Specialty Citrus Offers Unique Selling Opportunities

Originally printed in the January 2019 issue of Produce Business.

New and exciting varieties, including Sumos and large tangerines, can lure consumers.

A California grower-shipper is gaining favor with its early shipments of an easy-peeler sweet Satsuma that is the size of a Navel orange and aptly named Sumo Citrus.

In Florida, a fourth-generation family citrus grower is ready to introduce two very sweet and large Tangerines, three decades in the breeding that are uniquely high in sugar and low in acids.

One Los Angeles wholesaler conveniently located close to the port for access to specialty citrus from around the world sees premium opportunities in these unique varieties.

“We are big in this category,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Vernon, CA. “Specialty citrus varieties are harder to find in the marketplace, and they’re not varieties all stores carry. Lack of volume is an indicator that it’s specialty.”

Joe and Sharon Hernandez quickly built the Melissa’s business to occupy more than seven acres of warehouse space in their strategic West Coast location by making good on their promise: Delivering the Global Market.

“Offering customized signage for the retailers to help communicate about the item and how to use it helps consumers overcome intimidation,” says Schueller. “Our labels request that consumers go to our site for information and multiple recipes for using the fruit.”

Retailers have a wealth of choices to add variety and whimsy to the citrus section.

Varieties range from Kishu and Jeju Mandarins out of Korea, which are available in December and January, to sour oranges the first two months of the year, to Tango and Tahoe gold tangerines that are available until March. Consumers also can find Fukushu kumquat from December through March, Jamaican Ugli fruit, Sumo Citrus from the heart of the Central Valley, or Early Autumn Honeys out of Florida.

THE HITS KEEP ON COMING

New specialty citrus varieties keep coming, both from locations around the world and from ongoing public and private breeding efforts to come up with fruit that offers new and enticing mouth appeal.

“Our family started a private breeding program 30 years ago,” says Quentin Roe, president of Noble Citrus, Winter Haven, FL. “We have several new varieties in the ground that are super sweet, unlike anything else in Florida. Two of them are super large tangerines that are easy to peel with few seeds.”

Noble Citrus is a nearly century-old fourth-generation family citrus operation that recently released two new large very sweet tangerine varieties developed in its own research orchard.

“One of our new varieties is a November-December variety called Early Autumn Honey, and the other is a December-February variety called Juicy Crunch,” says Roe. “When you get one, the first response is ‘wow.’ They are low in acid and high in brix. They are limited volume this year, and next year we should see considerable volume. We hope to be in limited distribution nationwide.”

Noble also recently developed the Roe Tangerine, which is more of the Clementine-size fruit from late November to January that looks and acts like a Clementine, but it is seedless and easy to peel.

“Florida has a range of specialty varieties available in various maturity windows, including Sugar Belle, Minneola/Honeybell, U.S. Early Pride tangerine, Tango Mandarin, Roe tangerine, Orri Mandarin, Autumn Honey tangerine, Juice Crunch tangerine, UF Glow and more,” says Peter Chaires, executive vice president at Florida Citrus Packers and executive director of New Varieties Development & Management Corp., Maitland, FL.

“Quantities of the traditional Fallglo, Sunburst and Honey tangerines also remain available.”

The citrus industry in the Sunshine State remains committed to developing and marketing new and improved specialty citrus.

“Florida has invested heavily in the development of new varieties over the past decade, and some of these varieties are being planted and will find their way into retail channels over the next couple years,” says Chaires. “One of these is the Bingo – of which new plantings are currently producing very small quantities of fruit, which will increase over the next couple years. Oranges and grapefruit with unique qualities that may have strong consumer appeal are not technically categorized as specialty fruit, but they certainly have something special to offer.”

Changing demographics are bringing new citrus varieties to market, and some of them are going mainstream.

“Easy-peelers are arguably the dominating commodity of the citrus category because of the growth of volumes from multiple regions around the world and the popularity and consumer demand in the market.”

— Kim Flores, Pro Citrus Network

“Some up-and-comers we are handling include sweet limes, kumquats, finger limes, cocktail grapefruit and others,” says Kim Flores, vice president of marketing and business development at Pro Citrus Network, Visalia, CA.

“Sweet limes are very unique, with lots of great characteristics and health benefits,” says Flores. “They are light green in color, with a yellow tint when completely mature, and range in size from two to three inches in diameter. They contain much less acid than ordinary limes, have a sweet, mild flavor and are often used for juicing. They’re popular in the Persian, Latin and Indian communities, and are often used to boost immune systems and fight off colds,” says Flores.

EASY-PEELERS ARE APPEALING

Many, maybe most, of the newer specialties are variations on the easy-peeler fruit that has catapulted to the top of the citrus category.

“There has been such growth in the easy-peeler Mandarins,” says Mark Greenberg, president of Capespan North America in Montreal. “We get asked for pigmented citrus, Cara Caras, and the Tango W. Murcott, which are truly seedless.”

One new specialty easy-peeler cross between a Mandarin and the large Navel, in particular, has caught Greenberg’s attention.

“Suntreat is a California grower-packer-shipper that has some interesting things,” says Greenberg. “Sumo citrus is an interesting product that is proprietary to Suntreat and is only available in limited supply from California and Australia.”

The entire specialty category may be small, but it is the high growth sector within the citrus category.

“Growth continues in specialty varieties, such as sweet, seedless, low-acidity Cara Cara Navels; savory, rich oranges; and easy-to-peel Mandarins,” says Julie DeWolf, director of retail marketing at Sunkist Growers, Sherman Oaks, CA. “That being said, the entire specialty category is experiencing increased sales as consumers expand their palates and become more adventurous with the help of sampling, in-store signage and digital media.”

The meteoric emergence of the easy-peelers shows just how quickly specialty citrus can rise to the top of the mainstream charts.

“Easy-peelers, such as Clementines and Mandarins, were once considered specialty items. The citrus category was primarily dominated by oranges and grapefruit,” says Flores. “Now easy-peelers are arguably the dominating commodity of the citrus category because of the growth of volumes from multiple regions around the world and the popularity and consumer demand in the market.”

UP AND COMING

The specialty citrus category is far from settled, and there are varieties worth keeping an eye on.

“Meyer lemons and Gold Nugget Mandarins are two varieties that could be described as up-and-comers, as they are definitely gaining popularity for their flavor attributes and distinct differences from their more conventional counterparts,” says DeWolf. “Grower-shippers are also providing convenient, colorful, high-graphic packaging options that showcase the natural beauty of the fruit and also communicate its intriguing flavor profile, raising the awareness of the entire category.”

Although Wonderful has captured slightly more than 50 percent of the Mandarin market share with Halos, the largest citrus grower-shipper is still focusing on the next big thing in specialty citrus.

“In addition to Wonderful Halos, our specialty citrus portfolio is having great success with our Cara Cara program,” says Zak Laffite, chief sales officer at Wonderful Citrus, Los Angeles. “With a 15 percent increase in plantings compared to 2016 and maturing acreage, Wonderful is expecting a 25- to 30-percent increase in volume this season. Excellent quality, combined with timely promotions, creates an exciting opportunity for both consumers and retailers.”

As consumers reap the benefits of fruit with sweeter taste and superior mouth appeal, they might not even always know the name of the new variety they are pleased to enjoy.

“Some of these new varieties will be marketed under their variety name or trademark name, such as Sugar Belle,” says Chaires. “Others may be marketed under a branded product line or as a tangerine or Mandarin. It’s still too early to tell how this will play out. ”

CAN I GET A PREMIUM?

That is a reasonable question for a retailer preparing to invest the additional time and resources involved in spicing up their display of mainstream citrus commodities with some unique specialty offerings.

“Some specialty varieties sell at a premium; others are more of a commodity,” says Florida Citrus Packers’ Chaires. “The high quality fruit that consumers prefer – whether it be for convenience, flavor, color — will drive demand and value.”

Demand currently is strong for a number of specialty citrus items out of the Sunshine State.

“This is a very strong market for Florida, as Florida has high juice content oranges available throughout the season,” says Chaires. “Small size grapefruit and Tangerines are also popular for juicing and producing gourmet juice blends. Orange and red-fleshed Navel oranges remain popular during the holidays for fruity salads and fresh consumption.”

The two recently released tangerine varieties out of Florida — Early Autumn Honey and Juicy Crunch — are bringing Noble Citrus a premium. “Right now it’s north of $1 per pound freight on board and retails for $2 to $2.50,” says Roe.

There is no simple answer to the question of whether a specialty variety will sell at commodity prices or fetch a premium.

“Specialty citrus is marketed at a premium,” says Schueller. “Pure supply and demand is going on here.”

His answer is more straightforward than most because many of the end users of citrus coming through Melissa’s are ready to pay a little more for some highly specialized varieties.

“The top-selling specialty citrus items are kumquats, Ojai Pixie tangerines, Meyer lemons, blood oranges, Cara Cara oranges, Satsuma tangerines, key limes, Sumo Citrus, Pummelo grapefruit, Oro Blanco grapefruit, sweet limes, and Ugli fruit,” says Schueller. “The up-and-coming items are cocktail grapefruit, Shasta Gold Tangerines, Gold Nugget Tangerines, Kishu Tangerines, Melogold grapefruit, Buddha’s Hand, Seville oranges, and Finger limes.”

The premium really comes down to supply and demand, which can shift pretty quickly in this developing category.

“Specialty citrus can be marketed at a premium based on consumer demand,” says Laffite. “The good news is that citrus remains strong for both growers and consumers who continue to drive demand. Consumers have an increasing appetite for healthier foods, and citrus is at the forefront.”


MERCHANDISING WITH A SPECIALTY TOUCH

Because many potential consumers are not familiar with the unique qualities of these varieties, they are best merchandised with a special touch.

“Advertise pricing to promote first trial of the item, and demo the item,” advises Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce in Vernon, CA. “I don’t think specialty citrus is a term understood by consumers. There are so many exciting varieties that most don’t even know what is seasonally available.”

It is worth extra effort to familiarize consumers with these unique varieties and let them know how they are best used.

“Promotions, product demos and education, providing tips and recipes for product use, and nutritional benefits help consumers overcome the fear factor,” says Kim Flores, vice president of marketing and business development at Pro Citrus Network, Visalia, CA. “Most grower-shippers are willing to work with retailers, to provide the right tools and support needed to promote items at the retail level and gain exposure with consumers.”

When introducing customers to these new and interesting flavors, there is no substitute for sampling.

“We have learned through research that once consumers taste specialty citrus, they love the unique flavor profiles and come back for more,” says Julie DeWolf, director of marketing at Sunkist Growers, Sherman Oaks, CA. “People want to know what they are purchasing, which is why signage and education are essential to specialty citrus marketing. Understanding its importance, we have created a variety of in-store materials, including header cards, clip cards, channel rails, secondary display units and a flavor map of all citrus varieties that highlight their flavor profiles, nutritional benefits and recipes.”

Bold graphics can draw attention to this specialty fruit, which often looks unique, even before the first taste.

“Calling out the fruit’s characteristics and supporting those details with photos, are wonderful ways to educate the consumer regarding specialty items,” says Monique Bienvenue, director of communications at Bee Sweet Citrus, Fowler, CA. “Most of the time, consumers can’t tell the difference between varieties like Navel oranges or a Cara Cara, so providing them with inviting messaging, like recipe cards or POS materials, can help ease confusion when shoppers are looking for specific citrus fruits.”

Because interest in specialty citrus is likely to be strongest among younger consumers, social media should play an important role in promotion.

“Inclusion of social media platforms and digital marketing for promoting is important,” says Flores. “The traditional paper circulars are not as effective in creating interest or a buzz among the more adventurous consumers such as foodies or Millennials.”

Effective communication with younger consumers can have a beneficial carry over among people of all ages.

“The new generation of produce consumers is hungry for authentic experiences and wants to discover new things while being very conscious about what they buy and put into their bodies,” says DeWolf. “The best and most progressive retailers focus on connecting Millennials with the brands they carry through all forms of communication, both on the shelf and online. This approach benefits all consumers, regardless of generational demographics.”

These unique varieties bring a buzz to the citrus section, and the entire produce department. Their value is more than the added ring.

“Specialty citrus items, such as Cara Cara Navels, Heirloom Navels, blood oranges, and Gold Nugget Mandarins, offer something new and seasonal that builds excitement and trial amongst consumers,” says Zak Laffite, chief sales officer at Wonderful Citrus, Los Angeles. “Ultimately, adding these newer specialty items provide incremental growth opportunities with both existing and new consumers.”

Wonderful was so successful with branding for its Halo tangerine that the variety went from specialty to mainstream commodity practically overnight.

“Branded and clever point-of-sales displays help educate consumers about the variety of specialty citrus available to them seasonally at their local retail stores,” says Laffite. “Wonderful Halos Grove of Goodness point-of-sale displays, which introduced a new fruit stand display to the collection this Mandarin season, is a great example of how retailers are introducing fun, interactive in-store displays to bring that ‘farm-to-table’ vision to life for shoppers.”

Wonderful is a giant among grower-shippers, able to invest $30 million in a Halos marketing campaign that includes television ads and a Times Square billboard, but smaller shippers find more economical ways to deliver their message.

“The sticker on the fruit is large, attractive and it communicates what the fruit is,” says Quentin Roe, president of Noble Citrus, Winter Haven, FL. “It’s old school, but it works.”

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