Proper handling is critical and should be the basis of retail chestnut programs.
Originally printed in the December 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Chestnuts are making strides as a healthy snack, and greater convenience is convincing those not already sold on the nut to give it a try.
Traditional use and bulk product continue to bring chestnut fans into produce departments. However, with good handling practices, some aggressive merchandising and mixing in packaged products, produce departments can gain from momentum in the product category.
The handling element is critical, with refrigeration highly recommended for bulk products. All efforts to prevent product from molding, such as the use of mesh bags, should be considered to improve the quality and longevity of fresh chestnuts.
For those reasons, value-added packaged products can play a strong role in pushing chestnut sales. They don’t require chilling before opening and will keep for several days in consumer refrigerators.
Nick Pacia, president and chief executive, AJ Trucco, Bronx, NY, says chestnut shipment sizes for the product he brings in from Italy have fallen from 25-kilos to 25 pounds, and he does business in bags as small as two pounds. But Pacia notes the greatest growth is in “value-added packaging. We do chestnuts for the ready-to-eat customer, and we have a product we’ve launched that’s a peeled, 100-gram size.”
“People are trying ready-to-eat chestnuts. We’ve had a lot of success with that.”
Trucco now offers a 100 milligram, or 3.5 ounce, package of peeled chestnuts under its TruStar brand.
Chris Large, sales manager, Torn & Glasser, Los Angeles, CA, says the company continues to bring in bulk product from Italy, but doing so has become more complicated due to supply chain issues that have pushed chestnuts off boats and onto planes. However, packaged product has been a plus.
“We do a lot of chestnuts in sleeves,” he says.
A seasonality exists in consumer interest, with demand waning in summer and waxing in winter, although Pacia says it’s important to merchandise chestnuts year-round to maximize sales, and establish a store as a destination throughout the year.
Holiday traditions also drive demand, but that’s a bit misguided, says Debbie Milks, co-owner of Chestnut Charlie’s, Lawrence, KS.
“All chestnuts in the northern hemisphere are harvested in September and October, maybe into early November, and as a fresh product are at their best shortly after harvest,” she says. “Customers who know chestnuts are banging at our online and real farm gate by late September. It is a challenge to keep chestnuts in good shape until Christmas. Most growers are sold out by now, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving.”
HANDLE WITH CARE
Proper handling is critical and should be the basis of chestnut programs. Melannie Marra, president, Marra Bros. Distributing, Morgan Hill, CA, offers chestnuts at the fruit stand operation she runs. However, she encountered a problem with moldy product last year, so she changed how she handles chestnuts.
“This year, I put them in a mesh bag and am keeping them in refrigeration for storage.”
The mesh bag chestnuts are fresh, unpeeled and need proper conditions.
“They are 60% water and extremely perishable,” she says. As such “they need to be stored in the fridge at 35% with high humidity.”
However, for customer convenience, Marra also offers packaged chestnuts that can be used immediately and only have to be refrigerated after opening.
Milks says the particulars of handling chestnuts aren’t as well understood at retail as once was the case, and, as keeping chestnuts cool is important, they shouldn’t be crammed in with other nuts, but merchandised separately.
As fall proceeds, high-profile chestnut displays signal shoppers that autumnal favorites are taking over the produce department. Recently, the ShopRite store in Pelham, NY, offered a conspicuous display of chestnuts in breathable, mesh plastic bags set to a specific end.
“The display of chestnuts was there to support the changing of the season and holiday shopping,” says Amanda Fischer, marketing, business development and outreach manager, Village Super Market.
In the autumn, Pacia suggests the time is right for cross-merchandising, including with Thanksgiving items. Chestnuts for eating or roasting and chestnut flour, used by some consumers for stuffing, can get a lift from pairing with holiday products. He also recommends front end displays to raise the profile of the product.
Pacia says the chestnuts he’s sourcing from Italy are abundant, even if the size is a bit down.
Milks says demand for chestnuts is solid. They were sold out by late October after a relatively good harvest, adding that weather is the controlling factor in any growing business.
After that, she says challenges she faces include costs consistent with what’s happening with other agricultural products today. “Our costs have increased for labor and fuel, and we increased the price of our chestnuts by 6% this season,” she says.
Still, Chestnut Charlie’s has had plenty of interest in its chestnuts. “Our sale requests have been trending upward though we don’t have the quantities to fill all the requests,” she says.
She also cites investment in chestnut growing as evidence the demand is strengthening. “I can tell you that there are lots of new chestnut orchards coming into production, but currently the demand far outstrips the supply.”
Although conspicuous displays help remind fans to purchase, Milks says nutritional information and recipes are positives in promoting chestnuts to those consumers who are looking for new nuts to liven things up as they eat healthier.
“I think that both help introduce customers who are unfamiliar with chestnuts,” she says. “Those who already know them mainly just want to roast or boil and eat them as is.”