If you buy sweet corn from a man named Sweet, you figure "The Taste Will Tell — It’s Sweet."
"It’s all a thing of perception," says Gary Sweet, owner and operator of "Sweet’s Gourmet Sweet Corn."
The Ohio producer has been changing consumer perceptions about sweet corn since a drought in 1989 changed his thinking about marketing and the size of his operation.
A veteran producer, Sweet grows 150 acres of sweet corn on the southside of Cleveland, Ohio. Prior to the late 1980s, he farmed 2,500 acres. "Today, there’s no comparision between the income we get off of growing 150 acres of sweet corn and the 2,500 acres we used to farm," Sweet told growers at the 18th annual Southeast Fruit and Vegetable Expo held recently in Greenville, N.C.
He’s taken a different approach to "training his customers to come to him."
That first year, Sweet built carts and set up shop across the street from major supermarkets. His sales outpaced sweet corn purchases at supermarkets. Over the next three years, he expanded to 40, Amish-built carts. The supermarkets haven’t seemed to mind the competition.
Today, he’s selling sweet corn at five of the hottest supermarket chains in the area and continues to market the crop in carts at the up-scale Shell convenience stores. In the supermarket, the produce manager is the key to the store. "About 1 percent to 5 percent of the market is what we’re after," Sweet says.
"We train the customers to come to us," Sweet says. "It’s a totally different concept. It’s not the supermarket’s customers that are coming to the supermarket to buy our sweet corn; it’s our sweet corn customers who are coming to the supermarket." The supermarket benefits because customers buy more than sweet corn.
"At the carts, we tell customers to ‘be there by noon’ and the sales double," Sweet says.
His strategy is simple: Offer customers a fresh, quality product backed up with a guarantee.
"I’m trying to get people to recognize a name," Sweet says, holding up a quarter-dozen package emblazoned with the "Sweet’s Gourmet Sweet Corn: The Taste Will Tell" emblem. "It’s all a thing of perception. Customers want taste. With freshness, we have control of the point of sale everyday." He says his philosophy has brought him back to where agriculture was 40 or 50 years ago.
"For so many years, sweet corn, tomatoes — you name it — have all been generic," Sweet says. "We’re giving the customer a choice."
He encouraged the Southeastern producers attending the conference to "put your name on your product. When you put your name on the product, it has to be good all the time."
His wife rates the sweet corn on how well it eats, Sweet says — how clean it comes off the cob, whether any kernels get stuck in your teeth and the tenderness of the corn."
His corn carries a 100 percent guarantee. "We average one call a week where people bring it back," Sweet says. "The first question I usually ask is, "How did you cook it?’ They might say, ‘We cooked it for 15 or 20 minutes and it was tough,’ he laughs.
"We have to educate the customers about how to cook sweet corn properly," Sweet says.
The Ohio producer says it’s important to figure out what your customer base is and then don’t over-produce. In the field, Sweet uses conservation-tillage. The cost of production is about $1,000 per acre while production under row covers and plastic edges up to $1,500 per acre.
Sweet has discovered that oftentimes customers prefer a quarter dozen or a half dozen ears of sweet corn to a full dozen. The half-dozen customized packages of sweet corn are his No. 1 seller; the quarter-dozen bags are No. 2. The packages all have draw strings and come with "cooking instructions." In each package, he’ll put in an extra ear or two of sweet corn.
As for pricing, Sweet tends to agree with the thoughts of North Carolina State University Horticulturist Doug Sanders who says sweet corn should be selling for $7.40 a dozen.
Sweet offers his at a suggested retail price of $6.75 per dozen, noting that it’s $7.99 in the grocery store.
In dealing with the supermarket, he says the produce manager is the key contact.
The Fourth of July and Labor Day Weekend are big times for sales. He also carries the carts to festivals and offers the sweet corn roasted for $2 an ear. "That’s $24 a dozen. Based on that, we’re practically giving it away" to customers the rest of the year.
Reflecting back on the changes in the way he farms and markets, Sweet says it involves taking a different approach and a willingness to change. "It means having a willingness to change, being proud of your product and giving the customer a choice," Sweet says.
"It will take some extra effort," he says.