Undercover shoppers search for tropical produce to create a dining distraction.

Originally printed in the March 2023 issue of Produce Business.

Let’s face it: Sometimes we just want to get away from it all. White sand, crystal clear, turquoise water, swaying palm trees and the sun on our face. No shoes, no work, no worries.

But even if we can’t experience an island getaway, the taste of the tropics is the next best thing. So this year, Produce Business sent its mystery shoppers in search of a tropical taste escape.

For more than 30 years, this magazine has devoted a cover story to informing supermarket retailers about the perceptions shoppers may experience in their produce departments. This year, we wanted to learn how this growing category is faring across the country, and explore how stores merchandise tropical produce and if they are on point with the growing trend of providing more global cuisine, specifically tropical produce.

According to 2019 research from Robinson Fresh, over the previous five years, the tropical category grew twice as fast as total produce. But for retailers, tropicals are a complex, complicated commodity that involves more shopper education — what is it, how do I tell if it’s ripe, how do I store/prepare it?

Tropical fresh produce items, like mangos, papaya, jicama, guava or plantains, are often hard to find in the supermarket produce department. That doesn’t mean they’re rare, just typically under-merchandised and relegated to small, out-of-the-way spaces.

It’s easy to find bananas, pineapples and coconuts, but more and more shoppers are looking for mangos, papayas, dragon fruit, rambutan, lychees and kiwis. And with the boom of social media trends, shoppers are also scanning the tropical fruits section these days for passion fruit, jackfruit, cherimoya, kiwano, soursop and mangosteen, too.

To see how retailers are stocking and merchandising tropical produce, we unleashed our mystery shoppers. Here’s what we found:

Getting Tropical About Salads

We were hoping to surprise our grandson on our next visit by putting together a spicy green salad with guava vinaigrette, and decided to do a trial run of this exotic delicacy before we hit the road. Because some of the ingredients looked challenging, we chose a well-known natural foods store where you pay a little more, but hopefully get more help in return. We visited on Friday, in late afternoon.

We were not disappointed. Inside the store, produce was given a generous expanse. Everything looked fresh and recently culled of imperfection. There were signs explaining that some fruits are routinely waxed to prevent dehydration or fungal disease, and these prominent notices listed the waxed varieties. Other signage instructed shoppers on how to avoid contamination of the organic produce by packing it in a way that would not allow direct contact with conventional produce.

Looking for the guavas for our dressing, we were disappointed to learn there was none because of a recall. (Later research revealed an importer got on the Food and Drug Administration bad boy list for failure to document all the required tests.)

Fortunately, an amiable produce worker who walked us to the star anise display explained that it also goes well with citrus. He also mentioned that star anise goes well in hot toddies, which may have been a reference to our ages.

We were able to find the ricotta salata in the display of fine cheeses next to the deli, and the cheese specialist told us how to use it and even how to prevent this sheep cheese from stinking up our refrigerator.

The store delivered on its promise with an abundance of produce and many knowledgeable staff people ready and able to offer help and good cheer. There was lots of quality produce (but the prices were on the high side).

One nagging thought as we left was, in an area with many organic farms, there were few if any signs about the individual farmers supplying the store.

No plantains, but a little help from an employee (a little)

I visited my neighborhood grocery chain (a local regional chain, part of a major national chain) at 2:30 p.m. on a weekday, and there was a small smattering of shoppers milling about. Most were single seniors. Upon first glance in the department, it was decked out for Valentine’s Day with décor and special displays. This store is one of the smaller formats, so the deli, produce department and bakery overlap, and there is some spillover from one to the other.

It took some time for me to locate a produce department employee, although I did see staff in both the bakery and deli. After looking around at the beautiful displays segregated by fruits and vegetables, organics and non-organics, pre-cut and whole, I finally located a department employee. The middle-aged, bearded man had on a neat uniform, and seemed quite harried as he pushed a vertical metal cart filled with packaged strawberries, blueberries and grapes.

“Excuse me, do you carry unripe plantains?” I asked. Before I even finished my sentence, he quickly answered, “No we don’t.”

I thanked him, then turned my gaze to the surrounding displays. “What about star fruit?” He then pointed at a display about 10 feet away. “See on top of that pedestal over there?” I walked over as he followed behind me.

“These are star fruit?” I asked. He replied, “Yes, and that price is by the pound.”

I picked one of the six star fruit, examining it closely. I asked, “How do you know when it is ripe?” He answered, “It shouldn’t be too soft or have mold on it.” I tested it, and the star fruit seemed perfectly ripe, not too soft and no mold was visible. Before I could thank him, he took off.

As I hung around for what seemed like many more minutes, there were no other produce employees in the department. Overall, fruit and vegetables were neatly arranged and abundant for the most part. There seemed to be a big offering of value-added products, with fruit and veggie platters and cut fruit.

I did have a disconcerting moment right before my interaction with the produce employee. As I was walking by the avocados, one of the clipped-on price tags spontaneously released with no provocation, shooting right at my head and landing at my feet. There may be a better way to price product at this store so as not to assault the customers.

Helpful staff, but marketing an afterthought

At 4:30 p.m. on a Monday, I visited a regional specialty grocery store, which was part of a chain. After walking through bakery and deli, I found produce. In the front, square wooden bins displayed poblano, serrano and other peppers. Most produce was sold in bulk, but there were a lot of bagged potatoes. Fresh fruits and vegetables covered double-sided racks. Tomatoes and avocados added color breaks at the end caps. A mobile merchandiser held fresh-squeezed orange juice. A cold rack stocked sliced fruit, cut vegetables, bagged salad, fresh guacamole. Perpendicular to that, a wet rack displayed loose greens including dandelion and arugula.

Three employees restocked produce, although most shelves were full. I approached an associate, and said I was buying fruit for a tropical-themed party. He showed me green plaintains, but there was a language barrier (the store has many Latino customers, and I don’t speak Spanish).

A colleague took over helping me. We worked through my ingredients list for tropical salads. He found guava, sold in resealable plastic bags, and demonstrated how to slice off the ends and cut it in quarters. “But it has skin,” I protested. “You can eat the skin. Like an apple,” he said.

He found star anise for me in the spice section of produce and pointed me to the top shelf of the cheese rack for ricotta salata.

Papayas were sold by weight. “They’re way too big!” I said. He chose the smallest one and led me to the scale. It weighed 3 pounds. “That means it will cost $5 for one papaya!” I complained. “You get mangos instead, then. Here we have the red ones (2 for $3), and over there the yellow ones (99 cents each) from Mexico,” he said.

He located dragon fruit, and pushed down to show that it was ripe. I selected a pink one, then asked if yellow would be better. “I don’t know. This is not a fruit I eat. I don’t like the taste,” he said.

The produce aisle was pleasantly arranged, and staff was helpful. But marketing was an afterthought. There were no attention-grabbing materials like overhead signs, baskets, vendor bins. A few spices were cross marketed, but that seemed to be all. There were no tie-ins for upcoming events (Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day). But prices were reasonable (low to average), and small signs listed the country of origin for each item.

New store, recipe cards, helpful manager

I headed to a large grocery store, part of a major regional grocery chain, that just opened in my town. I went on a Thursday afternoon, thinking it would not be as busy, but the parking lot was full. I walked in and veered right to the produce section that was filled with shoppers and carts. The produce section is clean, organized and eye-appealing. As the section was full, employees were busy, and I looked around for someone to talk to.

As I approached an employee restocking avocados, he glanced up and asked, “Do you need any help?” I replied and said, “Yes, I am looking for tropical fruit for a themed party. Could you point me to where they are located?” He pointed to an area across the way.

I said, “Do you have any recommendations for how to prepare or cook these? I am not familiar with some of these.” He said they have some recipe cards, and walked me to a stand that had cards on it. Some were missing, but he pulled out three and gave them to me. One had a yuca recipe on it. He then took me over to another section where the yuca was and asked, “Have you ever had this before?” I replied, “No, I have not.” There was not a lot there and he noted this by saying, “I am running low and if you are having a big party, it will not be enough but, this [pointing to something next to the yuca] is similar.”

At this point, I glanced at his employee nametag and noticed it said, ‘Produce Manager.’ He then asked, “Have you ever had plantains?” I said “No, I have not tried those either.” He pointed to one of the recipe cards and said, “They are very good and can be used for a lot.” I looked down at the card; it was for air fryer platanos maduros.

He walked me over to the section that had the most tropical fruit. He pointed to an empty tray, “I have more dragon fruit down at the end by the oranges,” he explained, as he pointed to the end of the aisle. I asked “What other recommendations do you have for what to make for this party? He said “With what we have here in store, a salad would be good for the dragon fruit. Or people make smoothies with a lot these fruits, like the mangos.” I thanked him, as another customer came up with questions, and he left to go assist.

Overall, the store had several options, was clean and organized. The fruit in the produce section was fresh, and the employee was able to guide me in the right direction.

A tropical strike-out

I entered a Central Plains regional retail chain outlet with an educated concern about tropical fruit availability. It is a nice, bright, spacious, clean store, and the produce department has dramatically expanded in the last year. We usually don’t shop there because it’s more expensive and a couple miles further than its competitor. But we hoped its upscale nature would include tropical fruit.

One clerk carted big plastic boxes for pick-up orders. Another clerk busily stocked shelves late on a Sunday morning. When help was requested, he was immediately polite and wanted to help. However, when asked about merchandising tropical fruit for recipes, his face suddenly grew long. His eyes portrayed the current vernacular: “I got nothin’.”

Other than a remarkably varied citrus display — including pomelos and pink Melissa’s brand Meyer and pink lemons — pineapples and bananas were the only classically tropical fruit in this produce department.

“We’ve got pears,” he meekly offered.

“What about mangos?” I asked. “We will get a delivery tomorrow. And they’ll sell out fast. But we just don’t sell many mangos,” he said, before recommending his cross-town competitor as a more reliable mango source.

Gently pressed, he explained that there just isn’t a demand in this Midwestern college town for tropical fruit.

One has to wonder if it was displayed and merchandised, would it be sold? Perhaps. But the answer to that question was clearly over the pay grade of our game, if under-equipped, produce clerk.

Come back for better pineapple

In a regional chain store in the Northeast, the tropical selection wasn’t abundant, but the produce staffer on duty was knowledgeable.

The chain is an upper mid-supermarket entry with a good reputation in produce. As for the produce department itself, the airy layout features low-rise tables and cold cases for items such as berries on the main floor. Cold cases on the far wall gave way after about 30 feet to dairy cases. Open and closed cold cases lined the other side of the department featuring fresh-cut fruit, bagged and clamshell salads and related items.

An on-the-floor floral department with plants, balloons and flowers preceded the produce department adjacent to the entrance.

Aside from bananas, pineapples were by far the most conspicuous tropical fruit in the department. I asked a clerk who was adding items to displays about pineapple and its preparation. He hesitated, then directed me to a second employee. He was quite polite as he identified his colleague as the one to help me out.

I told this second staffer that I normally purchase fresh-cut pineapple, but wanted to start preparing my own. I asked him if the pineapple featured at the time could be prepared by just cutting it with a knife or if he would recommend my purchasing a coring device. He said it wouldn’t be necessary to do so, that I could prepare the pineapple with just a knife.

Then, he added that, although the pineapple that was in stock was excellent (and he pointed out the fresh-cut chunks), he said I could also wait and purchase the variety that would be switching out with the existing stock shortly. He suggested that, if I was trying to prepare my own for the first time, to wait for the store’s introduction of JetGlo pineapples. He said they were particular favorites of his, with a strong, sweet flavor, and added that they are “a lot juicier.” Then he suggested that, if I did wait, I should get a corer because the pits in the JetGlo pineapple are large and the meat is such that the corer would give me a cleaner end product. He added that the JetGlo pineapple is great on kabobs and to carmelize.

“They are phenomenal,” he added.

All in all, the gentleman was very specific in his recommendations and had a helpful attitude overall. I walked away feeling I learned something.

Limited selection; no employee guidance

I headed to my area grocery store on a long-awaited sunny day, looking forward to purchasing some tropical produce for a fruit platter to share with friends and chase away the winter chill. The store is part of a large, regional grocery chain that has a significant presence in the Upper Midwest.

There are several entry points to the store and the one I typically use opens into the bright, expansive produce department. The colorful displays are well maintained and offer a wide selection of high-quality produce, both conventional and organic, making the store sort of a “sure bet” when shopping for produce. While not always the most cost-effective option, it regularly features price cuts and specials.

Beyond the typical pineapples, mangos and kiwis, I wasn’t confident that I would find much in the way of tropical produce, but I was hoping to be surprised. It took some searching, as the tropical produce was scattered in different areas of the department. I did find pummelos, sweet young coconut, pomegranates, Meyer lemons, key limes. There also were plantains and yuca root, which had no price listed. There was a sign for kumquats, but there were none to be found.

Overall, there was more variety than I had expected, but in all cases, the stock was minimal, feeling more like a token effort. As for quality, it was hard to assess; some things looked fresher than others. Also, the prices were quite high, which might prevent a shopper from trying something new.

There was only one employee in the area, and he was busily refilling the bagged lettuce. Another customer asked him a question, and he did not welcome my interruption when I followed by asking if the store carried plantains. He hurriedly took me over to the bananas and pointed to a spot with about eight plantains. I had looked there before, but the area blended into one large banana display.

He was headed back to his task, and I quickly asked about mangos, which were on sale, how to select a ripe one and how best to cut them. He responded, “they’re all ripe” and went back to stacking bags of lettuce. It was clear that he was not going to entertain any further dialogue. I made a few selections and moved on.

The rest of the store is equally well presented — clean, bright, well-organized, generally offering a pleasant shopping experience. Only one checkout lane provided service, which meant even though it was late afternoon during the week, there was a line. As is increasingly the case, self-checkout is the most dominant option in grocery stores today.

Since I didn’t come away with enough produce to satisfy my needs, I decided to visit another store within the same family to see if the selection was different. What I found was much less variety, but the quality appeared to be better and the tropical fruit was clustered into one area and given more prominence. Two types of mangos and white dragon fruit were the most notable additions from the other store.

It’s worth noting that in both stores, much of the tropical produce carried a specific label. Also, in both cases, there was no signage offering ideas, recipes or guidance for the produce.

By now, it was approaching the after-work/dinner hour, and more shoppers were arriving. A young man, possibly high school or early college age, was stocking the department. He was wearing ear buds, but I got his attention and asked how to select a proper dragon fruit. He looked at me blankly and said, “I have no idea; I guess if they’re soft? I just stock what they tell me to.”

The tight labor supply is evident in all areas of retail, and in some respects, these two stores were doing remarkably well in keeping shelves stocked and appearances up. But, if you didn’t already know what you wanted and how you were going to use the produce before entering the store, you were not going to receive any guidance. Between busy, uninformed stockers and the self-checkout, grocery shoppers today are increasingly on their own.

I did get some help (I think)

The store I visited is a middle-tier supermarket, part of a local chain well regarded for perishables and ethnic foods.

Where it differs from the run-of-the-mill is in its generous incorporation of ethnic foods. However, it is not an ethnic supermarket as exists in abundance in the same metropolitan area. This store is a hybrid, with standard and ethnic product merchandised side by side, or in some cases, aisle by aisle, throughout the store, both in perishables and grocery as well as in an extensive cheese department that includes a counter where cheese is cut for display and to order and a bay combining gourmet and more standard cheeses surrounding a large pickle and olive bar.

The produce department, in addition to more everyday fruits and vegetables, has an abundance of Latin, Asian and other specialty items in a large, somewhat crowded layout, but one that is just open enough to traffic without too much trouble.

The more exotic element of the assortment is not only broad but deep, so that milpero and tomatillos line up next to malanga coco and cuscus yams. Indeed, any number of yams pop up throughout the section individually and in specific joint presentations. One run includes yellow, white, Jamaican negro, yampi and eddoe yams in one run that also includes lila and white yautia, batata and jicama. Dragon fruit comes in both red and yellow varieties and takes a spot alongside Korean pears.

Dragon fruit intrigued me, so I picked up a red one and proceeded to a prep area at the top of the produce section. I thought that asking someone engaged in prepping fruit would be a fruitful, so to speak, approach. However, it was immediately clear that a language barrier existed. I queried about preparing the fruit, but the person didn’t take my meaning. I tried again, gesturing at the same time.
I asked, “Do you just cut it in half and scoop it out?”

She hesitated and then replied that yes, that’s what you do.

As I suspected that we might have suffered miscommunications, I sought out someone working the produce department floor, restocking in the late afternoon. She was even less certain about what I was asking, but was kind enough to pass me along to a third staffer who got my meaning after a moment. Then he agreed that I just had to cut it in half, then scoop out the meat inside.

He said, “You can scoop it out, just like mango.”

I replied, “So it’s easy?”

“Oh, yes.”

So, I extended my gratitude for his advice and went on with my shopping.

Found some exotics, but little guidance

Upon arriving at the supermarket, a regional chain owned by a national chain, around 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, I saw a manager setting up a Super Bowl display in the front. The produce section was unattended, so I asked the manager if he or someone could help me with my exotic fruit themed Super Bowl party. He explained he would go to the back and get the produce manager.

When the manager came out, I had put a pomegranate in my cart and explained I was going with an tropical themed Super Bowl party and wanted exotic fruit for “tasting” and putting together an exotic charcuterie board. He explained, “this is our exotic fruit section, we don’t have many. What do you need?”

I said I was looking for star and jack fruit. He then told me that “the morning guy just threw out all the jack fruit this morning. They go bad so fast.” As for the star fruit, he followed up with “Gosh, we haven’t had those for a long time. They are probably not in season.” I asked if there was something I could sub for the star fruit, and he suggested golden kiwi. I did buy some golden kiwi and a pomegranate. He actually seemed bothered by my questions and returned to the back. I will not give up the hunt for star and jack fruits!

While I was looking in the produce department, I noticed the sign in front of the papaya round said “strawberry papaya,” but the sticker said “white papaya.” Also, the passion fruit was behind a sign that said “horned melons” and the horned melons were actually in a basket with no sign.

Employee helpful with suggestions

After work, I stopped in a local store that is an upscale banner under a national chain with high expectations and my “tropical escape persona” at the ready. I approached a young man stacking the fresh-squeezed juice section to ask if he could help me with exotic fruits. He politely explained that he knew nothing about the exotic fruits, but would go to the back and get James (name has been changed), “he knows everything.”

I perused the produce section looking for endive for one of my recipes, then James came out, ready to help, and we got started. I explained that after seeing all the unusual exotic fruit posts on TikTok, I had decided to make my Super Bowl party a tropical theme and make an exotic fruit charcuterie board. The store had a decent exotic fruit selection in a two-tiered round by the fresh fruit juice, with the white guava and mango in the front cooler.

I was surprised at the knowledge that James shared with me. What he didn’t know, he looked up on his phone. He even got in to my theme and found a dragon fruit cocktail on his phone. He suggested it would be perfect for my party theme, and mentioned many exotic fruits are used in smoothies, too. He helped me select fruit that would be at peak ripeness by the weekend.

When we came across a few moldy pieces of fruit, he explained the “exotics are tough, they can go quick.”

“Some like the star fruit and jack fruit, we can’t keep in stock. Others like the dragon fruit are on the pricier end and don’t move as fast.”

I explained I had a salad I wanted to make that called for endive. He took me right to it and picked out a nice bunch.

Overall, the produce section was well lit and clean, with ample room to move around. There was plenty of stock, although prices were high. However, there was a lack of signage, both in identifying the produce and for the prices. I left with a lot of new exotic fruits to try, but was still on the search for the elusive star and jack fruit.