Sunshine State’s Strawberries Fill Winter Demand for Tasty Fruit

Well Pict Strawberry CropsPhotos courtesy of Well Pict

Sourcing from Plant City brings lower freight costs, fresher products to U.S. East Coast and Canadian retailers.

Strawberries on the StemThe start of winter signals the beginning of The Sunshine State’s strawberry season. The fruit offers a taste of Florida sunshine all winter long.

Plant City, FL, where most of the state’s strawberries are grown and shipped, is known as “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.” Florida growers usually begin harvesting early production during the first part of November. Volume typically increases throughout the month, with bigger volume commencing in December. Promotable volume normally begins around Christmastime.

“We have a very good market window for strawberries,” says Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms in Plant City. “We are pretty much the only domestic supply until late December, when Southern California starts. Southern California has some supply, but it doesn’t typically get going well until March. Florida weather is ideal for strawberries in the winter.”

A big benefit of sourcing Florida berries is distance and fewer food miles.

During the winter months, fresh Florida strawberries move from field to table within three days, says Sue Harrell, director of marketing for the Dover, FL-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association (FSGA). “Florida is the largest producer of fresh strawberries in the United States during the winter months,” she says. “Freshness and flavor are the keys to success at the retail level. That means consumers want a strawberry that looks fresh, tastes great and has a longer shelf life.”

Fewer Food Miles

Florida’s primary competition is California and Mexico.

“We can supply the East Coast and Canadian markets with the freshest product possible because of fewer miles traveled,” says Harrell. “Your customers want to know where their food comes from. Buy USA when in season and the closest to you to ensure customers get the freshest possible product.”

Proximity is key for freshness, says Shawn Pollard, salesman with Astin Strawberry Exchange, a Plant City, FL-based grower-shipper of strawberries and blueberries. “Freight is a big advantage we have,” he says. “Logistically, we have the ability to get the product to customers in a timely manner.”

Shipments are two to three days for Northeast and Midwest retailers.

“For many of the Southeast retailers, we can pick today and have it on their shelves within 48 hours, which is remarkable,” says Pollard. “The mileage is probably half of what it is from central Mexico, which is a significant deal. It makes for more rings at the cash register.”

That closeness helps ship higher quality fruit, says Mark McDonald, manager and partner with Sweet Life Farms in Plant City. “We are closer to the markets and can pick a riper red berry,” he says. “Mexican berries are not known for their color. Our eye appeal is better than California and Mexico. We have a better eating berry as far as juice and sugar content. Consumers say they want things that taste better. I would say Florida delivers on that promise.”

Tom O’Brien, president of C&D Fruit & Vegetable Co., which grows and ships from Bradenton, FL, agrees. “Florida’s berry reputation remains solid,” he says. “Because of the improved varieties and how we have done a good job putting up a good pack, the consumer recognizes Florida berries.”

A Growing Market

O’Brien considers Florida strawberries a growth market. “Florida’s reputation is still very strong,” he says. “The buyers are thinking of a product their customers want. It’s a front-and-center item, the whole berry category. East of the Mississippi River, it’s an item a majority of retailers would rather reach out to Florida for. Customers seem to recognize the Florida label.”

From Florida, loads can travel to most places in the Eastern part of the U.S. faster and thus fresher from other growing regions, says Chris Smith, sales manager of BBI Produce in Dover, FL. “Florida strawberries are an important fit into the system,” says Smith. “We (Florida) may send something that’s full color while someone else may ship something that’s three-quarters red, or having more white shoulders, to a farther distance. Anything ripened on the bush a little longer will taste better than something that’s picked on the lighter color or less-ripe side. Florida offers mostly a good and steady delivery during the winter when other people can struggle.”

“For many of the Southeast retailers, we can pick today and have it on their shelves within 48 hours, which is remarkable. The mileage is probably half of what it is from central Mexico, which is a significant deal. It makes more rings at the cash register.”

— Shawn Pollard, Astin Strawberry Exchange

The closer proximity of Florida to the Eastern seaboard allows for shorter transit times, which means fresher berries and higher retail profits, says Dan Crowley, vice president of sales and marketing for Watsonville, CA-based Well-Pict. “Florida is a strategic growing region for Well-Pict, as this Floridian part of their network of independent growers enables the company to have a consistent, fresh supply of strawberries year-round, especially to East Coast retailers,” he says. “The addition of the Florida crop to Well-Pict’s California supply ensures that the small production gap between the fall and spring crops is covered.”

Florida’s position in the deal is of paramount importance to retailers wanting fresh fruit throughout the winter, says Bob Wilhelm, owner of Bova Fresh in Boca Raton, FL. “In terms of importance, winter is our time of the year,” he says. “In the winter, California is pretty much finished, and Mexico isn’t really a huge player. Florida is important for the timing. Without Florida, we just don’t have any supply for the retailers throughout the winter.”

Effective Merchandising

Strawberry CartonPaying attention to displays is critical, says FSGA’s Harrell. Full displays of fresh Florida strawberries need to be restocked and rotated during the day and always kept full, she advises. They should always be kept fresh by placing them on refrigerated tables and display cases.

“Holidays are our business,” says Harrell. “We are bright red and green, and perfect for holiday displays. We are the colors of the holidays — Christmas, New Year’s and Valentine’s Day. Decorate the produce department with Florida strawberries during the holidays by placing them in front of the produce department. It’s a way to persuade consumers to buy.”

Maintaining the cold chain is imperative for proper berry storage and presentation, says Jackie Moalli, director of the Division of Marketing and Development at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ division of marketing in Tallahassee, FL. Fresh from Florida strawberries must be prominently displayed, full of fresh berries, through end cap and multi-tier displays, samplings, photos and point-of-purchase materials, she says. “Beautiful red berries in clamshells are an instant draw for consumers,” says Moalli. “Using recipes to encourage alternate uses for strawberries is a great way to increase sales, whether including in salads, smoothies or a must-have strawberry shortcake. There are many recipes available to share with consumers.”

Holidays are our business. We are bright red and green, and perfect for holiday displays. We are the colors of the holidays — Christmas, New Year’s and Valentine’s Day.

— Sue Harrell, Florida Strawberry Growers Association

To attract more customers, Wish Farms is planning to conduct sampling campaigns this winter. “When you have fruit that tastes good, it gets consumers excited to buy berries when maybe they wouldn’t,” says Wishnatzki. “Once you get them hooked on good-tasting fruit, they keep coming back. You create your own demand when you have good-tasting strawberries, or you can kill demand when you don’t. Shoppers will buy them once because they look good, but will buy them again and again when they taste good.”

Frequent Promotions

Promotional prices are important for repeat sales, says Astin’s Pollard. “The big thing for retailers is they need to promote and continue to promote them,” he says. “A lot of times when they advertise and go off an ad, they lose momentum. You have to entice consumers to come back by offering that promotional price again. Keep a consistent everyday reasonable price. That’s reflected in the overall movement.”

Retailers should erect prominent berry displays in key traffic zones of the produce department. Retailers must know and design berry rotation around the produce department’s highest traffic time periods, advises Crowley. As strawberries lose half a day of shelf life for every 30 minutes outside of refrigeration, strategically rotating berries through the non-refrigerated displays is important, he says.

“Consumers have become accustomed to having their favorite fruits and vegetables available year-round and find winter strawberries to be an extra-special treat,” says Crowley. “This makes it especially important to create prominent, eye-catching, cross-merchandised displays to keep winter berries top-of-mind for consumers.”

Industry-funded varietal improvements are helping enhance the flavor profile of Florida’s strawberries. Florida Beauty, a new variety, is in its infancy stage in terms of production this season. The variety is an early berry and offers high flavor, says Andy McDonald, farming operations manager for Sweet Life Farms.

Better Varieties

Over the past decade, the industry has been breeding for more flavorful berries.

“The size is much more consistent on them most of the time,” says McDonald. “They’re more suited for our growing environment. We have made great strides in the industry and have been breeding for more flavor and shelf life.”

University of Florida research financially supported by growers and vast independent grower research develops proprietary varieties grown in Florida, says Moalli. “Cultivators grown in Florida have been developed for enhanced flavor, appearance, shape and disease-resistance,” she says. “The ability to grow in challenging conditions has been the hallmark of the Florida strawberry farmer in Central Florida since the 1880s.”

Consumers have become accustomed to having their favorite fruits and vegetables available year-round and find winter strawberries to be an extra-special treat. This makes it especially important to create prominent, eye-catching, cross-merchandised displays to keep winter berries top-of-mind for consumers.

— Dan Crowley, Well-Pict

According to Wishnatzki, new varieties scheduled for introduction are denser, possess high sugar content and are all red inside ­—traits consumers seek. Taste is key, he says. “Most retailers recognize Florida has upped its game in the last several years because of its varieties,” he says. “Retailers are noticing Florida berries are second to none when they are in season.”

BBI’s Smith rates the Florida Beauty variety as possessing a better taste profile than many past varieties. “It’s the best we’ve seen in years,” he says. “It will be very good for the industry.”

The FSGA connects with Florida strawberry fans via social media. Consumers from all over the United States follow the organization and eagerly await the start of Florida’s season. Consumers tag the FSGA and the retailer they purchased the fruit from, says Harrell. With Florida’s unpredictable weather, retailers can quickly react and notify shoppers when limited supplies are available via social media, she says.

“With all the changes in the marketplace and how consumers shop, having a connection to your in-store shoppers is how you create loyal customers,” says Harrell. “It’s great feedback from happy customers using our product you sold to them. Using consumer-to-consumer advertising is priceless.”

While many associate strawberries with cake and whipped cream, consumers these days use the fruit in many more ways. Retailers should include recipes for healthy salads, smoothies, desserts and even savory dishes that incorporate fresh strawberries.

“Consumers love recipes and are always looking for creative ways to introduce the fruit to their diets,” says Harrell. The FSGA can supply retailers photographs of the recipes it features on its website and social media channels. Strawberry Beanies, winter stocking caps, are a perfect reminder that Florida strawberries offer a taste of Florida sunshine all winter long.

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