The owner of Perkins Orchard seems to never stop moving.
Whether it’s unloading a truck, repainting siding, or handling some accounting, Donovan Watson is constantly on the go. And although the Durham native is only 26 years old, this is more or less how it’s been for the last 16 years.
While many businesses have suffered due to COVID-19, Watson’s family-owned fresh foods market is having its best year on record.
Even before the pandemic pushed people out of restaurants and back into their kitchens, Perkins Orchard was growing.
The produce stand has stood at the same place on 5749 Barbee Rd. since 1970. Before 2012, Perkins Orchard was simply a fruit and vegetable stand on the side of the road. Often unmanned, customers could take produce and leave cash in return.
“The business had been running on the honor system for 42 years,” said Watson. “From 1970 to 2012, we had modest sales. But integrating a Point of Sale and Analytics has really led to a growth in business.”
Since taking over the daily operations in the business from his grandfather, Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Perkins at the tender age of 10, Watson has worked to understand and develop the business.
In 2012, he tore down the stand that had stood at the side of the road for the last 42 years. He cleared land behind the house to make way for additional structures and a newer, more ambitious Perkins Orchard.
Most notably, he added Perkins’ most popular feature: the $20 bag.
As people will learn on their first visit–everyone gets an introduction on their first visit–produce can be purchased by weight or customers can fill a peck-sized bag for $20 even, tax included. The Orchard even throws in some gift produce and free cilantro.
It might not be the honor system, but it’s still a pretty old-fashioned way to do business.
By the time COVID-19 hit, Perkins Orchard was ready
“I think like most folks I thought, “Oh, it’s not going to make it here,” said Watson. “Then, as each day went by and each week went by, the issue got more serious.”
The pandemic caused most businesses to plan for a shutdown. However, the nature of his business Watson had to adjust for a surge in customers. Although many of the changes he had been making, combined with the nature of the business situated it for the moment.
“With the influx of people who were still looking for food and the amount of businesses that were closed, it led more folks to us,” Watson said. “We’re an essential business selling produce. We are also outside in the fresh air. That eliminated the fear for some folks who didn’t want to travel inside.”
That’s not to say Perkins Orchard didn’t make adjustments to their business. On the contrary, reminders about safety policies such as social distancing and mask usage are everywhere.
“We had to make some alterations to adjust to COVID-19,” said Watson. “Signage, keeping proper distance for folks on the stand wherever possible, and essentially just kind of checking all the boxes we can. We’re also finding areas where we can eliminate contact, such as no longer requiring signatures for purchases under $25.”
“But,” he added, “I do pride myself on being one of the safest places to shop in Durham, North Carolina. Especially in the middle of a pandemic.”
An orchard grows in Durham
The stretch of Barbee Road where Perkins Orchard is as good an example of Durham‘s recent growth. New townhomes and neighborhoods line the street, many of which have been constructed in the last three years. Half a mile down the road at the corner of Highway 54, land is being cleared for another development.
However, you won’t find Watson waxing nostalgic for simpler times. For him, the influx of population in Durham has meant better business.
“The growth of the area has definitely contributed to the growth of the business for sure,” he said. “If my numbers are right we’ve gotten almost 150,000 new residents in the last 14 years in Durham alone. That’s not even mentioning the growth of the rest of the state.”
“We’re up about 400% from last year,” he added.
Watson says it’s not only the amount of people moving to the area but also the variety of people that benefits the city.
“Having been in Durham all my life, 26 years, I’ve witnessed its growth and it has been pretty remarkable,” he said. “You literally have folks from all over the world moving into this area. With these people moving in they also bring their way of life. So it’s a nice melting pot in the area.”
Part of the community
After 50 years in business, Perkins Orchard has carved out its place in Durham’s cultural fabric. Between Watson’s presence constantly buzzing around the stand and the friendly, familial atmosphere, it’s easy to see why the market has such a strong following.
While most businesses won’t have the history of a place like Perkins Orchard, Watson believes they can still build a similar relationship with their community.
“Stay involved and engaged in the community,” he said. “The energy is alive and real out here. When you interact with folks you hear their story. If you have the slightest bit of passion, that’s going to keep you motivated to keep going. I encourage folks to seek out those connections, build on those and foster those relationships.”
Perhaps part of Perkins Orchard’s appeal is that it evokes memories of a disappearing North Carolina:
The family-owned outdoor produce stand. A friendly owner who seems to be everywhere at all times. The afternoon light illuminating rows of pickled vegetables and jams and jellies.
It’s a North Carolina and a Durham that’s getting harder to find. For a city headed at a breakneck pace towards the future in a world that looks uncertain at best, Perkins Orchard is a nostalgic breath of fresh air.
For more news and articles about local small businesses in North Carolina, stay tuned to our Business section.