A woman approached Rusty Keele, the owner of Rusty’s Produce, as he stood under his tent in Spokane Valley on Monday. “I’m so glad you’re back,” she said.
It’s a sentiment Keele is hearing a lot lately. He reopened this week after taking last season off to undergo cancer treatment. “Everyone has just been over the top,” he said.
People come to Rusty’s Produce for Keele as well as the produce. He always chats with customers, offering free samples and slipping an extra item or two in their bags free of charge.
Mike Naccarato, Keele’s father-in-law, helps run the cash register. Many regular customers are returning Keele’s longtime generosity, telling him to keep the change when they pay, he said. “I recognize almost all of them,” Naccarato said.
Keele has run his Valley fruit stand since 1984. He used to run a location in north Spokane as well, but that closed a few years ago. “Now I just run this one location,” he said. “This is it. I’m a Valley guy.”
Last year the frame of Keele’s tent appeared as usual in the Shopko parking lot at Sprague Avenue and Blake Road, but the tent cover never went up. It sat unfinished all year and residents accustomed to getting produce from Keele, including a particularly sweet local corn, had to go elsewhere. But now that Keele is back, so are they.
“The real phenomenon has been our relationship with the customers,” Keele said.
Keele’s cancer was detected after he noticed swelling on his neck. Doctors found cancer in his lymph nodes and radiation and chemotherapy followed. He finished treatments in March 2012. He’d lost his hair, 50 pounds and some teeth.
At first he planned to open his fruit stand in April like normal, assuming his health would bounce back quickly after his treatments ended. It didn’t. His family advised him to take the season off.
“It was just too hard to eat and swallow,” he said. “I took their advice, and they were right. I love the fruit stand, but it’s really a lot of hard work.”
Still, he worried about his customers and his suppliers. But every one of the farmers he buys from said not to worry, they’d be there waiting when he was better, Keele said.
“We’ve got everybody back on board again,” he said. “Somehow they picked up the slack. That really was a relief.”
Now Keele has a clean bill of health and was back to his normal routine Monday, slipping an extra bundle of fresh asparagus into one man’s bag as he was paying. Business has been steady since he reopened, he said.
“I really, really missed it,” he said. “I’m just thankful to have the opportunity to be here. I’m anxious to be a part of the community again.”