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Dragon fruit, purple kohlrabi, feijoa, malanga — today’s produce department has become a multicultural feast of vibrant and enticing offerings.
Fueled by a combination of growing ethnic demographics, self-proclaimed foodies, and Millennial shoppers who want what’s new and different, sales of exotic produce are on the rise.
At the forefront of this trend is Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda’s Inc., which has blazed a trail for exotic produce in the United States for 54 years. A recent documentary film, “Fear No Fruit,” chronicles company founder Dr. Frieda Caplan from her beginnings as the first woman entrepreneur at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market in the 1960s through her tireless efforts to introduce more than 200 exotic fruits and vegetables to U.S. supermarkets. Frieda Caplan first introduced U.S. customers to kiwis more than a half-century ago, and today her family business is still ushering in the exotic, as with “The Power of Purple” — namely, Stokes purple sweet potatoes, purple snow peas, purple kohlrabi, and more. Over the years, Frieda’s has taken both the industry and consumers on a fascinating and flavorful journey via fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We continue to travel around the world looking for new products to introduce to American consumers,” says Karen Caplan, current CEO of Frieda’s and the daughter of the founder. With an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 fruits and vegetables that are grown worldwide, but as yet undeveloped commercially, Caplan is confident that a long and delicious future awaits fans of Frieda’s exotic produce.
“Something that’s really getting people’s attention today is dragon fruit,” notes Caplan. Frieda’s offerings include an Israeli dragon fruit, called pitaya, which has a mild, delicate favor.
While Frieda’s has supplied dragon fruit for more than 20 years, it seems that the item’s time has finally come in the United States. When Frieda’s surveyed its customers about what causes demand for an unusual item, it found that a mention by Dr. Oz or an appearance on the Food Network sparked a deluge of inquiries about the featured fruit or vegetable.
Another reason more consumers are embracing exotic produce, is that more of them are Millennial, continues Caplan. “One of the biggest shifts in the produce industry will be more Millennial produce managers. They’ll order something new and not be afraid that they’re going to shrink it,” she predicts, adding that this changing of the guard could take 20 years.
Frieda’s anticipated this shift several years ago, and began hiring young people with the aim of harnessing their perspective on the specialty produce business. Today, more than 50 percent of its buying and selling teams consist of Millennials. The company also recently rebranded Frieda’s with the tagline “inspire.taste.love” to appeal to a younger demographic.
While novelty and exoticism resonate with more and more consumers, Caplan asserts that “first and foremost is taste.”
Still, she admits that specialty produce has its limits at grocery. “We’re aware of the challenges on the retail side: They don’t have a never-ending amount of space to devote to produce, so we evaluate every product to determine if it’s really appropriate for retailers,” Caplan notes, observing that in addition to taste, shelf life, nutritional value and volume are all important factors.
“With over 66 percent of consumers eating a greater variety of ethnic foods today than five years ago, it makes sense that the consumer response to tropicals has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Marion Tabard, director of marketing for Turbana Corp., in Coral Gables, Fla.
“This last year, we experienced a 40 percent growth in Turbana ethnic tropical,” adds Tabard. “We have noticed that sales volume for Turbana chayote and malangas are growing at a faster rate than the eddo, probably because eddoes are lesser known. Chayote and malanga remain top contenders in our tropical line, but we are expecting the entire line to experience a sales lift in 2016.”
With the recent addition of Hass Avocados from Mexico, Turbana now offers 19 ethnic tropical produce items.
Tabard attributes the growth in demand for ethnic tropical produce to several factors, from the increasingly adventurous American palate to more consumers thinking and acting like foodies in their desire for authentic dishes and ethnic cuisine.
“The changing demographic composition of the United States, with the highest growth rates among Hispanic and Asian Americans, has also played a role in the recent spike in the popularity of ethnic tropical,” she asserts.
Tabard foresees the continued popularity of authentic dishes and ethnic cuisine. “Within fresh produce, we see exotic produce as a major contender,” she says, pointing to market research from Chicago-based firm Mintel predicting that sales of ethnic food overall will increase by 20.3 percent between 2012 and 2017.
To reach consumers who are unfamiliar with ethnic tropicals, Turbana works with its retail customers to create large interactive in-store displays, and product signage in both English and Spanish.
Turbana also offers educational videos and a mobile app for store managers to learn about ethnic tropical produce management. Through the app, retailers can access the demographic breakdown of consumers living in the areas served by their stores to customize product assortment to meet the specific needs of each market. The app also alerts retailers to upcoming holidays so they can capitalize on promotional opportunities that involve tropicals.
When people hear the word “exotic,” colorful, faraway lands typically come to mind. In some cases, however, unique produce is closer to home than one might think.
J&C Tropicals has introduced a locally grown tropical produce program that includes some 25 Florida-grown items, from dragon fruit and longan to lychee and passion fruit.
“Our fastest-growing line is our Florida-grown tropical program,” asserts Jessie Capote, EVP and a principal of the Homestead, Fla.-based company.
“The program has grown exponentially in the last few years, in part because of the significant growth in the Hispanic and Asian demographics, and also because our retailers are interested in everything locally grown,” he explains. “When you marry those, you’re hitting two out of the five largest interests of a corporate retailer’s produce initiative.”
Capote also finds that Florida mangoes are also becoming a niche business, as Florida cultivates different mango varieties from the Tommy Atkins, which dominates the import market. “Florida mangoes are similar to an Ataulfo mango,” he notes. “They are more buttery in consistency and less fibrous.”
For J&C Tropicals, which sells across the country, Florida, California and the Northeast are well-established markets for exotic produce, but Capote sees growing interest from emerging markets in Minnesota, Atlanta and Virginia.
In an effort to reach a larger audience, J&C Tropicals will make its television debut this July on “The Balancing Act,” a half-hour magazine-style program that airs on the Lifetime network. The program will feature dragon fruit, the season for which is mid-June to the end of October.
Targeting Adventurous Eaters
The produce department has never been more important to a supermarket’s success than it is today, according David Ciancio, senior customer strategist with Dunnhumby, an international customer science firm based in Ireland, with U.S. headquarters in Cincinnati.
Ciancio, who helped to bring Dunnhumby to the United States through a joint venture with Cincinnati-based Kroger, championed that grocer’s customer-first strategy and built its award-winning loyalty program, currently works with retailers to analyze customer behavior and understand shopper trends and practices.
“With most retailers, the No. 1 question on their list is, what can they do to improve their fresh offerings?” says Ciancio. While assortment, pricing, quality, touch, customer experience, and a knowledgeable and friendly produce staff all play a role, when it comes to exotic produce, understanding the customer and their trip mission is critical.
“What’s exotic to one person might be an everyday item in a different ethnic group, so be careful what you define as ‘exotic,’” he adds. “Cherimoya is not exotic in the Latin community. It’s also important to understand the shopper’s level of affluence and lifestyle.”
While education is the key to increasing sales in exotic produce, the competition for shoppers’ attention is fierce. “The average consumer sees 5,000 marketing messages a day. They can’t pay attention to all of it,” asserts Ciancio, who recommends targeting adventurous eaters through direct mail and email to alert them to new exotics, and supporting these efforts with in-store demos, tastings and signage.
Dunnhumby’s research has identified a number of “ascending” exotic produce items, including fresh horseradish, cherimoya, figs, gai lan and pine needles (as an ingredient).
“Get customers to try new exotics, get it in their hands, and accompany that with information on nutritional and health benefits,” adds Ciancio, citing a Dunnhumby study that found consumers are increasingly looking to supermarkets to help them make healthy food choices. More than half (53 percent) of the study’s respondents said they believe a retailer can “have a significant role in supporting their commitment to health.”
Recipes and Demos
Educating produce personnel and shoppers alike is the secret to success with exotic produce, but the learning process requires an element of fun to translate into sales.
In 1972, Frieda’s became the first produce company to put a recipe on its labels. Today, the company offers scores of recipes, from appetizers to main dishes to beverages, on its website to capture the interest of customers shopping the produce department with smartphones in hand.
Demos and tastings are also effective ways to build awareness of exotic produce, asserts Leslie Simmons, of Dave’s Specialty Imports, in Coral Springs, Fla. While she says demand for the company’s Cape Gooseberries is rising slowly, more education is needed.
“People always want something unique and interesting, but there is definitely still a gap in education, and some people have no idea what [gooseberries] are,” she admits. “In-store demos and recipes can make the difference between a sale and a customer sailing by the lesser-known fruit.”
For example, while many people enjoy gooseberries raw, they may not know that this fruit is highly versatile, and can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. Simmons recommends using them as an alternative to grape tomatoes in a caprese skewer or pasta primavera.