KENNEBUNK — Comedian John Hodgman was driving home to Massachusetts from a vacation near Blue Hill last summer when he stopped to use the bathroom at the Kennebunk service plaza, on the southbound side of the Maine Turnpike.
As he and his daughter searched for the restrooms amid a variety of fast food operations, Hodgman heard a gentle song coming from some unseen corner of the plaza. “Fresh bananas heah,” the voice said.
“I thought I was hearing the ghost of a fruit salesman on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” said Hodgman, a humorist and writer best known to TV viewers for playing the dorky PC guy on Apple commercials. “I looked around and, in literally the last place you would look, in the natural food ghetto, I saw standing there by his lonesome a young man who was pleasant but not overly charismatic in demeanor. Then I saw him lift his hand and wiggle his fingers over the bananas, wiggling twice with each repetition of ‘fresh bananas heah.’ ”
“It was such a bizarre piece of theater,” he said.
What he witnessed during his bathroom break might have seemed like performance art to Hodgman. But to Jonathan Niederer of Biddeford, it was just another day at work.
Singing, finger wiggling and general showmanship are all part of the carefully thought out sales technique Niederer uses to attract people to the fruit and snacks store he mans at the service plaza, 10 hours a day, four days a week. His pitch-perfect selling has earned the 27-year-old the praise of his managers, sales bonuses ranging from free pizzas to airline tickets, and a certain degree of celebrity status.
The day he first saw and heard Niederer, Hodgman drove straight from Kennebunk to a radio station in Northampton, Massachusetts, to record one of his “Judge John Hodgman” podcasts. On the podcast he called Niederer “a genius” and implored listeners to see the banana seller in person. Since that podcast, in August 2013, Hodgman listeners from around the country have regularly stopped in to have their pictures taken with Niederer, posting online and making Niederer into something of a social media legend.
Niederer says his methods are rooted in his faith-driven desire as a Christian to do “my absolute best” at his job. He looks at his job analytically, talking about what sorts of sales pitches can be used as a “lead in” to get customers to pay attention to merchandise they might otherwise ignore, like bananas at a rest stop. His strategy combines his sweet singing voice, silly phrasing and bubbly personality. He sings about bananas more than other products, he says, because his bosses wanted him to sell more fruit. And bananas were more musical than apples, pears or oranges.
But he’ll sing about – and sell – anything.
“Once I started doing it, I just noticed I got a lot more business, I’d say two to three times more business,” said Niederer. “And it’s because I sing.”
USUAL POST, UNUSUAL EXPERIENCE
Niederer’s career goal is not to become Maine’s best-known rest stop banana seller, which he likely already is. He wants to get a better-paying job so that he and his wife, Cassandra, can buy a house and settle down somewhere. He spends two days a week studying computer technology at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. He is on his feet for four 10-hour days at the service plaza. On his one day off each week, he teaches Sunday school near Augusta.
Niederer’s usual post at the service plaza is behind a small counter, tucked into an alcove between the entrance and the restrooms. A tank of lobsters is under the counter, and a basket of two dozen perfectly stacked bananas sits on top. To Niederer’s right are a couple refrigerated cases containing fruit, granola and other healthy snacks.
There is no sign over the little retail area to help Niederer compete with the brightly lit markers for Burger King, Sbarro and the other fast food chains in the plaza.
But those operations don’t have what Niederer refers to as “the siren call of the Banana Man.”
On a recent Friday, as some 10,000 people passed through the service plaza, Niederer sang nonstop.
Most of the time he would call out his clever pitches in a sing-song voice: “Fresh bananas heah. We’ve got fresh and tasty bananas heah, mmm hmm. They’re unsalted, ya know. They’re deliberately delicious, mmm hmm.” (Niederer says he touts bananas as unsalted because it’s an added health benefit of the fruit people don’t normally think about.)
Sometimes he sang an octave higher and accented different syllables: “Frrresh BA-NA-nas heah.” Other times he adapted tunes from the Great American Songbook, like when he changed the first few words of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek”: “Heaven, you’re in banana heaven.”
Just about everyone passing by noticed, even though his voice was not loud. Many people smiled, some pointed and laughed, others just stopped and stared.
One woman picked up a banana in one hand and waved her other hand over it, singing out to Niederer, “We’ve got fresh bananas heah.”
The woman, Rosemary Apthorp of Mount Desert, says she stops at the Kennebunk plaza about a dozen times a year, and always makes it a point to seek out Niederer. She usually doesn’t buy anything; she just wants to smile.
“He has the most positive, glowing personality,” Apthorp said. “He’s very different from (other retail clerks). He just makes my day more fun.”
In July, a group of about 25 teenage singers from the Village Harmony music camp in Marshfield, Vermont, were so struck by their encounter with Niederer at the service plaza that they decided to serenade him. They took an African song from their repertoire, quickly changed most of the words to “banana,” and started singing.
“We were getting lunch, and we just noticed this awesome banana guy singing his banana song and we just wanted to show him we thought he was awesome,” said camper Cameron Gilmour, 16, of Clarendon, Vermont. “I don’t think I’d be super thrilled to be selling bananas at a rest stop, but this guy looked so happy, waving bananas around. It was kind of amazing.”
BECOMING BANANA MAN
Niederer grew up in Augusta, one of nine children in a religious family. And religion has always been central to his life.
“It’s one thing to have your boss standing over your shoulder, supervising,” said Niederer. “It’s another to have your Creator standing over your shoulder.”
He has always sung and has been in bands or school groups since around third grade. He sang through his years at Cony High School. That’s where he met his wife, who says he was “this big, adorable guy who sang really well and was always upbeat.”
“I’ve never seen him upset or sad, unless he’s really sick,” she said.
Niederer first experimented with singing sales a few years ago when he was stationed at the West Gardiner service plaza. He had a chance to earn a bonus, airplane tickets to a destination of his choosing, by selling a large number of Coca-Cola collectible water bottles. He outsold hundreds of other cashiers across the nation who work for HMSHost, the corporation that runs retail operations at Maine Turnpike service plazas. He used the tickets to travel to Colorado with his wife, for their honeymoon.
Cassandra Niederer says she didn’t really understand at first how passionate her husband was about his unique sales technique, or how successful he was.
“I thought it was just something he did to keep himself more awake at work. But he kept coming up with new ideas and getting more excited about it,” she said. “He makes less than I do per hour but goes out every day like he’s saving the world. I love his outlook.”
Niederer’s bosses love his results. The bottom line for them, of course, is the bottom line. So they’re happy to have a salesman who can sell tons of fruit and granola to people who are rushing to the bathroom or weary of being on the road all day.
“If I tell Jonathan to sell 50 bags of trail mix today, he’ll do it,” said Andrew Tucci, HMSHost’s operations director for the Maine Turnpike service plazas. “He interacts unbelievably with people. He makes people want to talk to him.”
One secret to his interaction is the fact that he seems to make instant eye contact with anyone who turns in his direction. Niederer says this is possible because of a visual technique he’s perfected.
“I don’t focus in on one thing, I look for movement. When I see someone coming at me, I make eye contact,” Niederer said.
Since Niederer caught Hodgman’s eye a year ago, the two have stayed in touch. Niederer has sent Hodgman emails talking about his small-scale fame, caused by Hodgman’s podcast and website. Niederer told Hodgman he doesn’t know whether to be “happy or terrified” that everyone in his company knows what he looks like. His name and likeness are easy to find on the Internet now because people post pictures with him. The singing campers from Vermont posted a video of their serenade of Niederer. And Niederer himself has begun Tweeting, using the Twitter handle @FreshBananasHea. He says his brush with celebrity over the past year has not made him consider a career in show business. He’s still thinking about computers.
But Hodgman thinks Niederer is a performer at heart – and a performer with heart. In his podcast, he called Niederer “the greatest comedian to come out of Maine” and talked about wanting to produce a TV show with him.
On his drive out of Maine last August, Hodgman said he spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what Niederer was doing. And why it mattered.
“Was he an ordinary worker who was trying to defeat boredom, or was it put on to entertain himself? Was it some bizarre art project, was he some kind of hipster, or was he just the most earnest banana salesperson I’ve encountered?” Hodgman said. “When someone is trained by a big corporation to provide a certain level of customer service, there’s a sameness to it. I think what makes him so special is the invasion of humanity into what is normally a dehumanized space.”
Hodgman said he meant no offense to service plazas and people who work there. He just meant that people entering service plazas don’t normally expect to see someone offering up such a big slice of their own personality, along with snacks and a drink.
They don’t expect the Banana Man.