New packaging, increased varieties and a curious interest in fresh figs means retailers can see growing profit margins from these sweet treats.
It’s hard to find much fault with a ripe, fresh fig. They’re sweet, healthy, exotic, and fun to eat alone or in prepared dishes.
If there is one thing to dislike about fresh figs, it’s that they’re extremely perishable. However, new advances in packaging make it much easier to store and display figs. That factor also makes it easier for retailers to take a chance on them.
“Figs have a good ring and profit margin simply because of their classification of high shrink in comparison to other fruits,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-based Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, adding that new packaging technology is also a contributor in margin success.
“We have seen the demand for fresh figs in grocery stores increase in the past five years,” says Francesca Fordice, marketing and sales coordinator for J. Marchini Farms, a family-owned grower/packer/shipper based in Le Grand, CA, focusing on Italian specialty produce.
There are several factors leading to this renewed interest. Consumers want to eat seasonally and sample foods they never tried before. Chefs are using more figs at restaurants, which means a new generation of consumers are learning about them and wanting to cook with them at home. When consumers see quick, easy recipes that include figs in cooking magazines and on social media, they get excited and head for their favorite produce department.
“Recipes like prosciutto-wrapped figs and fig pizzas are all over the place, and I think it’s just taken the American public a little while to catch on to how to use figs,” says Maroka Kawamura, produce director for Santa Cruz, CA-based New Leaf Community Markets. The company has seven locations in the northern part of the state. It is among the many stores reintroducing consumers to this once-forgotten delicacy.
Types and Availability
Karla Stockli, chief executive of the Fresno-based California Fresh Fig Growers Association and California Fig Advisory Board, says there are six types of figs available to U.S. consumers. The two most popular are Brown Turkey and Black Mission. “Brown Turkey have light purple to black skin and a robust flavor like a Pinot Noir,” she says. “Black Mission figs have purple and black skin with deep earthy flavor like a Cabernet.”
Brown Turkey figs are the most common type grown in the United States. They’re also the variety most likely to be available through the entire growing season.
However, Black Mission figs tend to show superiority in popularity. “Although we tried several different varieties, everyone’s favorite fig seems to be the Black Mission,” says Jesse Cardarelli, produce manager/buyer for Eastside Marketplace, a gourmet supermarket in Providence, RI.
“Black Mission are the most consistent for us in flavor and quality, so we’re primarily focused there,” says Kawamura.
Schueller notes that Black Mission figs are bigger and tend to hold up better when packaged and shipped.
Kadota figs are the other variety people may be familiar with. “Kadota figs have creamy amber skin with a light flavor like a Sauvignon Blanc,” says
Stockli. Other light-colored figs include Calimyrna, which has pale yellow skin and a buttery, nutty flavor; Sierra, which have light-colored skin and a fresh, sweet flavor; and Tiger, a relatively new variety. It has light yellow skin with dark green stripes. The interior is a bright red-purple and has hints of raspberry and citrus.
The vast majority of figs grown in the United States come from California. “The season starts in May and goes until the first frost in October or November,” says Schueller. Retailers will typically get the best pricing in July, August and early September.
Figs can be imported from Mexico, New Zealand, Chile and other countries from December to April. But imports tend to be inconsistent and very pricey, reports Schueller. “Because the fruit is highly sensitive, it’s air freighted, so it’s pretty expensive.”
“Figs are very perishable, so the majority of the production goes to dried figs,” says Sasha LoPresti, director of business development for A.J. Trucco, Inc., an importer and distributor of fresh and dried fruits and nuts based in Bronx, NY. That’s slowly starting to change thanks to advances in packaging that make it easier to ship, store and display fresh figs.
Growers can now package figs in trays with individual cups to cradle each fig. “It’s like an egg container,” she says. “It prevents the stems from nicking the other figs and keeps the fruit from getting crushed.” There are also 9- and 12-count clamshells with indentations for individual figs. Others growers still put figs in berry baskets.
Beside keeping the fruit from getting damaged, the added benefit of the new packaging is that the fruit is handled less, doesn’t need to be stickered and is easier to ring up.
“Bulk is too messy and too hard to understand at the checkout counter,” says Schueller. “Clamshells are an easy ring with the UPC labels.”
That being said, retailers may want to experiment with how they display figs. “We sell mostly in berry baskets,” says Kawamura of New Leaf Community Markets. “We had some marginal success with clamshells, but the farmers market look of the open pint baskets works well for us.”
“Every retailer and market is different,” says Fordice with J. Marchini Farms. “Some of the old Italian supermarkets like the pints, and some modern stores like the clamshells. It’s just what their customers prefer.”
How to Sell More Figs
Promoting ways to cook with figs can be a great way to increase sales. The California Fresh Fig Growers Association has plenty of recipes on its website. It and the California Fig Advisory Board can help retailers find ways to sell more fruit to customers.
According to Trucco’s LoPresti, even sharing ways consumers can eat figs by themselves can increase sales. “We’re trying to get many consumers to experience this food for the first time, so you don’t want to overwhelm them,” she says. “It’s not like another commodity that’s well known and you’re trying to bring the consumer back to it. Figs are easy to transport to work or in lunchboxes. They’re great for kids. There are a lot of easy ways to include them in a daily routine. Highlighting these ideas at the store level with signs or tear-offs can be very successful.”
Signage can also promote the health benefits of figs, says LoPresti. The fruit is high in fiber, vitamin B6, potassium and other nutrients. “The other big thing that can increase fig sales is sampling. Once people try them and see how sweet they are, they really like them,” she says.
“A ripe, syrupy fig is like nothing else, so just getting that trial with customers will drive sales,” says Kawamura.
“Offering anyone a taste is simple and effective,” says Cardarelli with Eastside Marketplace. “Show them off. Treat them like diamonds, because they really are precious.”
Displaying figs in the right place is important. “The new packaging figs come in has made it easier to merchandise them next to strawberries or raspberries for everyone’s convenience,” says Cardarelli.
“Figs will keep best if they’re refrigerated,” says Melissa’s Schueller. “That’s another reason to put them by the berries. It’s worth letting consumers know that, like a blueberry or raspberry, the entire fig is edible.”
Although the new packaging means more figs will arrive at the store in sellable condition, it’s worth knowing how to spot a bad one. “Select plump, fragrant figs that have a little give when touched,” says Stockli. “The fruit should be soft and yielding to the touch, but not mushy. Use your nose. Smell the fruit. If it smells slightly sour, it has already begun to ferment. When figs get beyond their prime, they begin to collapse inward and lose their round shape.”
Figs in Foodservice
“Figs have always been popular in restaurants, and we continue to see growth in the fig category,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-based Melissa’s/World Variety Produce. “They cater to more white-tablecloth venues.”
“Any large cities where you have lots of restaurants and a sophisticated food scene is where you’ll see more familiarity with figs and more consumption,” says Sasha LoPresti, director of business development for Bronx-based A.J. Trucco, Inc.
“Fig season starts the right time for restaurants to spice up their summer menus,” says Francesca Fordice, marketing and sales coordinator for J. Marchini Farms. “By the time the fig market peaks, all the summer fruits have been on menus for over a month.
“From savory pizza to indulgent ice cream, there’s not a place on the menu you don’t see fresh figs today,” says Karla Stockli, chief executive of the Fresno-based California Fresh Fig Growers Association and California Fig Advisory Board. “They continue to be popular as a fresh addition to salads and starters. The latest trends is fresh figs in sauces, salsas, jams and chutneys. People are substituting figs where you traditionally see other fruits like peaches, strawberries and pears.”
Figs are terrific in desserts and make a great addition to cheese plates. “All figs pair well with cheeses ranging from Gorgonzola and Cheddar to Manchego
and Camembert,” says Stockli. “Combine the figs and cheese with honey, nuts, rosemary, apricots or lavender. Some of my favorite combinations are figs smothered in Mascarpone with ginger and vanilla, or creamy Brie drizzled with olive oil
and fresh thyme paired with Black Missions.”