Originally printed in the February 2018 issue of Produce Business.
Seen as the perfect mate to tasty dips and spreads, red, yellow and orange are becoming ubiquitous.
A few decades ago, the green pepper was the only sweet pepper available in the grocery store. Truth be told, it isn’t very sweet at all. But it does have a wide variety of uses in the kitchen. Cajun cooking, for example, could hardly survive without the green pepper, which comprises the “holy trinity” of Cajun cooking along with diced onion and celery. You can’t make a gumbo or an etouffee without them.
But in recent years, sweeter bell peppers in red, yellow and orange have become a staple in produce, utilized as much for their vibrant coloring as their flavor. Mini sweet peppers also have made it to the mainstream, beloved as a healthy snacking treat and the perfect vehicle for dips and dressings.
According to the Agricultural Marketing Research Center (AMRC) at Iowa State University, bell peppers start out green and turn red, orange or yellow as they ripen. The brighter the coloring of the sweet pepper, the sweeter the pepper because as the pepper matures, its sugar content becomes more pronounced. Although the brighter-colored varieties cost more to produce because they result in more field losses, retailers can charge more for this premium product.
Sweet peppers are available year-round, thanks to production in states with mild temperatures such as Florida and California as well as vigorous greenhouse production in Canada, Mexico and Spain.
U.S. consumption of fresh bell peppers averaged 11.4 pounds per person in 2017, up six percent from 2015, according to AMRC.
Bulk Versus Packaged
According to Steve Veneziano, vice president of sales and operations at Oakes Farms in Immokalee, FL, marketing the sweet pepper really depends on where you live. U.S. retailers use bulk or packaged displays depending on geographic location and what consumers in the area are used to seeing.
“On the West Coast, packaged sweet peppers are the most popular, while in the Southeast, bulk peppers are most common,” says Veneziano. “Bulk is still more popular in the Midwest, while packaged is most common in New England.”
Veneziano says the company’s most popular is called the “stoplight pack,” which consists of one red, green and yellow pepper packaged together. It’s a good value to consumers who want to try all the peppers but might not buy them separately. The stoplight pack adds color to recipes.
Michael Bader, vice president of national sales development for Bushmans’ Inc., based in Rosholt, WI, says, “The best sellers, whether it’s green or colored or mini, depend on the marketing support behind a certain product. But the tendency is that packaged peppers are more profitable because consumers end up having to buy more, especially if bulk is not an option.”
Pairing Peppers With Meat
Sweet peppers are especially delicious when paired with steaks for shish kabobs or just roasted with a protein. Reminding consumers how to use sweet peppers in recipes is a great tool for inspiring purchases.
“Peppers are often hidden in the produce section so consumers are less likely to pick them up, and many shoppers still aren’t sure how to cook with them,” says Veneziano. “We produce a sweet griller pepper that’s delicious roasted or just chopped on a salad.”
Altough they also pair well with onions in recipes such as stir fries, they’re usually not sold in the same section as onions because they require refrigeration, says Steve Yubeta, director of sales for Farmer’s Best International in Nogales, AZ. But there’s still an abundance of ideas for boosting sales.
“Sweet peppers, especially green peppers, are really good stuffed with hamburger, for example, which is another way to market them in the meat section,” says Yubeta. Grilling sweet peppers and putting them on top of a burger with grilled mushrooms instead of lettuce and tomato is also an excellent recipe that can help push peppers.
“We also like to market the mini pepper as a healthy snack,” says Yubeta. The pepper, like the mini carrot, can also be great on crudité platters with dipping sauces, and it’s a healthy substitute for chips. It’s crunchy and flavorful but without the calories, says Yubeta.
Dominic Viglione, category merchant at BJ’s Wholesale Club, a membership-only retail chain with more than 210 stores in 16 states and headquartered in Westborough, MA, says social media is a great tool to remind consumers about all the recipes and uses for sweet peppers. There’s also ample opportunity to merchandise sweet peppers, both regular and mini, around Mexican recipes such as fajitas and fresh tacos.
“Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that’s great for boosting sales on social media,” says Viglione, who also likes to tout the health benefits of sweet peppers, such as vitamin C, vitamin B6 and vitamin A, online.
Viglione says peppers sell well when promoted instead of being hidden. BJs recently priced them at $5.99 for a 2-pound bag of mini peppers and a variety pack of bell peppers for $4.99, and does not sell in bulk.
“Space allocation depends on the gross profit of the item, the time of year and the gross profit of the store’s produce department,” contends Bader. “Generally speaking, a display needs three facings in order to be large enough to move product.”
Jim Weber, produce supervisor for retailer Tadych’s Econofoods in Iron Mountain, MI, says bulk bell peppers sell much better when they’re in the weekly circular. They’re each displayed in 3-foot wide and 4-foot tall display cases. The mini peppers are sold separately in the packaged variety, as are the four-packs of colored peppers. Green peppers are still more often used for flavor while red, orange and yellow are used to add color to recipes. “It’s about half bulk and half packaged in our produce departments,” says Weber.
Keep it Fresh
Weber also says sweet peppers sell best when they’re really fresh even though they do have a longer shelf life than some of the other more perishable items. That vibrancy is what really grabs consumers’ attention. The bigger, brighter and fresher the display, the better.
“We like to display the colorful peppers next to green items like celery, for example, to show their vivid colors,” says Weber.
Angela Gamiotea, marketing manager at J&J Family of Farms in Loxahatchee, FL, agrees freshness matters. “Like any produce items, shelf life is a factor. Peppers tend to be a little more resilient than other vegetables.”
She says marketing newer varieties of sweet peppers is another tool for showing consumers sweet peppers should regularly make an appearance on their grocery list.
“Retailers should be open to explore new varieties of sweet peppers to capture consumers who may think regular bell peppers are boring,” says Gamiotea. “We are introducing Sunny Sweet Peppers, which are larger than a mini pepper with a higher brix giving them a sweeter taste.”
Some ideas for pepper use include roasting your own bell peppers and putting them on salads or pairing them with fresh Mozzarella instead of tomatoes. Sweet bell peppers are a great addition to roasted red pepper soup, ratatouille or as a topping on a homemade pizza.
“Recipes can definitely facilitate category growth,” says Gamiotea. “We think it’s all about educating the consumer of the usages and stepping away from the staple meals consumers know contain peppers. “We are expanding our colored pepper category, so we are increasing our production every year. ”
The bottom line when it comes to marketing sweet peppers is vibrant color, variety and recipe ideas along with fresh and constantly updated displays.