Masters of Melons


Supermarkets across the country are teeming with untapped melon customers. Some are former cantaloupe thumpers and honeydew dabblers, but many may be under the mistaken impression that too many melons just aren’t that flavorful, so they don’t bite.

Barry Zwillinger, sales manager at Legend Produce, the largest supplier of cantaloupe in the United States, hopes to change that. The Dos Palos, Calif.-based company sources melons from multiple growing regions in California and Arizona, as well as off-shore farms in Honduras and Guatemala, to supply melons 12 months a year.

“Consumers are looking for a more flavorful cantaloupe,” asserts Zwillinger, who says that a pursuit of higher yields and a longer shelf life in cantaloupe and honeydew cultivation led to an era of less aromatic and flavorful fruit.

“It’s kind of like what happened with heirloom tomatoes,” continues Zwillinger. Consumer demand for unblemished tomatoes led to a rise in more uniform and waxy options that lacked the juicy and compelling flavor of heirloom varieties.

But demand for full-flavored fruit has returned, he says, fueled in large part by the popularity of local farmers’ markets and increasingly flavor-obsessed chefs who want what Zwillinger calls “the old-school” taste of cantaloupe and other melons.

Two years ago, Legend Produce secured the exclusive U.S. rights to the Origami cantaloupe. “It has a high Brix [level]. It’s highly aromatic, very flavorful, and it has a small, dense seed cavity and thin skin that offers a lot of melon that you can eat,” notes Zwillinger. “It also travels well and cuts nicely, holding its shape and flavor, which makes it excellent for processors and foodservice.

“Origamis are bringing back the old-school flavor of cantaloupes, but with a longer shelf life,” he continues. It’s a combination that’s resonating with retailers, from club stores to major supermarket chains, as well as with processors.

“In the processor business, 100 percent of our clients who cut Origami melons have seen an increase in their sales,” says Zwillinger. “And the retailers who cut that fruit in their back room — in a lot of cases, their sales are upwards of 100 percent.”

While consumer demand for the convenience of cut fruit may be fueling part of this demand, when it comes to honeydews, there may be more to the story. “Actually, the best honeydews are often the rough ones with scarring or sugar netting. Those are typically your sweetest melons,” notes Zwillinger.

Sampling is one way to demonstrate the fact that a honeydew with scarring is flavorful and sweet, in spite of its appearance. “Try to focus more on flavor and the eating experience, and not so much on visual presence,” recommends Zwillinger.

Stepping Up Food Safety

A number of melon suppliers, including Legend Produce, have ramped up food safety initiatives in recent years. They’re getting the word out on company websites, and perhaps one day soon, on the product itself.

In 2011, news broke of cantaloupes linked to a deadly listeria outbreak at Jensen Farms, in Colorado. The event affected the whole cantaloupe industry.

“People didn’t just stop buying Colorado cantaloupes, they stopped buying all cantaloupes,” recalls John Gilstrap, of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, in Dinuba, Calif. “Obviously, things like this can impact a whole industry.”

Gilstrap adds that although California has thankfully never had a food safety issue with cantaloupe, there’s no such thing as being too cautious when it comes to food safety.

California mandates government inspections of all growers of a certain size — any large enough to supply supermarkets. “It’s comprehensive,” notes Gilstrap of the auditing program, now in its third season. Field audits began in 2012, and 2013 was the first year handlers were certified.

While certified growers are permitted to use a certified mark on letterhead, bills of lading, and cartons, the industry has yet to develop a “certified sticker” for use on individual cantaloupes.

The board has applied for a grant to study whether such an identifying label would make a difference to consumers. In October, the board will learn whether its grant has been approved, and, if it’s greenlighted, this is the question it will explore through a formal survey.

In the meantime, Gilstrap says that cantaloupe sales have recovered from the 2011 incident. Any current dip in sales has to do with somewhat lighter crops due to California’s water shortage, he explains.

“We had some reduction in volume last year, but not as much as we thought,” notes Gilstrap, adding, “Cantaloupe is a fairly efficient crop when it comes to water. Dry growing regions are really great for it, [although] it sounds counterintuitive.”

Watermelon Mania

While a well-planned and -executed merchandising strategy can increase sales across all categories in the produce department, Juliemar Rosado, director of retail operations and international marketing for the National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB), in Winter Springs, Fla., believes it’s particularly critical with watermelons.

“Good merchandising is important because it confirms the value, health and versatility of our product, which also happen to be some of the primary drivers for watermelon sales,” she says.

And cross-merchandising is even better. “Demos and promotions that involve more than one commodity always have great success,” notes Rosado. “They not only drive the sales of more than one product, they also have the potential to showcase the products’ versatility if shown in a recipe.”

When it comes to what’s selling in watermelons, NWPB reports an increase in fresh-cut sales in general. “Cut watermelon equals convenience,” says Rosado. “Consumers can pick it up and take it to go.”

For supermarkets that feature bins of watermelons in season and also offer value-added that’s fresh-cut in-store, the board recommends merchandising whole watermelons near the fresh-cuts.

NWPB, which has run a retail display contest in July for a number of years, says watermelon is the biggest item in the produce section, so retailers should use it.

While promoting the health benefits of watermelons is one way to spur sales, Rosado further notes, “Hydration has been a growing area of focus for us over the past year. You can’t spell watermelon without the word ‘water.’”

Enticingly Exotic

The “Eat One Fruit a Day That Scares You” campaign, launched by the specialty produce experts at Frieda’s Inc., in Los Alamitos, Calif., recently gained national attention through a health blog for U.S. News & World Report written by registered dietitian, nutritionist and author Janet Helm.

Citing low U.S. fruit consumption figures, Helm issued a challenge to America, inspired by the Frieda’s campaign: “Get over your fear of fruit.” Taking a further cue from the company, Helm suggested new, exotic fruits, especially for children. The kiwano, a member of the melon and cucumber family, made Helm’s list of recommendations.

The fruit, which is also known as a horned melon or horned cucumber, is grown in the United States and New Zealand; is high in vitamin C and A, iron and potassium; and provides a good source of omega fatty acid, notes Frieda’s website, which also urges consumers not to refrigerate them and includes a video on how to enjoy the exotic fruit.

“Consumers are looking for a more flavorful cantaloupe.”
—Barry Zwillinger, Legend Produce

“Cantaloupe is a fairly efficient crop when it comes to water.”
—John Gilstrap, California Cantaloupe Advisory Board

“Hydration has been a growing area of focus for us over the past year. You can’t spell watermelon without the word ‘water.’”
—Juliemar Rosado, National Watermelon Promotion Board

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