hard. I filled my orders. I advertised. I got all the products we needed – as much as I can get on the shelf, to the community… It all just kinda worked out, way more than I expected. I was able to get that trailer payed off, and he and I are business partners. He is basically the “silent,” or “money man.” If I need a small loan, or what-not, he’s a great opportunist – he sees what this can expand out to.
You know, you don’t make a lot of money, but you make enough to, you know, just get by and be happy. And, run your own produce stand, and be able to gather all the good produce, all the goodies, and bring them to the community… Be able to talk with everybody. There’s really nothing like that – to be able to operate your own business, at your own pace, and have fun with it… Hire and train new people, and just be a fun face for the community. It’s been nothing but fun for us. A lot of work, but a lot of fun for us.
(4) BLAIR TODAY: That’s quite a journey. From time with your mom filling candy machines, through family relationships, to part-time at a truck stop, to a guy who says, “I think you should own a produce stand…”
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: Ha… Well, you know, it wasn’t just that. The potential was there. I have a paralegal degree. I’ve managed and operated gas stations. I was a leasing agent – I worked for a bank. I have a very big resume that stands out because I tried a lot of things and just kinda got bored. As a little kid, absolutely one of my favorite things was to play “grocery store.” There’s just nothing like this. It kinda just looks like a child’s “play” grocery store for grownups – it’s fun. It really is.
(5) BLAIR TODAY: I know from the time we talked at your Blair location, and prior time on the phone, you have a full life. Along with “Sweet P’s”, you have a large family, and also home school…
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: That’s correct. There’s not a moment I stop. The alarm goes off at 5AM, my husband I get up, we go to the farm, we get everything we need, we unload. We get to work… We operate in Blair on the weekdays, I “get ‘er done” with my team. And, on the weekends, my husband runs the Fremont location at 401 West 23rd Street – and those are open Saturday and Sunday. But, we just get going. Just get moving.
Our boys are really, just good kids. We are so fortunate. Our daughter is 18, almost 19… She met, and fell in love very young, her high school sweetheart who is now stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado. They got married, and now they live out there and having a really good time and working hard together at their goals.
You know, there isn’t a moment… We don’t stop and there isn’t a time where we don’t have fun at it. We just keep going, and enjoy each other in life.
(6) BLAIR TODAY: Perceptive people would notice your gradual changes in size, offerings, and marketing efforts. If you had to focus on the direction of “Sugar P’s,” what is your long-term goal?
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: We started with tables, canopies, and one little ten-foot trailer. I thought, “Golly, we need a better stand, just to be able crunch down on our time, and to be able to expand.” So, I got to cranking out ideas, and looked on the internet. My husband and I found these amazing trailer stand ideas we could make. We built them on utility trailers, so now we can just drop them at a location. That allowed us to park at Casey’s. We’re partnered with them, and really happy.
We can go to events. We can have fun with it. And, expand in the future with trailer stands, and add as we go on. Next year, even possibly, maybe, one or two more stands – we’ll see how it goes.
My biggest challenge is employees… Finding employees. You know–the heat element with being out there–but staffers are only asked to work four-hour shifts, so it’s not too bad.
(7) BLAIR TODAY: I’m glad you brought up employees. Many people would think, “They must have a garden. They just do this as a hobby. How cute!” You talk about family and fun, but “Sweet P’s” is serious for you. Do you have plans to expand?
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: Right now, we want to look at an all-week expansion for our Fremont location. We started off the season as all-week at the Menard’s in Fremont. Unfortunately, sales were not enough to maintain an all-week position, so we had to pull out of Menard’s and only work the weekends. But, we’re working toward finding enough employees to expand to all-week again. Toward the end of the season, I think that’s our main goal: To run and operate in both seasons, completely, seven-days-a-week, and we’re really excited to get there.
Next season, I want to go out into Missouri Valley possibly, and maybe even one more location we’re looking into. We’ll get those employees… We’ll get ‘er out, and we’ll get ‘er done… That’s our goal. And, we are striving hard toward it. I’m excited to get everybody in there and trained. We do have a good, positive energy toward everybody, as a community, as a team. And, there’s nothing I would ask that I wouldn’t do right along with my team members.
(8) BLAIR TODAY: “Sweet P’s” has quality produce earlier in the season than others in Blair. It’s clear to me this is not just a “mom and pop” operation because you need a supply-chain to stock shelves in the off-season. Without giving up any secrets, am I right about your suppliers?
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: Yes. You know, we are currently looking to even possibly go year-round. I hope we can do it starting this year, but I don’t want say it’s 100%. But, that’s my hope – to find a location to go year-round. That’s kind of on the “hush hush,” not 100% out there for that. But, yes, we do belong to a farm that’s also a co-op farm. So, in the early season we get a lot of our southern farmers’ fresh produce, right from their farms. And, my partner owns a trucking business, and so he goes with his team down south to pick up all that fresh produce from those farms, and bringing it straight up to us, so we can get that to the stand as soon as possible. So, we’re still getting it a little earlier than the grocery stores are seeing, which is fantastic. Fresh is guaranteed, farm-fresh is what my number-one goal is…
(9) BLAIR TODAY: Okay, it makes sense now. At one point, I told my wife, “Either they hit up Walmart in the off-season, or they have a supplier to bring in quality stuff. But, there has to be more to this…“
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: There sure is… Coming straight from farms. And, you know, without giving my trade secret, that’s kinda how the operation works for us. Right now, our farm is harvesting our sweet corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, and here, pretty soon, they’ll be pulling the “black diamond” watermelons. We’re getting up the watermelons from Texas, and a few from Georgia. And, they are coming up jumbo-sized, huge watermelons that are super-bright-red and juicy inside. I love selling these guys, I love slicing into one, and I love eating them.
(10) BLAIR TODAY: You mention a connection with Casey’s. Is that a corporate or local relationship?
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: It’s a local relationship right now. Actually, like a district relationship. The district manager, and the local managers in Blair and Fremont… We have a really, good, solid relationship, and we absolutely love being able to have that relationship, and be able to be on their lot. And, hopefully, not take up too much of their parking, but be able to bring them some business, too.
(11) BLAIR TODAY: I suspect everyone in town passes “Sweet P’s.” But, if someone has not stopped yet to see what you offer, what is the top reason for them to do that, literally today?
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: We are really selling farm-fresh. We are only three or four days off the farm. Where if you get your produce from Walmart or another grocery store here in town, you’ll get your produce five to seven days off the farm. So, you get a little more shelf-life on your food. Plus, we don’t spray preservatives on our farm-fresh produce.
We also pick up from another farm here in Blair, Nebraska, which I absolutely fell in love with – they’re all organic. And, his operation is adorable. We’ve now got organic heirloom tomatoes, organic cherry tomatoes, organic zucchini and yellow summer squash. And, pretty soon he’s going to be harvesting all kinds – twelve different varieties of watermelon, I think he said – so I’m excited to see all the different oddities that he brings, that will bring people to the stand… Because you don’t get to see these types vegetables of fruit in the grocery store. We definitely stand above the rest, with those varieties. It’s exciting to bring these to the community.
(12) BLAIR TODAY: Well, one thing noticeably-missing from “Sweet P’s” is what you often find with other similar stands: I don’t see T-Shirts, bumper stickers, or funny koozies. Your focus is farm-fresh food. Have you had people come to you, to ask if you’ll sell trinkets or things like that?
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: You know, I really haven’t. That’s not our focus. I’d probably reject that. My goal is to sell fresh, unique, and local farm-fresh produce. And, to help out farms and the people around me.
We also sell “All About Bees” honey and honey products. They come from a mother-daughter team out in Ralston, Nebraska. They whip up all these fancy recipes for us. I love eating them. I love selling them.
And, I’m picky on who I like to bring in, and what I like to sell. I do like to go look at operations, and meet the people, and feel the energy, and know this is something the community would be excited to purchase, too.
(13) BLAIR TODAY: I’m old, and I’ve seen a lot. And, one thing you know over time is what quality looks like and you know when something is “going somewhere.” “Sweet P’s” feels like something’s really going somewhere special. Have you had other people come to you and want to get involved, or invest?
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: You know, no. I haven’t had anybody else approach me. I was looking into grants. Just possibly looking at all the different venues. I do want to expand – those are personal goals. We’re looking into it.
(14) BLAIR TODAY: This may be a hard segue, but I’d like to ask about Covid. I’m gonna guess something here… I’m going to guess that business was better this year than last. And, as scary as Covid is for many people, “Sweet P’s” thrived in this environment. Am I right?
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: You know, eating fresh, and being able to attain more knowledge about where your food comes from has definitely benefited the business. It’s benefited the community, and even our lives, on a personal level. I agree. It really has been wonderful for everybody.
Unfortunately, Covid has affected a lot of people, and my husband even caught it – he was pretty sick for a while, and was quarantined over the winter. It’s terrible in that way, and we need to still be aware that it’s still out there…
And, we are looking at being able to accept SNAP benefits to help out the community, because a lot of folks were hit. Unfortunately, some of our employees need those type of benefits. Hopefully, it will only be a couple weeks before we can accept those for everyone.
(15) BLAIR TODAY: That’s big news. That will take your business to another level…
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: It really will…
(16) BLAIR TODAY: …there’s a great need for people who get benefits like that, to use them on the highest-quality food. If they can do that at “Sugar P’s” that will be a win for both them, and you…
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: I agree. I think our biggest obstacle will be keeping things stocked up after that. You know, we’re going to advertise once we obtain that approval from the state. And, we will definitely let community members know we are able to go ahead and accept EBT payments… And, also, next year, we are on a list to get the license for “senior farmer coupons,” as well. So, I’m excited to accept those as payment.
(17) BLAIR TODAY: The only way “Sweet P’s” could be better for an old guy like me is if you accepted “S&H Green Stamps…”
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: Ha… I’ll look into that… You know, we are open Mondays from 2PM to 7PM, Tuesday thru Sunday 10AM to 7PM. And, we’re out there unless there’s a thunderstorm. Other than that, we’re there seven days a week. We hope we still get to pop up our pumpkin patch, when it’s fall season, and bring all sorts of goodies for the community, with all the pumpkins and gourds, and even be able to get a hold of a few scarecrows…
(18) BLAIR TODAY: …yeah, so please touch on that. You told me before this interview a little about it. What’s the story about your off-season pumpkin patch…
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: Well, sure. The pumpkin patch is a gated area where we put up a bunch of straw bales with tons of pumpkins all over the place. We close down “Sweet P’s” by October 31. And, my husband I get to blueprinting up new trailers, and him and I get to build those new trailers. This is a wife and husband team, and we go to town on it. He’s my muscle, and I get to work on the operation.
(19) BLAIR TODAY: How and why do you maintain the energy for all of this?
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: I do little, mini goals. So, as I progress through the day, I give myself something to work toward – just a small treat here and there. Like, yesterday I went with my mother to lunch. She took me shopping. You know, for an hour or two I bumped my schedule around. It’s a lot of scheduling and bumping things around. And, keeping that positive energy, and telling yourself, “You can do this, you can push past one more thing.” Yeah, bagging 50 dozen ears of corn’s not easy, but you just go for it… You get ‘er done…
(20) BLAIR TODAY: Michelle, hold up. Where does this come from. Where, inside of you, is the genesis of your drive and passion?
MICHELLE LUSCHEN of SUGAR P’S PRODUCE STAND: I just don’t like to sit back and not build something. I don’t want to watch something go by that I could have done better. And, I could keep working toward the goal of building something amazing. You know, I have kids that are going to look at me when they get older and say, “My God, that’s cool what she did. And, she worked hard. And, she involved us. And, we got to watch her build something neat, and bring the community together.”
It’s something I like doing. I keep the energy level up for myself.
Now, there have been times where I feel dead and drained. This past winter I had a serious health scare that landed my butt in the hospital. But, I pushed past it. I got through it. And, I’m going to keep moving toward my goal.
There’s just no stopping me. You know, if you don’t have that mentality, you don’t have that drive, you’re just going to sit on the couch and watch Netflix every night. Just find something you love doing, and find a way to get it done. That’s how I see life. I had a tough childhood. I’ve had a lot of rough bumps along the way, and I’ve learned a lot. There’s no reason not to stay positive, because being negative just drags you down.
Visit Sugar P’s Produce Stand in Blair at the Casey’s location, by the car dealers. They are open Monday’s 2PM to 7PM, and all other days from 10AM to 7PM. You can find Sugar P’s Produce Stand on Facebook, too. But, you can’t buy any farm-fresh, “black diamond watermelons” sitting in front of your computer, so get up, head out, and go there in person.
Sugar P’s Trailer in the Casey’s parking lot, Blair, Nebraska