Specialty Citrus Pique Consumer Interest

Winter Citrus Grouping

With demand high among shoppers, there is great opportunity for these distinctive citrus varieties.

Sunkist Blood OrangeSpecialty citrus, including several varieties that are new to the market, are doing what the industry always hopes it will do — pique consumer interest, spark conversation, find their way into recipes, delight foodies and register noticeable gains at check-out stands across the nation.

While the category has caught the industry’s imagination, generated marketing initiatives and spurred sales, not everyone is in total agreement on how to define its parameters. “Specialty citrus means varieties that offer distinctive attributes that set them apart from the classic orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime varieties that all consumers are aware of,” says Joan Wickham, director of communications for Sunkist Growers in Valencia, CA.

While varied citrus varieties, even specialties, have been grown for many years — it takes five to six years for most citrus trees to produce fruit — the difference now is that many specialty varieties are coming into more widespread production, meaning they are available to consumers more than ever before. “With consumers becoming more interested in unique food and produce items, Sunkist knows there is great opportunity for these distinctive citrus varieties,” says Wickham, “and our growers have planned for this growing demand, with much of that acreage coming into production now.”

With Millennial consumers’ adventurous tastes in food, offering specialty items can certainly catch this group’s attention. However, that doesn’t mean it will deter older consumers. Creating a well-rounded citrus program can serve all retail customers and help drive overall sales.

Karen Caplan, president and chief executive of Frieda’s Specialty Produce, Los Alamitos, CA, defines specialty citrus simply as non-commodity citrus. “Varieties beyond common lime and lemon, navel oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, etc.” She points to several citrus varieties on the market today that weren’t commercially produced 10 years ago, such as organic finger limes, Mandarinquats, centennial kumquats and many more.

During its 54 years of operation, Frieda’s Specialty Produce has introduced more than 200 specialty fruits and vegetables to U.S. retail channels, including unique items like kiwifruit and organic finger limes.

Chuck Yow, director of U.S. sales and business development for Capespan North America LLC in Gloucester City, NJ, sees specialty citrus as “items that are considered unique and different than the conventional items at retail. Examples include the Sumo Mandarin. This is a premium easy peeler new to the market. Timing of this is late December through early March.”

Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s Produce in Los Angeles, says he defines specialty citrus as non-commodity varieties. “They are more likely to be seasonal; they are fruits not typically found in every retailer,” he says. Melissa’s Produce is a leading U.S. variety distributor of specialty and organic fresh produce. The company imports exotic fruits and vegetables from around the world.

Schueller’s list of citrus varieties that are becoming increasingly popular includes Shasta Gold tangerines, Gold Nugget tangerines, finger limes, cocktail grapefruit, sweet limes, Ojai Pixie tangerines, kumquats, key limes, seedless lemons, Meyer lemons, Cara oranges, blood oranges and Buddha’s Hand.

Another variety, Melissa’s Sumo Citrus, is large (about the size of a Valencia orange) with a distinct “knob” at the top. This new Mandarin variety is seedless, easy to peel, juicy and sweet with very little pith, allowing the fruit to section easily with less of the white “netting” having to be cleaned.

“Start with a few newer and unfamilair items to test market. Add education to the mix through signage.
Offer demos and include brochures or recipe cards.”

— Robert Schueller, Melissa’s Produce

Schueller says marketing the newest varieties of specialty citrus can best be accomplished through some combination of customized signage, demonstrations, brochures, ad features and promotional pricing. He believes specialty citrus should be merchandised in their own category: limes, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and others. “Attracting more customers is a matter of offering more varieties of produce in the department. I don’t see why more variety will not maintain the older customer base,” he says.

When trying to make room on retail shelves for the specialty varieties, Schueller advises not to remove varieties, but simply add to them. “Display smartly and creatively to introduce newer specialties to the citrus category.”

He also has advice for the ways in which retailers can help consumers overcome fear or intimidation when it comes to specialty citrus. “Start with a few newer and unfamiliar items to test market. Add education to the mix through signage. Offer demos and include brochures or recipe cards.”

The varieties can be featured in store circulars or advertisements. Retailers can also announce a growing specialty category within the store. “Measure sell-through results at the end of the month,” says Schueller.

Tremendous Growth

Bags of OrangesExecutives at Sunkist have watched as the easy-peel category has grown over the past several years, demonstrating consumer demand for distinct varieties that offer something different. “Cara Cara navel oranges are a great example of a variety that many consumers are still not aware of, but after trying this deliciously sweet and beautifully pink Navel orange — which offers 20 percent more vitamin C and nearly 30 percent more vitamin A than a regular navel, along with lycopene — it quickly becomes a seasonal favorite,” says Wickham.

Easy-to-peel Minneola tangelos are another variety that has been around for some time, but many consumers are just now discovering it as a healthy snack, especially during the winter months. “A combination of a grapefruit and tangerine, Minneolas offer a distinct tart-sweet flavor and have extremely high juice content, making them fantastic for juicing and cocktails,” says Wickham.

Blood oranges are another specialty variety gaining traction among consumers. “The rich, crimson color of this beautiful citrus variety is striking and adds bright flair to winter dishes,” says Wickham.

Meyer lemons are another variety trending in the culinary space that Sunkist believes holds tremendous growth opportunity. Thought to be a cross between a Mandarin and a lemon, they are a bit less acidic than regular lemons. “This lemon also has a beautiful golden, smooth peel with a lovely floral aroma that makes it fantastic for zesting,” says Wickham.

Making room for newer, potentially more exciting products is a necessity in any produce department. Through research, Sunkist has found retailers can drive sales of the entire category by making citrus a destination in the produce section. “The key is education,” says Wickham. “If you can tell the story of a specialty citrus item to let consumers know how that item is different — flavor, appearance, nutrition — and also give them usage suggestions, they will try different items. And because these varieties offer something different, they do not need to cannibalize sales of other citrus offerings,” says Wickham.

Since supply is lower, often specialty citrus items do command a lower price. However, according to Wickham, it can be advantageous to offer competitive pricing or promotions to incite trial of these varieties that consumers are less familiar with. Sunkist believes that education is key when it comes to marketing specialty citrus varieties. Sharing flavor profiles, usage tips and recipe ideas on point-of-sale materials helps build consumer excitement about specialty items. “Sampling is also a great tactic to allow consumers to taste the unique flavor of the fruit and encourage purchase,” says Wickham.

Increase the Season

Capespan’s Yow points to citrus varieties on the market today that weren’t commercially produced 10 years ago. “The varieties coming on are being developed to increase the season, early and late fruit. Also, Tango and Gold Nugget Mandarins are newer, trying to improve quality and extend certain times of the season. Virtually 100 percent seedless Mandarins is an industry effort. They are working on procedures to prevent cross-pollination and accomplish this. Varieties are also being worked on to be seedless.” Mandarins, including Clementine’s and W Murcott’s, are fast-growing and dominating sales at retail stores.”

And according to Yow, the retail demand for Blood oranges for sauces, dressing and cocktails continues to grow. “A newer variegated pink-flesh lemon is gaining a little ground. The peel has stripped appearance with a yellow/green mixture.”

“Sampling is also a great tactic to allow consumers to taste the unique flavor of the fruit and encourage purchase.”

— Joan Wickham, Sunkist Growers

Capespan executives have found that displays in front of the produce department, sampling, grower store visits, display contests and in-store coupons are effective ways to merchandise and market specialty citrus. “Social media is allowing grower/shippers to have some access to consumers for educating them in this type of citrus,” says Yow.

Clearing room at retail for the specialty varieties is a task that depends not only on the size of the retailer, but the time of year and what other citrus is available. “Also, on how much total space is allotted for citrus. Navels seem to be taking a back seat to all new specialty citrus efforts,” says Yow.

Retailers can help put nervous consumers at ease through sampling and discussions at store level, which is why employee training and education are important. Yow underscores the need for produce manager education so information can be passed along. Research and other information and documentation in the form of handouts and brochures, as well as social media, can all help play a role.

Attracting new customers while maintaining the loyalty of an existing customer base is a trick that retailers can manage. “If done correctly, there can be an increase in all the above because produce is still heavily spontaneous, so demos and displays bring traffic for all,” says Yow.

Growth Commodity

“Mandarins are definitely the growth commodity of the citrus category,” says Kimberly Flores, marketing director for Seald Sweet LLC in Vero Beach, FL. “In the past, Mandarins and others were considered specialty, but they have grown in volume and popularity over the past decade. They have become a mainstream item in retail and in many cases, overtaken the demand of other citrus commodities. For example, grapefruit and orange volumes have declined in lieu of easy-peeler demand.”

Flores points out that proprietary cultivars and seedless, easy-peel Mandarin varieties with exceptional quality and flavor, are the focus of new plantings. With the continued growth of the category, growers and shippers with the best quality product will have the advantage in the market over those with average or sub-standard quality. “Varieties like Cara Cara oranges have really grown in popularity as well, especially among the foodie culture, or those seeking creative cuisine and consumers who are educated about these specialty varieties,” says Flores. “Cara’s and Blood oranges really have great flavor, and are unique in appearance with their bright pink or red interior color.”

Education is Everything

Unlike commodity citrus, specialty citrus varieties are highly seasonal. Frieda’s Caplan’s advises retailers to rotate the varieties during peak season for best quality. “Meyer and seedless lemons have always been a hit,” says Caplan. “Pink lemons and organic finger limes are gaining ground.”

Pricing on specialty citrus will most likely be higher than commodity citrus. “For example, finger limes are relatively more limited — even more so with the organic variety — and shoppers will pay higher prices to have that special citrus caviar on their plates,” says Caplan.

Caplan has found that education is everything. “Sampling definitely helps with that, and signage in-store, or product packaging with great information, always help.” Frieda’s has had success with its grab-and-go specialty pouches, which allow shoppers to read about the specialty citrus they’re purchasing. “Sampling is the best way to entice shoppers to try the newest varieties of specialty citrus. Also, grouping all citrus varieties together, and including serving suggestions since all citrus is not used the same way, is another way to educate. Thus, the reason Frieda’s packaging is so helpful in building sales,” says Caplan.

Caplan’s parting advice to retailers is simple: “Add new citrus to your existing citrus one variety at a time and gauge the response.”Indeed, it is by gauging the responses of consumers across the nation that suppliers and retailers have learned that specialty citrus will remain a top growth category in produce.

Specialty Citrus Buzz

There is little doubt that specialty citrus is generating an inordinate amount of buzz in foodie circles and produce departments around the country. California Citrus Specialties, Springville, CA, offers a partial list of the varieties that consumers are all abuzz about:

Cara Cara Oranges

Cara Cara Oranges

Moro Blood Orange: The earliest ripening and darkest colored of the bloods, Moro has a deep red internal color. Available December to February.

Sanguinelli Blood Orange: Late ripening, egg-shaped variety with a bright red rind blush and internal color. Available February to April.

Tarocco Blood Orange: Large fruit variety with a rich flavor. Light internal color. Available in January.

Buddha’s Hand Citron: The intensely fragrant fingered citron is used in floral arrangements, table displays and for cooking. Available November to January.

Meyer Lemons: A juicy, thin-skinned lemon prized by many of the chefs of California. Less tart with brighter yellow juice than regular lemons, Meyer has its own distinctive, flowery flavor. Available November to February.

Cara Cara Navel: Excellent flavor of a Washington navel but with pink flesh like a Star Ruby grapefruit. Available December to January.

Page Mandarin: Noted for its rich, sweet flavor with few seeds. It can’t be matched for fresh juice. Available December to February.

Chandler Pummelo: Pink fleshed variety. Available November to February.

Goldfruit: Available November to March.

Meyer Lemons

Meyer Lemons

Pixie Mandarin: Sweet and delicious with no seeds. Easy-to-peel. Available January to February.

Seville-Style Sour Oranges: Prized for making English-style marmalade. Available in mid-December to February.

Meiwa Kumquats: Round shape with sweet rind and flesh. Superior to oblong Nagami. Available February to March.

Keiffer Lime Leaves: Invaluable seasoning in many Asian recipes. Sold fresh year-round.

Bergamot Sour Orange: Powerfully fragrant sour orange used to make perfumes, oils and drinks. The rind also used to flavor Earl Grey tea.

Italian Lemons: Italian lemons are the same varieties grown in the Sorrento area of Italy. They are prized for making lemoncello and other Italian delicacies.

Yuzu: Held in high esteem by Japanese chefs, the acidic fruit which is used green or fully colored is the key ingredient in Ponzu sauce and other Japanese specialties.