Sunshine State ships fresh berries with fewer quality challenges via fewer miles.
Originally printed in the December 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Winter production makes Florida strawberries unique. When fresh fruits aren’t widely available during the freezing winter months, Florida growers provide retailers a fresh berry that can be marketed as local in many regions.
“The window of opportunity is good for Florida strawberries because there aren’t a lot of other marketable items during the winter,” notes Shawn Pollard, salesman with Astin Strawberry Exchange LLC, based in Plant City, FL. During the gloomy days in the Northeast during the winter when everything’s gray, consumers aren’t always used to the color. Color sells, especially something fresh and colorful. Florida strawberries are unique because of the varietal differences, the color and flavor profiles, which makes a difference.
Florida strawberries play a key role in supplying fruit to retailers during the winter, and shorter delivery journeys equate to fresher product.
“Florida strawberries are closest to the marketplace,” says Sue Harrell, director of marketing, Florida Strawberry Growers Association (FSGA), Dover, FL. “They offer reduced shipping costs and fresher product. Less miles traveled means longer shelf life. Florida strawberries are the freshest strawberries on the East Coast. They provide a longer shelf life and the most economical shipping.”
“Florida complements our California and Mexico winter production,” says Craig Casca, chief marketing officer of Irvine, CA’s Gem-Pack Berries LLC, formerly known as Red Blossom Sales Inc. “We can deliver to 50% of U.S. markets within 48 hours of picking, amplifying freshness, sweetness and shelf life, while lowering freight costs. Florida allows us to make quicker deliveries in the South and East and provides the extra volume our retailers want for winter promotions.”
SMELL OF SUCCESS
Publix Super Markets, Inc., based in Lakeland, FL, likes to merchandise Florida strawberries in its stores throughout the South. “Florida strawberries have excellent flavor and beautiful smell that you are only able to get from truly, locally grown berries,” observes Maria Brous, director of media and community relations. “Our farmers only send Publix the freshest and best-tasting berries. Publix has always put locally grown produce first. Our customers know December-April is fresh strawberry season at Publix.”
While harvesting often begins in late November, Florida growers begin building production in early to mid-December before large volumes commence around Christmas. Commercial shipments begin in late December and typically run through early April.
While Florida strawberries constitute about 15% of the overall U.S. strawberry industry, the fruit works well for shoppers who seek berries.
“Florida strawberries are a huge boost to retailers because consumers love berries and because Florida berries are so close to many consumers,” says Nick Wishnatzki, public relations manager of Wish Farms in Plant City, FL. “Not only is the weather ideal for growing berries in the wintertime, there are transportation advantages because we are so close to many large population centers on the East Coast.”
“Florida strawberries have unique characteristics because of the varieties we grow that consumers love to eat,” he adds.
Florida strawberries enjoy a loyal shopper fanbase. Before email, Astin used to regularly receive handwritten letters from consumers, thanking them for helping brighten their days with the beautiful pack of red berries they enjoyed eating.
“When shoppers come home and have a positive taste experience, it helps,” says Pollard. “The Florida strawberry deal is only four months, but shoppers remember those four months and look forward to them every year. That’s kind of unique.”
PROFITABLE WINTER FAVORITE
Florida strawberries give retailers a viable local produce option during the cold months. “In the winter months, Florida strawberries are the local producer for the Northeastern markets,” says FSGA’s Harrell. “Support and awareness for local farms have increased since COVID. Consumers want to feel the connection to the farm and where their food is produced. It has opened many consumers’ minds and got them really thinking about the supply chain. The closer you are to the production area, the fresher the produce is. Fresh winter production in the USA is what will help a retailer sell Florida strawberries. Retailers that support USA produce are what the consumers are looking for.”
That domestic grown produce appeals to retailers, who enjoy promoting Florida strawberries. “We find customers like the Florida strawberry because they’re USA,” says Sal Selletto, produce manager at the Super Foodtown of Sea Girt, NJ, a part of the Middletown, NJ-based Food Circus/Foodtown. “Florida strawberries are big during the winter and are important. Many people like Florida berries.”
Florida provides more timely shipping than some other growing regions. “With product coming from Mexico, when it comes to strawberries, Florida has a distinct advantage because there are no holdups at the border,” says Wishnatzki. “They go straight to retailers in a timely fashion. It’s a big part of the freshness we in Florida can offer.”
Florida strawberries provide promotable volume and high quality, fueling key sales pushes for the winter holidays and Valentine’s Day, notes Gem-Pack Berries’ Casca.
“Winter strawberries are highly profitable and offer retailers an option to promote a popular fruit in a season with much fewer fruit offerings in the produce department,” Casca notes. “Since they’re grown within 48 hours of East Coast markets, we can leave them longer on the plants, for the sweetest and freshest berry deliveries to Eastern retailers. Quick access means fresher product and fewer quality challenges.”
The strawberry category helps fuel retail sales. Astin Strawberry Exchange’s Pollard relates how a big retailer recently told him that, for the first time, the stores’ dollar incremental sales exceeded banana sales. While bananas remain the chain’s top-selling produce item, berries surpassed some of banana’s numbers.
“That tells you about the incredible growth in strawberry sales,” says Pollard. “Bananas are a staple. All of a sudden, the berry category has passed it up, which is a big deal. Retailers are devoting a lot of space to strawberries. It’s the eye appeal and location for just berries.”
Pollard points to Walmart, which merchandises strawberries in a front table at the produce department’s entrance. “Strawberries have a tremendous amount of exposure,” says Pollard. “A lot of times, the consumer will grab that product.”
PROMOTING FARTHER NORTH
To connect with Canadian shoppers, FSGA this season is partnering with Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Fresh from Florida marketing program. FSGA plans to work with Canadian influencers, promoting contests on social media and retail signage in in-store promotions.
“Canada plays an important part of our sales programs,” says Harrell. “We are the freshest strawberries they can purchase in the winter months. They’re up to 15% of our volume.” FSGA plans to use television and social media to increase demand and to increase awareness of Florida’s winter season.
FSGA is also employing Shoppable technology, working with Dotdash to reach consumers while they shop. FSGA plans to use an Integration web app that allows recipe publishers to add features, such as saved scalable shopping lists and recipes through multiple grocery delivery and pickup services, including retailers purchasing Florida strawberries.
NEW WHITE STRAWBERRY
Florida growers work with university researchers to develop and improve varieties. One example is pineberries, a new white strawberry long grown in Europe but only recently commercially introduced to American consumers. This “Fifth berry” — named after The Beatles — possesses the texture of a peach and subtle flavors of strawberries and pineapples.
“We are pleased to introduce the Fifth berry to our lineup in a big way this coming Florida season,” says Wishnatzki. “It’s a refreshingly tasty and exotic treat that we believe is sure to excite consumers as they browse the produce aisle and take them home to their families. We are making a full court press on them this coming season.”
Wish Farms increased its pineberry acreage from six acres last season to 100 acres this year. Nick Wishnatzki, public relations manager of Wish Farms in Plant City, FL, believes pineberries will help produce departments sell more berries.
“The berry category hasn’t seen anything like this before,” he says. “We have had different varieties here and there, but nothing so visually stunning and different to capture consumers’ eyes as they walk by. Pineberries are a completely new fruit that people haven’t seen or tried before.”
Gem-Pack is also marketing pineberries. “This year, we will have small quantities of Winter Frost, a new sweet, white strawberry variety that will add some excitement and innovation to the berry patch,” says Michelle Deleissegues, director of marketing.