Thirty years ago, if produce managers wanted to build a melon display as the centerpiece of the section, they were usually forced to wait until the summer months, with June through September considered the height of domestic melon season. During the typical hot-weather months, retailers have a plethora of home-grown “summer” melons from which to choose, the most popular being varieties within the broad muskmelon species that includes netted Cantaloupes and Persians as well as smooth-skinned Honeydews, Crenshaws and Casabas.
In addition, watermelons are also in wide abundance in the summertime, with a vast assortment of sizes available at peak quality from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Fresh Melons Reinvent Themselves
Today, however, melons aren’t just limited to the summer table. Instead, as imported fruit has become more readily available, the melon has suddenly reinvented itself as a “winter” staple and true year-round commodity.
Even though snow has been flying throughout much of the country since late October, fruit shipping from Mexico and Central America ensures that produce managers will have a constant supply of high-quality melons for those ubiquitous holiday displays.
So just what factors came to change the face of the melon from “seasonal/summer” to every-day fare? The reasons seem to be rooted in the fact that the climate-profile in exporting locales is conducive to growing these delicate gourds. In addition to melons, gourds also include many types of squash, cucumbers and pumpkins — all products that require sun rather than frost, and thrive when temperatures are at their zenith.
“These crops require warm temperatures and they grow best in climates like this,” notes Michael Warren, president of Central American Produce, based in Pompano Beach, FL. “The primary producers of winter melons are Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama, each of which has favorable growing conditions for the fruit.”
Lou Kertesz, sales manager for Pompano Beach, FL-based Ayco Farms, concurs. “These melons thrive in warm, arid conditions,” he says. “In Central America, temperatures don’t usually rise higher than 100 degrees during the day. It also cools off at night, and when temperatures drop, it encourages the melons to develop higher sugar content, resulting in a sweeter piece of fruit.”
Fruit Arriving In The United States
During the winter melon season, which runs from mid-November through mid-May, fruit from exporting countries is usually ripened on-site at markets, rather than plucked ready to eat. “Basically, Cantaloupes that are imported have to be ripened and conditioned here because they’re picked green,” explains Keith Fetterolf, produce manager for Musser’s Markets, a 4-unit chain based in Lebanon, PA. “They’re picked green due to shipping times. When fruit is produced locally, it’s picked off the vine ready to sell.”
The melons arrive through various port states, with Florida and California, mainly the Los Angeles area, being two of the primary entryways. In addition, the Gulf states of Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana and the Northeast port states of New York and Delaware are also popular among shippers. “Florida is the closest import route,” notes Kertesz. “It could be a seven- or eight-day boat ride to bring fruit into one of the Northeast ports, but the trip to Florida is usually less than 48 hours, because of its relative proximity to Central America.”
In terms of winter melon production, Central America and Mexico lead the way, exporting the majority of melons to the United States marketplace, with stickers placed on the fruit identifying country of origin for reference by the consumer as per government mandate.
Optimally, distributors of winter melons will seek to control the process completely so as to guarantee the product that reaches the marketplace is of maximum quality. “At Ayco Farms, we control our farms in Central America,” says Kertesz. “We’re fully integrated, and we control all aspects of the process, from planting through harvest and shipment. There are so many issues and so many demands that must be taken into consideration — things like controlling volume and quality, and also food safety concerns. In order to meet all the criteria required to maintain your operation, you must control it from start to finish.”
“Imported melons are much the same as domestic — many levels of procurement are available,” says Bernie Henderson, a sales representative for Sol Group Marketing, located in Pompano Beach, FL. “As is usual, the closer you can get to the farm and the grower, the better off you are.”
Cantaloupes And Watermelons Lead The Way
The most popular varieties of winter melon to fill the bellies of the grocery bins are Cantaloupes, Honeydews, full-size watermelons, mini watermelons and “mixed melons” — defined by growers as all other varieties that do not include these four leading sellers.
According to Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce, in Coral Gables, FL. “A retailer’s melon assortment should be 75 percent Cantaloupes, 15 percent Honeydews, 8 percent watermelons, and 2 percent specialty melons.”
“The standard melons are the true big sellers,” says Warren, whose Central American Produce opened its doors in 1975. “By ‘standard’ I mean the Cantaloupes, Honeydews and watermelons. During the winter months, my experience has been that demand is somewhat low for mixed melons.”
“Cantaloupe is everyone’s favorite,” adds Ayco’s Kertesz. “It oversells Honeydews 4-to-1. However, personal or mini watermelons have seen the biggest sales increase at the retail level over the past decade.”
“On occasion, some growers will produce a specialty melon such as a Juan Canary or Orange Flesh Melon,” points out Neil Goldwasser, a salesman for All American Farms, a produce distributor located in Boynton Beach, FL. “But generally, it’s Cantaloupes and Honeydews as the main varieties. There are actually relatively few specialty melons grown, and the ones that are grown generally end up on the higher end of the pricing spectrum, making those melons cost-prohibitive for many consumers. These specialty melons tend to be sold in certain markets that can pay the price, places like New York, Boston or Philadelphia.”
Perhaps another reason that demand for mixed melons stalls during cold-weather months can be attributed to the fact that grocers tend to shrink shelf displays for melons in winter, stocking only the most tried-and-true sellers. Accordingly, some distributors think that if retailers made more shelf-space available, sales for winter melons would likely accelerate. “I think stores should give the winter melons a good amount of space,” asserts Central Produce’s Warren. “When shoppers see a lot of melons they’re drawn to them, and if there are several varieties in place they will be more apt top buy them. The different colors of the fruit can be very attractive and it draws the shopper in, which often ends in sales.”
Keen Merchandising Leads To Sales
“The best way to merchandise melons is with a large and visible display,” adds Kertesz, “and also by cross-merchandising them with other compatible items. But, really, the biggest component to merchandising is to price items correctly, putting in a reasonable margin, and not over-pricing the fruit. A sale that might offer something like 2-for-$3 is a lot more attractive to the shopper than selling a 5-lb. melon for 80 cents per pound,” he details.
In the retail arena, success boils down to the ability to pair quality with a keen presentation. “From a retail standpoint, the best way to sell melons is to keep them out of refrigeration,” says Musser’s Fetterolf. “If they’re out of refrigeration and ripe, the Cantaloupes will develop a nice golden color and the smell will be really sweet. That’s what attracts customers.”
“Secondary displays, especially on Cantaloupes, will always increase movement,” notes Keith Cox, produce category manager for K-VA-T Food City, a 104-unit chain based in Abingdon, Virginia that serves the states of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. “A cut melon half on display will show the consumer the quality of the melon.”
Sampling Benefits And Challenges
In keeping with the changing face of the American grocery store, most of the bigger chain stores no longer offer sampling stations. Instead, this tradition now appears to have been relegated to smaller specialty/niche markets looking to entice those more open-minded shoppers. The reasons for this are varied, but some see the dearth of sampling stations in grocery stores directly tied to concerns over liability and safety. According to Ayco’s Kertesz, “Stores don’t sample anymore because so many other questions are involved, like who touched it? Can somebody get sick because we’re doing this? No one’s taking risks anymore. But still, club-stores like Costco are successful because they continue to sample, promoting products and educating the consumer.”
Chuck Weisinger, President of Weis-Buy Farms in Fort Meyers, FL, agrees with Kertesz on this point. “Sampling is a good way for shoppers to become familiar with these varieties of melons. It’s a very inexpensive way, dollar-wise, to market your product,” he says.
Still, not everyone believes sampling makes for cheap marketing: “Sampling product at retail is very expensive, and therefore not frequently employed,” counters Alan Guttmann, president of Plantation, FL-based Fresh Quest.
“The biggest problem with sampling is with disease transmission,” reiterates Musser’s Fetterolf. “If product is left in a tray and customers just grab at it randomly, there’s risk. Still, sampling is the best way to sell something. You have to get the taste in people’s mouths, and if it tastes good, they’ll be back for more.”
“Sampling is very popular with consumers, but, it’s become more of a challenge for the retailers as a result of food safety concerns and the opportunity for the cross-contamination of bacteria and its associated liabilities,” recognizes Tim Colin, general manager at Timco Worldwide, a Davis, CA-based C.H. Robinson company.
Notwithstanding the lack of sampling stations in mainstream markets, fresh-cut fruit is just as popular among winter melons as it is with summertime selections (fresh-cut defined as product that is washed and pre-cut, then packaged and refrigerated to maintain maximum quality/shelf-life).
“The popularity of fresh or pre-cut fruit is all about convenience,” says Warren of Central American Produce. “Everybody’s looking for convenience today. Plus, when they buy this way, consumers can control the amount they’re getting. In that way it’s very beneficial.”
“Fresh-cut melons are popular with consumers all year long for a couple of reasons,” adds Colin. “First, the consumer can actually see what they are purchasing, which gives them a sense of the product and if it provides a good value. The second is that fresh-cut melons are typically smaller portions than the entire fruit, so it’s a matter of convenience for the consumer.”
“Fresh-cut melons continue to be gain popularity with consumers each year,” stresses K-VA-T’s Cox. “The biggest increase is in melon cups and melon trays. Consumers want something quick that requires no cutting. Plus, they can see what they are purchasing.”
In addition, some shoppers believe that pre-cut fruit sold at certain times of the year packs a brighter flavor. “Fresh-cut melons are very popular 52 weeks a year,” notes All American Farms’ Goldwasser. “ But some ‘cutters’ actually prefer the spring and summer melons. There seems to be a perception that there are higher sugar levels in fruit from those seasons.”
Quality Controls In Place
Generally, there has been no deviation from quality with imported melons. However, Cantaloupes from Mexico have been under close scrutiny since 2001-2002 due to concerns over disease transmission. Specifically, incidents of Salmonella were linked to Mexican melons during that time period, and the FDA continues to closely monitor vine-fruit-imports originating in Mexico today. “Quality control measures are in place to minimize the potential for food-borne contamination,” confirms Fresh Quest’s Guttmann. “This is a very important topic.”
Cantaloupes — both domestic and imported — are especially susceptible to contamination by the virulent Salmonella bacteria, since the germ is easily able to cloister itself within the skin/rinds of the fruit. However, produce managers should not be misled into believing that theses safety issues are endemic to Mexico; they are not. Rather, the problem is global and it affects the industry as a whole. “There have been issues in recent years with Mexican Cantaloupes,” admits Goldwasser. “That said, there have also been several issues in recent years right here in the United States — some Salmonella, some Listeria. The problem is that every grower has a different attitude about ‘running a perfectly clean ship.’”
“Mexico is not the only country to experience food safety issues;
there have also been two issues domestically this year,” notes Cox. “But measures are in place, such as triple-washing Cantaloupe and pre-testing for any food safety issues, which are meant to combat the problem.”
“The FDA is always on top of this,” asserts Musser’s Fetterolf. “And everybody’s getting better at guarding against contamination. Quality control measures, in terms of retail, include washing melons before they’re cut for trays so you don’t accidentally draw the bacteria into the meat of the melon with the knife.”
“Actually, consumers are getting a higher quality of melon with these imports,” contends Ayco’s Kertesz. “There is somewhat of a negative connotation that goes with imports. But in reality, we are required to implement so many quality control measures that we are able to ensure a stable product reaches the market. Nonetheless, our industry is a very difficult one. Many things are beyond the growers’ and the distributors’ control. But we’re still accountable when things go wrong.”
The Retail Perspective
By being able to tender this constant flow of fruit, distributors help to ensure that there are melons in the bins of grocery store produce sections throughout the year, offering consumers access to a product line that used to be held hostage by the seasons. “The combination of winter and summer melons allows consumers to have the opportunity to purchase melons close to 52 weeks during the year,” notes Timco’s Colin. “This allows retailers to build relationships with consumers, provided they can give customers a good experience. If consumers have a good experience with the fruit time and time again, it will build confidence in the retailer and keep them coming back to the store.”
But the chance to enjoy this summer delicacy year-round does not come without a price; the ever-rising cost of gasoline, along with increases in labor and packaging materials, have had a clear impact on what consumers pay for a Cantaloupe at the store. In sum, imported winter melons are expensive at the market because they are expensive to grow and then ship by ocean-container to the United States.
“It costs me $3,000 – 4,000 to transport a trailer-load of fruit from Central America to a Florida dock,” says Weisinger of Weis-Buy. “And that trailer only holds 1,000 boxes of fruit, with anywhere from 12-23 Cantaloupes per box. It’s really not a lot of fruit. And that expense is in excess of the cost of getting the melons from the field to the boat. It’s not cheap. Produce is not cheap to grow, no matter where you grow it.”
“In terms of sales, summer melons go 5-to-1 compared to the sales of winter melons,” notes Fetterolf. “A lot of it has to do with pricing. Winter melons are higher due to things like transportation. Also, summer melon sales are much better because of the summertime heat. I think it’s because people want something cool to eat and melons act as a nice summer treat.”
Guttmann of Fresh Quest, agrees with Fetterolf’s assessment, noting, “Demand for melons in the winter pales in comparison to that of the summer.”
“The winter melons are incremental sales that we generally didn’t have several years ago due to import supplies,” observes K-VA-T ‘s Cox. “Now the melons have a much better eating quality. The sales impact continues to grow each year due to availability and quality.”
The Future Of Winter Melons
Even though costs continue to escalate, produce managers remain under pressure to keep their bins stocked with a steady supply of melons due to their strong nutritional value. Melons are high in vitamins like A and C, while being completely fat-free. In today’s culture, shoppers are well versed on what’s healthy and what’s not; in turn, fresh produce is in high demand as consumers focus on exercise and preservative-free foods.
All of this, coupled with the fact that the industry is constantly working to develop hybrids that provide for enhanced flavor and extended shelf-life, seem to ensure that melon sales will continue to inch higher in the years to come.
“A better eating experience for the buyer is always on everybody’s mind,” says Warren of Central American Produce. “Those in the industry are all looking for things we can offer that is better than what we currently have. Right now, Italian melons are starting to be introduced to the market. These are similar to Cantaloupes, but have a different shape. They’re oblong. It’s a great eating melon and it has a unique appeal. We are also promoting the Galia melon as an alternative. This melon was originally developed in Israel. It’s a golden-netted hybrid with a green interior. It’s attractive, and it’s got such a sweet flavor. So there are lots of unique things out there, and more are coming.”
Timco Worldwide introduced the CantaBella to the melon category in small retail trials in 2012 and experienced positive results; in turn, it will expand the CantaBella program beginning in late 2013. “CantaBella is a cross between a traditional Cantaloupe and the French melon, Charentais,” remarks Colin, “and allows for a sweeter, more consistent taste.”
Other companies are also ramping up efforts to improve on the taste and texture of melons. “Del Monte introduced its proprietary MAG melon two years ago,” says Christou. “The Del Monte MAG Melon has a more pleasant, consistent, and concentrated aroma compared to traditional Cantaloupes and has a sweet flavor and juicy texture. We are also currently developing a firm-flesh watermelon program, ideal for fresh-cut products and whole consumption.”