Darnell Lee has dreamed of owning a business since high school.
So when the 56-year-old sold his first product at the grand opening of his first brick-and-mortar operation, it was an emotional moment.
“I actually had some tears comin’ down,” he said.
The first dollar he made is framed on the wall behind the register today at his business: Just Produce Farmers Market, 1727 West Highway 50 suite 200 in O’Fallon.
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Leading up to the business’ grand opening March 9, Lee said he spent five years planning and getting everything set up. It wasn’t until he was holding the money from that first purchase that Lee said he was able to enjoy it.
“That’s when it hit me,” he said.
Unfortunately, one of his biggest supporters wasn’t able to be there to watch Lee achieve his dream. His mom died in 2016, but Lee said she’d be happy to see where he is now.
“Before my mom passed last year, she was really excited. She knew I liked the business,” Lee said. “She knew the passion I had for it because I used to get up every (day) at 1:30 in the morning just to be prepared for work. And she’d be the first one to scream, ‘Hey, get up! It’s time to go.’”
I actually had some tears comin’ down.
Darnell Lee on the grand opening of his business
Lee starting working in the produce industry when he was a 16-year-old student at East St. Louis Senior High School. It was just a job at the time, but Lee said he’s glad he stayed with produce all these years later.
“This will be my retirement,” he said. “I don’t regret anything about the produce business. It’s been good to me and my family. I’ve incorporated my brother and my sister to work along with me.”
Lee’s siblings help him on the weekends when he runs three produce stands at the Soulard Farmer’s Market, and his cousins work at his O’Fallon location when he can’t be there.
“In the produce business, family’s what you need,” Lee said.
He also had some help from the Illinois Metro East Small Business Development Center. The center is located on Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s campus.
When he found the property in O’Fallon, Lee said it was a specialist at the center who told him to go for it.
“I just needed a little nudge, you know?” he said. “Confidence is the biggest thing as far as going and getting a business because you don’t know. You just don’t know.” Lee said there was comfort in Soulard because people were guaranteed to come, if not specifically to visit his booths, to shop for other things.
Before opening Just Produce Farmers Market, Lee said he drove school buses in the Madison school district on weekdays and spent his weekends in Soulard.
“I just had to go because I was all in,” Lee said of becoming a business owner.
Just Produce Farmers Market is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Back in high school, Lee said he didn’t know his business would one day be in produce. But he’s continued working in the industry because there are always new challenges and new people to meet.
“It’s not boring,” he said. The unpredictability is what Lee enjoys most.
“Something different always happens in the produce business because it’s not manufactured; it’s grown,” Lee said. “It’s gonna come into weather-related problems or something’s not going to be available or the truck’s late. I like it for that reason. It keeps me going.”
On a recent afternoon, tables inside the business were lined with varieties of oranges and apples, strawberries, carrots, asparagus, beets and more. But it’s not actually just produce that’s available at Just Produce Farmers Market; Lee also has shelves of salsa, jams, jellies and different kinds of nuts.
He plans to add local honey and spices like chives and basil to the mix in the future. There will also be plants like petunias available for Mother’s Day, pumpkins in the fall and live trees for Christmas.
Lee said he will also continue running his three Just Produce stands on weekends in Soulard.
In O’Fallon, Just Produce Farmers Market is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. For more information, call 618-578-9545. Follow the business on social media for updates at Facebook.com/farmfresh2017.
Q: Now that you have your own business, what do you like about it?
A: “I’ve had a couple jobs, but nothing’s like working for yourself.”
Q: Where does your produce come from? Is it locally grown?
A: “Nothing’s grown local yet because it’s a little bit too cool. My citrus comes from California. My apples come from Washington state. Most of your grapes are coming from Chile right now. The melons also come from off-shore right now. Nothing local yet, but as we move on with the summer and spring months, I will get a lot of stuff local.”
Q: How do you do research about how things are growing when they’re not local?
A: “It’s like homework. I look at the weather. I look at availability. ... I’m looking (online) just to see what’s available, where it’s available, what’s the prices of things, how it’s looking. Like right now, stuff in California — the romaine and the celery and stuff like that — is so expensive because of the weather. It’s wet. ... But it’s gonna come down. I just try to pay attention to what’s going on. You have to know what’s around us.”
Q: What kinds of fruits and vegetables can people expect to see offered in the coming months?
A: “In the next couple of months, you’ll be able to see fresh cantaloupe, local asparagus. Probably local strawberries (will) come out later in July, but you’ll have, of course, watermelons and fresh corn, tomatoes, of course, plenty of peppers.”
Q: What are some of the benefits that you think you offer to people when they’re deciding where to get their produce?
A: “I can bring it locally, at a cheaper price, and you’ll be able to get in and out ... and you’ll get the personal touch.”
Q: What do you do when it’s getting close to the end of the shelf life of some of these vegetables and fruits? Do you consider donating them to food pantries?
A: “Just the other day, I called the O’Fallon Food Pantry as far as like when I get some bananas that are a little ripe or some tomatoes that’s gonna go, that’s what I’d do, I’d donate to them. A couple of bakeries around, they told me to inform them if I do have some bananas and stuff like that, to give them a call and they would take them off my hands. Of course, I’m going to sell it to them but donate it to the food pantries.”
Meet Darnell Lee
- Job: Owner of Just Produce Farmers Market in O’Fallon
- Why he loves it: “Each day is different.”