Global sourcing has not reduced demand for grapes from the Golden State.
Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Imports from the Southern Hemisphere have made table grapes a year-round fruit, and grapes from below the border have extended the season, but the California fruit remains as popular as ever.
In March of this year, the U.S. imported $225 million in grapes from Chile, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics; $94.5 million from Peru; $4.6 million from South Africa; $3 million from Mexico; and nearly $2 million from Brazil.
The ships carrying loads of grapes from points south, however, have done nothing to dampen consumer demand for grapes from California.
According to the California Table Grape Commission, California produces 99% of the table grapes grown in the United States, and California table grape growers harvested 95.1 million boxes of grapes in 2022.
“The size draws them in, and the flavor brings them back.”— Louis Galvan, Fruit Royale, Delano, CA
Over the decades, table grapes from the Golden State have built a brand that resonates with consumers nationwide, and they represent a large majority of the table grapes sourced domestically.
“Of course, the California name makes a difference at retail,” says Louis Galvan, director of Fruit Royale, Delano, CA. Fruit Royale is a marketing firm that sources table grapes and citrus from around the globe.
THE THREE COLORS MATTER
The grape display is simplified because the display simply needs inviting fruit in three colors, as varieties do not matter at retail, for the most part.
“You need at least the three colors — green, red, and black — in both conventional and organic,” advises Galvan.
Attempts to promote specific table grape varieties have largely fallen flat at the retail level.
“Predictions that the grape category would follow the apple category — many varieties sold by name — have not materialized,” says John Pandol, director of special projects at Pandol Brothers, Delano, CA. “Retailers mostly buy by variety, but sell mostly as a commodity. Retailer A buys Sugar Crunch and sells it as Sugar Crunch, while retailer B sells it as green seedless.”
Over the last 80 years, Pandol Bros. has grown to be one of the country’s largest shippers of table grapes and blueberries in the country.
“We frequently see retail packaging, store signage or circulars that call out a specific variety, but, at the end of the day, there is one white, one red and one black on the shelf,” Pandol says. “Few retailers are stocking multiple varieties of, say, a red seedless grape, using either line pricing, different price points or premium/value pricing. The retailers with very forward, variety-specific programs have been backing off.”
He predicts grapes will not follow the apple category, but the berry category. “Strawberries have all kinds of proprietary genetics, yet a retailer can’t tell you what variety she has on the shelf. We’re starting to see the move from variety specific ordering to ‘give me your best red and green.’”
The different table grape varieties developed by university and private industry researchers largely matter because they perform better under certain growing conditions.
Typically, there are 10 varieties of each color, says Galvan. “Consumers are drawn by ‘new and improved.’ Sweet Globe is a green variety and Sweet Celebration is a red variety.”
In addition to the colors, some consumers want organic table grapes, he adds. “But demand for organics has seemed to have flattened out over the last couple of years. Perhaps economics are to blame.”
Availability can also impact sales of organic table grapes.
“Organic sales are stable and should be treated more like a seasonal item,” advises Pandol. “For a variety of production reasons, there is not the availability in all colors, all varieties for as many weeks as conventional. Think of organic grapes like cherries or pomegranates.”
Although a full table grape display has fruit in three colors, two of them account for a very large majority of the sales.
“The consumers are trending toward the green or white a little more consistently,” says Mike Asdoorian, head of sales and procurement at DLJ Produce, Fresno, CA. “It’s about 55% green and 45% red.”
Over the last three decades, DLJ Produce has developed its business as a shipper of a wide range of conventional and organic fruits and vegetables.
Following the lead of the state’s leading pistachio shipper, DLJ is working to develop a brand, even if the varieties do not fetch a premium. “The emphasis is on branding, not variety; you see the success of the Wonderful brand,” says Asdoorian. “We’ve built our own Razzle Dazzle brand.”
An effective grape display should include large, flavorful fresh-looking grapes, and that starts with cold chain management before they are put on the produce department floor.
“The size draws them in, and the flavor brings them back,” Galvan says.
Temperature management before the grapes are moved to the produce department floor is the key to keeping the fruit looking fresh as long as possible.
“Keep them cold,” advises Galvan. “Keep them at high humidity, 90% plus, and low temperatures, around 33 degrees Fahrenheit.”
A HARVEST WORTH WAITING FOR
The beginning of the California table grape harvest was delayed by the weather this year, but shippers generally seem to think it will be worth the wait.
After the harvest began around July 17, however, there was an abundance of California table grapes. Asdoorian says there was plenty of water, which helped the volume, and the quality was good.
When supply becomes abundant, retailers should resist the temptation to offer table grapes at promotional prices that worked a few years ago.
“Sticky pricing has been a big problem in grapes and inflation is pushing it faster,” Pandol says. “I can’t produce grapes for 99 cents a pound, why do stores continue to set ads using prices of years past? Unfortunately, oversupply and varietal confusion has left many growers with the choice of being price-takers or not selling at all, both red ink scenarios.”
PACKAGING? IT’S COMPLICATED
In addition to the grapes, shippers and retailers need to pay attention to packaging because some consumers prefer sustainability in this area and a few localities require it.
“Certain jurisdictions are requiring sustainable packaging, especially in Canada,” says Pandol. “Some regulations are about the material attributes of the packaging. Some are dependent on the availability or use of post-consumer recycling collection rates, and some regulate the use of attributes statements.”
Because packaging requirements tend to be local, they are not uniform, which makes compliance complicated.
“These are far from uniform and, in many cases, contradictory,” says Pandol. “So, it is possible a package that complies with Portland, Oregon’s rules may be illegal in Vancouver, Washington, right across the river.”
“In this age of self-checkout and scanners, one last test for grape packaging is to test the accuracy and viability of the bar code,” advises Pandol. “Scanning is more important than ever, as stores have more self-service checkout or fulfillment shoppers for e-commerce orders. In the past, a cashier could override a problem, but that is less likely with self-service checkout. It also delays e-commerce fulfillment shoppers, or worse, they report the item out of stock. Stores need to have a plan B if the codes won’t scan.”
Problems with the bar codes can easily translate into costly mistaken records of how much inventory is available.
“Setting up a promotion with fabulous grapes is useless if the bags or clamshells won’t scan at the register,” says Pandol. “This straddles merchandising and store operations, but verifying codes are programmed in the system and that printing is good enough to scan needs to be a standard produce department procedure. Also, the wildly successful ad oversold projections and more grapes had to be sourced from another wholesaler, but codes are not scannable for some reason?”
Retailers also need to cooperate in ongoing efforts to identify the best material to make sustainable packaging for table grapes and other produce items.
“Produce packaging is very special,” Pandol says. “Many materials with sustainable attributes are being trialed for performance under real world conditions. Grape growers need retail partners to cooperate in these efforts, partners who are willing to share their experiences in systematic way so we can arrive at new materials that are better for the planet but don’t increase food waste.”
“What is not useful is jumping on whatever material checks a box on some sustainability list, force this untested packaging on the supply chain and send out self-congratulatory press releases and social media posts. My ask to retail is to be aware and share both successes and failures in sustainable packaging.”