Going Tropical

Stew Leonard's offers big displays of pineapples, but it also mixes in significant mango displays.

Tropical produce has grown tremendously over the past couple of years and continues to enjoy elevated attention.

Originally printed in the January 2023 issue of Produce Business.

If not yet staples, more tropical produce is getting closer to the mainstream than ever, with the potential for substantial sales growth.

New varieties of pineapple keep hitting the shelves, generating more consumer interest. Papaya and, particularly, mango are getting consistently more popular to the point where some observers liken them to avocados of a generation past. In part, papaya and mango are gaining because of their popularity as a flavoring ingredient in beverages and prepared food. And it doesn’t end there.

Firmenich, a company specializing in the research, creation, manufacture and sale of perfumes, flavors and ingredients headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, has named dragon fruit as its 2023 Flavor of the Year.

Many retailers now see tropicals as something to hang their hats on even if they aren’t positioned as specialty or ethnic operations. Stew Leonard’s, Norwalk, CT, for example, has an item it touts as an exclusive— the Pink Honey Glow Pineapple is available only at Stew Leonard’s.

The company offers big displays of bananas and pineapples but it also mixes in significant mango displays. It also includes mangos among its fresh-cut offerings alongside pineapple chunks. What’s significant about the Stew Leonard’s lineup is the store, grown out of a dairy operation and with limited grocery, only stocks about 3,200 items.

As an extension of the New York Produce Show, a store tour included Wegmans Brooklyn, and Jordan Wise, produce manager, says diversity helps drive tropicals. Stew Leonard’s suburban locations have relatively significant clientele from any number of ethnic groups, but the Brooklyn vicinity of Wegman’s is a true melting pot, as Wise points out.

So, it has items such as pineapples, mangos and pomegranates mixed into the larger produce section while a specific tropical set includes a wider variety of products. The store can shift tropicals merchandising around with the seasons.

“We definitely try integrating a lot,” Wise says. “In the summertime, we had a big driver with dragon fruits. We would bring in white dragon fruit, yellow dragon fruit, red dragon fruit. With our chop shop, we would make a package of cut dragon fruit ready to go. You can buy a whole dragon fruit but we would have it already cut up for customers as well. That would increase sales, contribution. In tropicals, do people really know how to cut that themselves? We can get a better yield than would the average person trying for the first time.”

Brooklyn customers respond to tropicals: The store is among the leaders in tropical sales among Wegmans locations.

“How do we do in tropicals? Very well. In our department, with the tropical section, there are only two or three other stores that we fluctuate with from being number one to number three,” he says.

With the demand for tropicals growing, retailers are finding success with fresh-cut displays so that consumers can try out the produce.

At the New York Produce Show, Melissa’s of Los Angeles had its own abundance of tropical fruit and vegetables. A spokesman pointed out that the newest additions to the line were processed items. They include guava paste and escabeche, “which is a jalapeno relish,” the spokesperson said, and miracle berry cubes, which turn off sour receptors so that tasting a lemon is more like tasting lemonade.

As the Melissa’s display suggests, retailers have an opportunity to draw more food conscious and increasingly experimental consumers by featuring tropical fruits and vegetables. The example also indicates that mixing certain interesting processed items closely related to tropicals offered may be another way to boost sales and profits.

Tropical produce has grown “tremendously” over the past couple of years and continues to enjoy elevated attention, says Melissa Hartmann de Barros, director of communications, HLB Specialties, Fort Lauderdale, FL.

“Items such as lychee, guava, mangosteen, dragon fruit, as well as established exotics like rambutan and papaya are getting more exposure, not only on the retail shelves, but also on social media,” she says. “Retailers are more adventurous when it comes to the exotics listed above, because they have seen consumer interest grow. We now see club stores with big displays of yellow and white dragon fruit, when just a few years ago this fruit was virtually unknown to North American consumers.”

Consumer Curiosity

Although tropical produce has been gaining for decades, today younger consumers are a driving force and helping to bring the category further into the mainstream. Indeed, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were instrumental in broadening the appeal of pineapples and avocados, but Millennials are helping other products become more central to the American diet.

“We believe the demand for tropicals to be growing,” says Cindy Schwing, vice president of marketing, Splendid By Porvenir, Nogales, TX. “The Millennial crowd seeks out new and different, unique items so mangos fit that perfectly. It’s a flavor that’s being incorporated into many dishes now and seen not so much as being exotic but being an up and coming, sought after flavor by many. The demand did grow during the pandemic and mangos have recently risen to a position within the Top 10 Fruit at retail.”

In the mango category, some evolution is occurring.

“A fairly new mango variety that is getting consumer attention would be the Honey or Ataulfo yellow mango, but Kents and Keitts are very well accepted and demanded by the American consumer,” Schwing says.

She points out that Peruvian Kent mangos began moving into the West Coast in the first week of December, with the expectation that sales would be as they found their way into specialty drinks, salsas accompanying meat/fish dishes, and baked products including mango pie. She adds that volume would be strong this Peruvian season and the emerging quality was outstanding.

Ciruli Brothers, Tubac, AZ, markets the Ataulfo variety as Champagne, notes Sandra Aguilar, marketing and strategic planning, “We are starting to see more mango varieties make their way to market including Francis, Palmer, Nam Doc Mai, Mallika, and Thai Kheo Savoy mangos, but these varieties are only available in limited supplies and represent a very small fraction of the mangos available for consumers.”

Mangos are among those tropicals emerging into the mainstream in much if perhaps not all of the United States at this point, with papayas another candidate. Given the prevalence of the flavor as an ingredient, certainly momentum is carrying mangos further into the mainstream.

“Mangos are moving mainstream and sales continue to grow,” Aguilar says. “In 2022, Mexico export volume to the U.S. grew from 87.1 million to 94.8 million cases over the prior year. The volume increase has been fueled in part by increased availability and ongoing promotions, which we anticipate will continue in 2023 as consumers look for healthy, tasty, and affordable choices. We continue to see everyday pricing from 98 cents to $1.50 per piece on bulk fruit. Retailers are also offering several value-added pack options for consumers. Ciruli Brothers offers mangos in a standard 8.8-pound case, a smaller 5-pound case and several clamshell options.”

MC Produce, Montreal, Quebec, offers limes, mango and papaya and has recently seen good movement throughout with papayas strong, says Maria Cavazos, manager. Papaya sales have been building through the year after a slow start and took off around the holidays despite colder temperatures in Mexico limiting supply and pushing up price.

Even if papayas are hot right now, she points out that mangos have been building in popularity to the point where they are starting to move like avocados did on the verge of becoming effectively mainstream.

Trying It Out

How consumers become accustomed to purchasing tropical fruit differs. For example, some retailers will point to cut fruit as a way to get purchases from consumers who aren’t as familiar with the fruit itself. Many consumers encounter tropicals not as fruit but as flavoring for beverages, as chips, dried fruit and restaurant dishes. Fresh cuts can be a bridge between those eating occasions and purchasing fruit in produce sections.

Hartmann de Barros says produce departments should be introducing consumers to the fruits themselves in circumstances where they can familiarize consumers with their handling.

“We know that food tastings are key to introducing new items, such as mangosteen and rambutan,” she says. “Education is key, so it’s not only important to introduce the cut fruit, ready to eat. But it’s imperative to give some instruction on how to select and open the fruit, such as mangosteen. Even guava, which is not a flavor we are unfamiliar with, needs to be introduced. While we may have eaten guava pastries, there are different varieties and consumers want to know what they are purchasing and what to expect, pink, white, Thai, etc. varieties.”

Hartmann de Barros also points out that shoppers today want to understand the nutritional profile of tropical produce they encounter.

“For many shoppers, nutrition is more important than price,” she says. “We see it with our Organic Formosa Papayas. There are cheaper papayas available, but for those customers looking for an organic papaya, a price difference of maybe 50 cents per pound tends to be secondary.”

Schwing said Splendid By Porvenir would love to see tropicals positioned more prominently and gain a more established position in the produce department.

“Endcaps and islands are, of course, what we seek, but real estate-wise, that’s pretty expensive space and movement has to justify it,” says Schwing. “As more and more shoppers look for mangos as a regular buy, as in ethnic stores, I see it securing a more permanent position. It could help the industry if at this time of the year, for example, it was merchandised alongside citrus.”

Cross-merchandising with Tajin, Chamoy and other products with flavor profiles sought after by ethnic consumers, could give stores with Latino and Asian clientele a boost.

“Locating the whole mangos close to fresh-cut mangos could move both, too,” she says.

Aguilar contends, “Offering ready-to-eat options such as fruit cups or bowls are a great way for retailers to move very ripe fruit and offset shrink.”

With a commodity such as mangos, for instance, produce departments should do as much as possible to tell the product story.

“Recipe racks are quite effective and mangos should always be carried with an easy recipe to prepare, with nutritional information at hand. Mangos are still misunderstood, choosing and cutting them, so a simple card with that information would be quite helpful. At store level, QR codes are being used to steer consumers to websites such as the National Mango Board website, www.mango.org, that provides not only recipes but videos with how-to’s. I would encourage retailers to reach out if interested. There’s lots of support that can be provided for promotions and ads they have in place for different times of the year.”