Tommy Smith needed a job.
He’d finished college and had student loans to pay.
His dad, Hoyt, knew a guy who sold produce. Hoyt worked as a plumber, but saw that his friend the produce man seemed to be doing all right and he got afternoons off to boot. “I said, ‘If you can do this, I can do it,’” Hoyt said.
So he and Tommy went into the produce business.
That was in 1975.
They’re still at it.
Every Monday through Saturday, Tommy, who’s 60 now, opens up their roadside produce truck on Maple Drive and sells fresh fruits and vegetables to families in Buckhead. He and his dad, who’s 86, man their stand from April through October. “When the good tomatoes quit, we quit,” Tommy said.
Over the years – well, the decades, really – they’ve moved around a bit. They first parked their truck over by Lenox Square. Then they moved down to Peachtree Hills, then to Pharr Road. They settled on Maple back in 1995.
Along the way, they’ve become fixtures in Buckhead. On a couple of recent mornings, a steady stream of their regular customers washed past their Chevy pickup-turned-produce-stand to stock up on everything from Tennessee tomatoes to South Carolina peaches. “I know everybody,” Tommy said. “All these people have been coming for years.”
Tommy says he’s been selling to some Buckhead families for three generations. His produce truck now is so rooted in the community that when city officials required the Smiths to get a special use permit recently, customers joined them at every public meeting to help present their case, Tommy said.
“I’m here two or three times a week,” Kay Marshall said. “I know everything is going to be fresh. I know he’s not going to have anything out here that’s not in good shape. He’s very picky about what he brings out.”
Besides, she’s been buying groceries from the Smiths for a long time. “They’ve been here forever,” she said.
She thought a moment and turned to Tommy. “Tommy, how long have you been here?” she asked.
“Did you trade with us over at Lenox?” he replied.
She said she and her neighbors miss the Smiths when they’re gone for the winter. They eagerly watch for their return each spring. “We say, ‘Is Mr. Smith back yet? … We’ve got a little grapevine,” she said.
Bonnie Stenson dropped by the produce stand that morning because she needed 60 peaches. She was hosting a wedding party, she said, and each guest was going to get a bag of Georgia goodies, including a fresh peach. “I know his peaches are from South Carolina,” she said, “but don’t tell anybody.”
Tommy said he starts his day about 3:30 a.m. at the State Farmer’s Market. He picks through the corn and tomatoes and whatever the farmers have to offer. He buys whatever looks good – “I’m picky,” he said, – and carts the load up to Buckhead to sell from the back of the parked pickup the Smiths use as their produce stand. The truck stays put through the summer season; it even has been fitted with a wooden roof.
One recent weekday, that roof protected boxes of okra, tomatoes, corn, yams, strawberries, peaches, blackberries, potatoes, green beans, watermelons, cantaloupes, squash and green beans. Tommy said he had lady peas, butter beans and crowders, too.
Hoyt Smith still comes to work some days, but mostly the business is Tommy’s now. After 37 years of supplying Buckhead’s fresh tomatoes, how much longer will he keep going?
“As long as my body will hold up,” Tommy said. “I’m 60 now. I figure I’ve got 10 more years in me.”
Relish the thought. Ten more years of the good tomatoes.