Keep your department stocked with stone fruit, and they will come.
Originally printed in the June 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Summer brings a splash to the produce department, as fresh peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots take their turn in the spotlight.
While counterseasonal fruit from the Southern Hemisphere, especially from Chile, keep stone fruit on the shelves through the winter, the produce department rocks when stone fruit orchards in the Southeast and California bring a fresh burst of flavor in the late spring and through the summer.
Just as there are regional markets for peaches from New Jersey, Georgia or South Carolina, some California stores have customers who look forward to the range of stone fruit from their nearby Central Valley.
“People definitely look forward to the California fruit,” says John Carriger, produce manager at the Gelson’s Market in Santa Barbara, CA. “Stone fruit sales go up around 15%.”
Gelson’s is an independent supermarket chain with 27 stores in Southern California, largely serving relatively affluent neighborhoods. The chain actively promotes the arrival of stone fruit from the Central Valley.
“The store sends us signage,” Carriger says. “Some of it is for the produce department, and some is for the front of the store.”
California’s Central Valley still plays a major role in supplying fresh stone fruit to the nation’s supermarkets. California freestone peaches are typically harvested from April 20 to October 10.
“There are advantages to promoting locally grown stone fruit. Here in California, we are very proud of our local growers, and California-based retailers also wish to highlight them,” says Kellee Harris, regional business development director, The Giumarra Cos., Los Angeles.
In 2017, California supplied nearly 56% of the United States fresh peach crop and more than 96% of processed peaches, according to the most recent Ag Marketing Resource Center report on peaches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Ag Marketing Resource Center, based at Iowa State University, gathers information about market conditions for a wide variety of specialty and value-added farm products.
CELEBRATE THE SWEETNESS
When domestic peaches arrive, there is cause for a produce celebration in much of the country.
“We have a four-foot section of peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots,” says Daniel Garcia, store manager at K&D Food Corp., Kissimmee, FL, an independent market serving the area south of Orlando. “The season began around the first of April.”
Each of the stone fruits gets a one-foot space in the produce department at Molter’s Fresh Market, an independent market with stores in Spring Green and Tomah, WI, according to the produce manager at the Spring Green store.
The quality of the fruit matters more in merchandising than the size of the display.
“I don’t think there’s one right number of varieties,” advises Chelsea Ketelsen, vice president, HMC Farms, a family orchard fruit business in Kingsburg, CA. “All consumers are different, and every store has a different strategy for attracting customers. Providing fruit that is fresh, flavorful and is rotated properly is the biggest challenge and the greatest opportunity for success with a fruit this perishable.”
ONE BAD APPLE (OR PEACH)
While there are no hard rules for the right number of varieties or feet to devote to stone fruit, once the display is set up, it is essential to cull the fruit regularly, because peaches and plums are far more fragile than apples and oranges. “We check our fruit every day,” says K&D’s Garcia.
“Once one piece goes bad, it’s going to make the other fruit degrade quicker,” advises Michael Elwinger, marketing manager at Kingsburg Orchards, Kingsburg, CA.
From May until February, family-owned Kingsburg Orchards harvests and ships a variety of fruits from California’s Central Valley, including cherries; apricots; apples; yellow and white flesh peaches and nectarines; plums; kiwi; apple pears; apriums; pluots; plumcots; and peacherines.
Molter’s Fresh Market also checks the fruit every day.
There is, however, some room for a range of firmness within each stone fruit display.
“All HMC Farms fruit is ripe when picked,” says Ketelsen. “Some people prefer different textures or levels of tartness, which is why leaving fruit on the counter until it has a slight give is usually the recommended measure for ripeness. If you prefer a firmer piece of fruit, don’t be afraid to enjoy it the day you bring it home from the store.”
In addition to checking to remove fruit that is dry, tired or diseased, it is also important to replenish the supply regularly to keep the display looking robust.
“Make sure the display is full,” advises Jeff Simonian, vice president for sales at Simonian Fruit Co. Fowler, CA. For the last 50 years, Simonian Fruit Co. has grown and shipped apricots; grapes; nectarines; peaches; persimmons; plums; and pomegranates.
Giumarra Cos. ships domestic and imported peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums, as well as a host of other fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Our peaches and plums continue to sell very well, and our premium DulceVida brand white and yellow flesh nectarines are becoming increasingly popular,” says Harris. The DulceVida nectarines are available in three exclusive limited editions: DulceVida Midnight Edition nectarines have yellow flesh with a deep red, speckled exterior color and are available mid-June through August; DulceVida Twilight Edition nectarines have white flesh with frosted fuchsia skin and are available mid-June through August; and DulceVida Sunrise Edition nectarines have yellow flesh with rose red to deep berry skin and are available mid-July through August.
A FEW NEW WRINKLES
Subtle differences in peach flesh could matter for retailers serving certain demographics.
The inside flesh of peaches is typically three colors: yellow, white and the less common red. In the United States, yellow-fleshed peaches are the most common, “having a balanced flavor of sweet and tangy,” according to the Ag Marketing Research Center report. “White-fleshed peaches are very common in Asian countries, and recently there has been a growing demand for them throughout the United States. White-fleshed peaches have less acidity, and therefore lack the tangy flavor that yellow peaches exhibit.”
This subtle change in preferences is worth monitoring, because peaches, unlike other stone fruit, do not have distinguishing varieties.
“With peaches and nectarines, there are so many varieties, and each has such a small window of availability that it is difficult to differentiate one from the next,” says Ketelsen. “Plums, plumcots and pluots, on the other hand, have very distinct distinguishable qualities and are consistently available for a longer time frame. When you have a special item like our Plumsicle, that is available for over a month, it makes it easier for it to become a recognized piece of fruit that consumers can look forward to year after year.”
“The Plumsicle is our favorite fruit of the summer,” adds Ketelsen. “It is super sweet and very flavorful. It’s firm, yet juicy, and paired with its speckled skin and vibrant red interior make it memorable in every way.”
Giumarra is promoting its premium DulceVida nectarine line with a colorful, new single layer Euro carton, in addition to existing consumer gift boxes in 2.5- and 4-pound sizes, plus a 2-pound high graphic pouch bags. “We will also continue to offer our Nature’s Partner brand packaging in high-graphic handle bags, cartons and volume fill options,” Harris adds.
Aside from the development of a few low volume specialty varieties, like plumcots and aprium, the stone fruit category has remained generally stable and straightforward for decades. However, a trend that could matter to some younger consumers is the preference for more sustainable packaging.
“Sustainable and innovative packaging is something we have huge focus on,” says Catherine Gipe-Stewart, director of marketing at Domex Superfresh Growers, Yakima, WA. “Our director of packaging and sustainability, Tyler Weinbender, has spent a lot of time ensuring the choices we make in packaging help progress our sustainability.”
Domex has grown and shipped a variety of tree fruits, organic and conventional, for more than a century.
“We are constantly on the lookout for the next innovation, but cautious before we just jump in,” says Gipe-Stewart. “One of our main tasks has been improving efficiencies. Moving what we can in apples and pears from pouch to poly crate reduces our plastic weight and labor needed.”
TASTE THE DIFFERENCE
Per capita consumption of peaches and nectarines, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, has dropped from more than 5 pounds to less than 2 ½ pounds in the last 15 years. This decline reflects, in part, a shift in our population to include more people who think of avocados, mangos or pineapples as mainstream fruits.
Nothing says ‘buy me’ like a fresh cut bite from a peach or nectarine in the produce department.
“Stone fruit sampling is another way to remind consumers of their great taste — peaches and nectarines in particular have an aroma, especially when cut, that will entice shoppers,” advises Giumarra’s Harris. “The key is to merchandise the highest possible quality varieties of stone fruit.”
“We suggest including customized in-store signage that features stone fruit growers and highlights the benefits of the fruit, including amazing flavor and recipe ideas,” says Harris. “Even more effective is when retailers couple their in-store merchandising efforts with additional path-to-purchase and shopper marketing efforts, including digital marketing and QR codes tied to websites, social media promotions and in-app advertising.”
Since there is no longer a stone fruit commodity board, Giumarra offers customized educational materials to retailers to help market stone fruit to consumers.
While national efforts to promote stone fruit are sparse, shippers and retailers can tell this delicious story through social media.
“We use our social media to educate consumers on growing practices, harvest updates, provide recipes and much more,” says Ketelsen. “It is a great way to engage and provide real-time information and updates from our farms.”