Spiny, hairy, gnarled and deceptively delicious, some of today’s hottest exotic produce is providing new opportunities for grocers to appeal to increasingly adventurous consumers who will buy once they try.
Consider rambutan. Specialty produce experts around the country have identified this Southeast Asian sweet treat as a top trend, despite its wiry, sea urchin-like appearance.
At the family-owned and -operated Penn Dutch Food Center, in Margate, Fla., Produce Manager Harshad Patel has created unprecedented demand for the unusual-looking fruit, along with a host of other specialty produce items, through regular sampling, customer education and attractive pricing.
“A lot of people are unfamiliar with rambutan,” he acknowledges. “It looks kind of ugly and hairy from the outside, but once you open it and give customers a taste, they love it. We personally ripen our rambutan and give customers a sample.” Penn Dutch hosts demos of the fruit, when in season, on Saturdays at peak shopping hours between noon and 3 p.m.
“Rambutan is typically priced at $3.99 a pound, but we offer a 5-pound box for $16 and we sell them left and right,” enthuses Patel, who estimates that the grocer’s sales of rambutan are as much as triple what they were a few years ago.
Availability is also helping to fuel demand. “Our fastest-growing exotic fruit has clearly been the rambutan,” asserts Marc Holbik, of Miami-based Ecoripe Tropicals. “Five years ago, Central American growers were just beginning to harvest commercial volumes, and the U.S. market had yet to receive fresh rambutan of good quality on consistent and marketable volumes. Now, during the May-to-November season, we have fresh arrivals of GlobalGap-certified fruit six days per week from Guatemala.”
In his six years with Penn Dutch, Patel has cultivated a loyal customer base looking for exotic produce, from fresh turmeric to Indian bitter melon. “I built a full section of Indian produce in the store, and we sell things like Indian okra for 10 cents cheaper per pound than the local Indian markets,” he says.
Patel, who emigrated from India to the United States 30 years ago, shares his vast produce knowledge with staff and customers alike, including the health benefits of a juice made from Indian bitter melon, and the many uses of fresh turmeric.
India has a rich tradition of using roots and other produce for medicinal purposes, beauty aids, digestive health, and more. Patel’s enthusiasm for, and expertise in, these time-honored methods proves popular on the store floor. Revered for its many health properties, fresh turmeric has become such a hot commodity at Penn Dutch that Patel receives calls each week from customers willing to drive a considerable distance to purchase the root. “Turmeric is pretty expensive at $4 a pound,” he says. “Customers will spend between $10 to $12 on fresh turmeric — that’s a lot of business in produce.”
Large displays at the front of the store are also critical to growing produce sales, according to Patel. In mid-March, when there were fewer peak-of-season offerings, Penn Dutch wowed customers with a powerful papaya display that grabbed shoppers’ attention upon entering the store.
“We typically sell $200 to $300 in papaya a week,” says Patel, although last month, the store sold $1,400 worth of the fruit. He advises produce managers to be sure to order papaya with color. “People don’t want to buy green papaya and wait three or four days for it to ripen.”
In December, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market named coconut as a top food trend in 2017. Several months earlier, Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Melissa’s Produce, predicted the coconut craze during a media presentation at the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit, in Orlando, Fla.
Indeed, coconut product sales are up across the board for Los Angeles-based Melissa’s, which has seen a sales uptick of almost 20 percent this year.
“Quick Crack Coconuts that are pre-scored are our most popular coconut product,” notes Schueller. Demand for sweet young coconuts that produce coconut water are also on the rise.
To feed the trend, Melissa’s newest products include Coconut Hearts and Coconut Slices. The company is also launching a new Fresh Coconut from Vietnam. The coconut comes with a sticker that surrounds the fruit’s “soft eye” and bears the instructions “insert straw here.” It comes with a sturdy straw that easily pierces the fruit, making the enjoyment of fresh coconut water convenient and cool.
Dragon Fruit on Fire
“It’s probably the most artistically beautiful fruit around. Every retailer wants to carry dragon fruit,” asserts Schueller, who reports that Melissa’s sales of the fruit from the United States, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Mexico and Israel are up 16 percent over last year.
Indeed, suppliers from coast to coast are proclaiming dragon fruit one of the most sought-after exotic specialties in produce.
Karen Caplan, president and CEO of Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda’s Specialty Produce, affirms that dragon fruit, along with jackfruit, young coconut, rambutan and turmeric, comprise the company’s five top-selling exotic produce items.
But it’s pitaya (the Spanish word for dragon fruit) from Israel about which Caplan is particularly excited. Just last year, the USDA permitted the importation of pitaya from Israel. “We are very fortunate to work with the top pitaya breeder in the world, and his varieties all have fantastic flavor,” notes Caplan.
“The Asian dragon fruit we’re familiar with is not known for having a distinctive flavor, so the introduction of the pitaya has been a real plus for consumers,” she adds. One potential challenge, notes Caplan, is that some pitaya varieties from Israel are shaped differently from the Vietnamese fruit. Frieda’s has created additional signage and POS to educate consumers accordingly.
American-grown dragon fruit is also on the rise. “Dragon fruit is coming up fast. There are close to 1,200 acres of dragon fruit in Florida, and that acreage will increase,” predicts Jessie Capote, principal/EVP of J&C Tropicals, in Miami.
Not only is dragon fruit a fanciful sight and fun to eat, it’s also packed with enticing health benefits. “It’s a superfood — up there with kale and berries,” asserts Capote, whose company recently completed a study of Florida-grown dragon fruit with Florida International University, in Miami.
The study found that Florida-grown dragon fruit contains high levels of antioxidants and vitamin C, among other benefits. Capote anticipates the study’s release in the next couple of months.
Jazzed About Jackfruit
With sales up about 20 percent over last year, jackfruit also makes Melissa’s list of top-trending exotic produce for 2017. Schueller attributes the sales increase to the year-round availability of the fruit and its popularity with vegans and vegetarians who use it as a substitute for pulled pork.
Within the jackfruit category, Schueller says the demand for smaller fruit (between 8 and 16 pounds) is particularly high. Jackfruit can grow to enormous proportions — up to 100 pounds. Melissa’s imports its jackfruit from Mexico.
Jackfruit also tops Caplan’s trend list. “First of all, these top-selling items all have the commonality of being popular with Asian shoppers,” she notes. “They are also listed on almost every trend list for the last few years. And finally, when supplies increase, the price comes down and we see more consumers have access to these products as all grocers begin to stock them.”
Kiwi of a Different Color
While green kiwifruit may seem more mainstream than exotic these days, education and sampling remain key to driving sales in this category, particularly when it comes to yellow-fleshed kiwifruit.
“We are very excited about the growth of the kiwifruit category,” asserts Sarah Deaton, of Zespri International, the Mount Maunganui, New Zealand-based exclusive exporter of New Zealand kiwifruit, with U.S. offices in Newport Beach, Calif. “It’s grown 9 percent from 2015 to 2016, and kiwifruit dollar sales outpaced total fruit by nearly 5 points,” she adds.
Zespri’s SunGold Kiwifruit is yellow-fleshed and has a sweeter taste than green kiwifruit. Some describe the taste as a cross between a strawberry and mango.
Packaging its SunGold smooth-skinned kiwifruit in clamshells and pouches that feature an image of the cut fruit has proved highly successful. “Kiwifruit is on trend and surpassing total fruit sales, and a lot of that growth is coming from SunGold,” affirms Deaton.
Zespri is ready to collaborate with retailers this kiwifruit season, which lasts from May to November. “We are developing marketing programs with retailers and encourage them to reach out to our market development managers to arrange in-store sampling, create custom POS and help spread the word about SunGold kiwifruit,” says Deaton.
“Putting kiwifruit on ad is also helpful,” she continues. “People do read circulars, while in-store demos help people taste this new variety and give retailers the opportunity to show customers how to eat them. A lot of people still think you need to peel a kiwi. We’re trying to teach consumers the cut-and-scoop method.”
Also, because the outward appearance of a SunGold Kiwifruit is more like that of a potato than a piece of fruit, showing customers the luscious and colorful inside of the fruit is critical. Deaton recommends putting the fruit in the fresh-cut section to familiarize shoppers with this new offering.
Zespri will offer double the volume of SunGold kiwifruit from last year.