Ripening Is A Science, Yes, But Also An Art

By Daniel Corsaro

Originally printed in the June 2022 issue of Produce Business.

Ripening is an integral component of the fresh produce supply chain. Some of today’s most-consumed fresh produce items are ripened or conditioned at certain points in their product life cycle. Ripening has continued to evolve over time with advancements in technology, equipment and construction. As today’s consumer continues to become more dynamic and expects a wider array of choices, ripening allows retailers to meet more demand.

Although, ripening is a point of differentiation for many wholesale distributors, it’s often only a piece of their product and service offering. In the industry, there are numerous subject matter and product experts who focus solely on commodities that are ripened and the associated techniques. It’s imperative ripeners take advantage of the educational opportunities and support what these industry partners have to offer. At Indianapolis Fruit, we’re often working directly with Dole Fresh Fruit and Chiquita to ensure our processes, technology, equipment and ripening inputs are in line with their suggested workflows. Coordinating on-site training and checks, virtual education and product updates are critical components of strong vendor support.

Ripening is the most challenging and nuanced guessing game that exists. A successful ripener marries a nimble approach with basic principles and continuous education. Basic principles — daily room checks, quality reviews and collaborative forecasting — are the foundation of strong ripening programs.

We often discuss the intangible talents of many produce professionals, and those who ripen have an innate artistic ability to manage the ripening process. Just as an artist must consider the type of canvas, the paint type and the size of the piece, a ripener must consider certain characteristics of the fruit, such as the travel path, the end destination, the end use, the country of origin, etc. Once all those factors are considered, the “artist” goes to work.

Ripening is the most challenging and nuanced guessing game that exists.

“Ripening is often a thankless role, but a necessary one,” says Jesse Nealy Jr., who serves as vice president of operations here at the Indianapolis Fruit Company. Professional ripeners have an opportunity to impact performance through foot traffic, profitability and return sales for many of their customers across multiple product categories.

As the industry continues to evolve, ripening services have been and will continue to become more in demand. Service providers are leaning on creating transparency, predictability, and just-in-time inventory for their customer base, while also wrapping support services, such as logistics, around their ripening.

When ripening as a service, integral components such as technology, product expertise, inventory management systems and vendor partnerships create desirable results. As buyers look to connect directly with their source partners, value-added services such as ripening allow distributors to deepen their relevancy in the fresh produce supply chain.

Ripening services have extended into many product categories as customer and consumer needs have become more diverse. Ripening customers include retailers, foodservice operations, wholesalers and manufacturers. Each of these customer segments defines ripening success in a unique way, whether it be color, pressure, firmness or flavor. That’s why ripening partners should always discuss clear expectations on color specs, timing and forecasting cycles in an effort to align processes and results.

In today’s ever-evolving marketplace, ripening continues to be a competitive advantage for distributors. Ripeners that have expanded offerings to cover bananas and other fruit such as melons, avocados, tomatoes and mangoes are driving value for their partners and creating more “stickiness” within their relationships.

Daniel Corsaro is president of the Indianapolis Fruit Company, a leader in fresh retail distribution. As the son of one of the founders, Corsaro grew up in the produce industry. He took a brief post-college break from produce to work in the insurance industry for a couple years and returned to Indy Fruit in 2014. Over the last eight years, Corsaro has worked and executed key initiatives in and across all functional areas of the business. Today, he leads the organization as president, supporting more than 300 team members and 550 retail partners. Indianapolis Fruit has a current fleet of 150 refrigerated trucks and aggregate warehouse capacity of over 650,000 square feet, and continues to expand its service area in the Midwest, Central and Southeast regions of the U.S.