The Fine Art of Ripening

According to Mission Produce AvoIntel research from 2022, 26% of shoppers would buy more avocados if stores had more ripe fruit that is ready to eat.

Getting it right is more than a science.

For produce retail stores and foodservice alike, ripening is a key part of the process of getting desirable produce to consumers. Although it doesn’t benefit shelf life, ripening — or pre-conditioning — delivers fruit ready to eat. After all, soft, ripe avocados or bananas are considerably more appealing than rock-hard products that are still a long way from the consumption stage.

However, one ripening rule doesn’t fit all produce, and, for many companies, pre-conditioning is an art, and one that is increasingly being expanded across categories.

Based at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, John Vena Inc. (JVI) opened its first ripening facilities in 2011, and handles almost “everything but bananas,” according to Emily Kohlhas, director of marketing.

“We do a small volume of bananas, but the vast majority of our work focuses on avocados, mangos and plantains,” she says. “We’ve even experimented with melons and papayas.”

Retailers play an important role in maintaining ripened fruit quality. John Vena Inc., Philadelphia, PA, recommends maintaining different temperature zones in store, especially for ripe mangos and plantains, which require storage at temperatures between refrigerated and ambient (52 degrees F for the former and 55-58 degrees F for the latter).

JVI offers ripening in two principal ways: for its wholesale operation, so it can provide pre-conditioned fruit 365 days a year; and as a service. The latter represents by far the higher volume, according to Kohlhas. In fact, the company plans to invest in new technology during 2024 to expand its ripening capacity by more than 35%.

John Vena ripens avocados for both retail and foodservice, as well as mangos almost exclusively for foodservice. Kohlhas says many large retailers now specify the desired stage they need when it comes to ripening.

“We love this kind of specificity, because they know what works for them,” she says.

When it comes to mangos though, Kohlhas says although a few progressive retailers are experimenting with ready-to-cut mangos, the industry still appears to be some way away from that becoming the norm.

Headquartered in Oxnard, CA, Mission Produce ripens avocados and mangos for retail, wholesale and foodservice, making use of 16 ripening centers around the globe, comprising 10 in the U.S. and Canada, four in China, and two in the U.K. and Europe.

According to Mission’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, Cheryl Hoefs, the company strategically ripens its avocados and mangos in close proximity to customers to promote optimal quality.

And Mission’s strategy is well-grounded. Citing Mission Produce AvoIntel research from 2022, Hoefs says 26% of shoppers would buy more avocados if stores had more ripe fruit.

“Ripeness is one of the most important factors in a consumer’s decision to purchase, ahead of pricing, origin and size, so that’s why Mission Produce is committed to getting the ripeness right,” she adds.

“Mission’s ‘Ready!’ program enables retailers to simultaneously merchandise ripe and almost-ripe avocados,” Hoefs continues. “Programs like this have shown profitable results for our retail partners.”


Also based in Philadelphia’s wholesale market, M. Levin and Company has been in the banana ripening business since 1906. According to controller Tracie Levin, the company ripens around 30,000 boxes of bananas — conventional and organic — on a weekly basis.

Levin says many retailers order bananas at various stages of ripeness, from ready-to-eat yellow bananas to greener fruit that ripens at home. “Many retailers stage bananas in their back rooms, putting out the yellow fruit first, and as the ones in the back begin to ripen up, they bring them out,” she says.

A member of the M. Levin banana ripening team checks the company’s bananas. The company ripens around 30,000 boxes of bananas — conventional and organic — on a weekly basis.

However, Levin adds, “If a green banana is kept too cold, it will never color up well, which is why storing a banana at the correct temperature is very important once it leaves our facility.”

One of the biggest players in the global produce industry, Chiquita North America, employs advanced ripening techniques to ensure fruits reach optimal ripeness for consumers, according to Vice President for Sales Jamie Postell.

These methods include using controlled atmosphere storage, ethylene application, and temperature modulation to regulate the ripening process.

Postell says Chiquita also uses sophisticated forecasting methods based on historical data, market trends, and consumer preferences to determine how much to ripen.

“At Chiquita, after years of research, we have developed a ripening cycle that maintains the color and firmness of our bananas,” he says. “For optimal results, they must be kept at the right temperature in both the back room and the produce area of the retail store.”

Another major player, Fresh Del Monte Produce, based in Coral Gables, FL, utilizes pressurized ripening rooms to ripen avocados and bananas, which Vice President Walter Tordoff describes as “the best in the business.”

“Our newest ripening rooms are energy efficient and can ripen anywhere from 20-42 pallets of fruit at once,” he reveals. “This equates to thousands of individual pieces of fruit and roughly 38,400 pounds of bananas.”


Consumers, Tordoff believes, are looking for produce that is ripe and ready to eat immediately, but they also want fruit to remain fresh and ripe for several days after purchase.

“Consumer preference can vary by commodity, but generally, customers want produce that is ready to eat,” he says. “We believe ripening is helpful and, in many cases, necessary, to ensure certain produce commodities are ready to eat when purchased by consumers.

“Maintaining quality depends on proper handling at the store, both in the back rooms and while product is on display. Fresh Del Monte provides retailers with information related to handling and display best practices.”

Given that ripening essentially speeds up the aging process of fruit, Kohlhas at John Vena says there is no way around the fact that the practice reduces shelf life.

“How much it reduces shelf life depends on the pressure it’s been ripened to and the handling post-conditioning,” she says.

For John Vena’s ripening manager, Joe Menei, the most important factor when it comes to maximizing shelf life is a thorough cooling process and maintenance of the cold chain after conditioning.

“Avocados must be quickly and efficiently cooled back down to 38-40 degrees F immediately following ripening,” he says. “Mangos have to get to — and stay at — 52 degrees F. We never cut corners on our cooling process, even when there are loads waiting to hit the ripening rooms — it has too great an impact on the shelf life of the fruit.”


As a leading manufacturer of commercial produce ripening rooms, Thermal Technologies’ TarpLess ripening room system is used by many of the world’s largest grocery retailers, with over 3,300 installations across the globe.

According to Vice President of Sales David Byrne, a good ripening program starts with a good demand forecast.

“The better you can forecast your needs, the less shrink you will experience,” he says.

“For bananas, shelf life is determined largely by the ripening cycle, which is the number of days between gassing and shipping, typically five-six days.

“Maintaining 90% relative humidity throughout the ripening process is also important to protect against dehydration and scarring, and is proven to extend shelf life by as much as 12 hours or more.”


Produce consultant Dennis Kihlstadius is one of the foremost authorities on fruit ripening, with decades of experience advising companies worldwide. Kihlstadius says he teaches clients to ripen fruit the right way, rather than relying on what he labels as “tribal knowledge” — that’s to say accepted wisdom that is not always correct.

“Growing for three generations doesn’t always mean you understand the physiology of the fruit,” he explains.

Such mistaken practices include checking ripeness by squeezing the middle of avocados. This method, says Kihlstadius, damages the fruit. Instead, he recommends squeezing the stem end to avoid bruising the interior.

Chill damage is also a common problem, causing dark patches inside avocados. “Black on the inside is chill damage — nothing bruises from the inside out,” Kihlstadius explains.

For this reason, getting temperature right during all phases of the supply chain, including ripening, is crucial.

“The rule of produce is people buy with their eyes, they return with their taste buds,” says Kihlstadius. “When someone buys something they like, they will keep coming back until they buy something they don’t like — and once you lose a customer, they won’t come back for three weeks.”

According to M. Levin and Company’s Levin, the key factor when it comes to ripening bananas is being able to provide the customer with the color they want when they want it. However, she admits this can be challenging, as bananas from different sources ripen quicker or more evenly than others.

“Banana ripening is not a perfect science, but we have been doing this for many years, so we like to think we have a good formula,” Levin adds.


According to Mission’s Hoefs, quality and customization are the key factors of a successful ripening program, emphasizing the importance of getting ripeness right to generate both impulse and repeat purchases.

To oversee factors covering country of origin, seasonality and size, Mission’s dedicated Ripe Masters lead and manage the ripening, with each ripe room given its own schedule to deliver fruit at specific stages.

Given that Mission ripens in anticipation of demand based on marketplace intelligence, a significant responsibility of the Ripe Masters is inventory planning.

“By ripening in anticipation, we’re able to accommodate last-minute order changes and be flexible in responding to demand fluctuations,” explains Hoefs.

JVI’s Kohlhas stresses a quality product is the foundation of a successful ripening program. “Having a reputable supplier is key, particularly one who will keep you well informed about seasonal shifts that impact the ripening process,” she says.

Based in New York City’s Hunts Point Terminal Market, Top Banana uses pressurized ripening rooms for bananas and plantains to help meet specific customer requirements.

“This technology allows us to move air through the boxes, rather than around them, which helps us meet customer demand for color,” explains Chief Operating Officer Daniel Barabino.

These demands, he says, can vary according to customer, with retailers preferring, in many cases, “ripe and ready to eat,” while wholesalers take greener fruit.

“Bananas are a little bit of an art and a science,” says Barabino. “If it’s too hot or cold, you can damage the integrity of the fruit.”

Other significant factors, Barabino continues, include stage of harvest, country of origin and sizing, as well climatic conditions at the source. “What’s changing now is there is more data, which means you can make sure the quality coming off the container is spot on.”

Byrne from Thermal Technologies says the length of the ripening cycle, combined with a well-designed room with proper humidification, is essential for successful ripening.

“Using a shorter ripening cycle or rooms lacking proper humidification can lead to trouble,” he warns. “Since ripening is essentially controlling temperature and humidity over a prescribed number of days, as long as you are receiving consistent quality fruit at 58 degrees F on the backend, you should be good.

“However, if you are receiving bananas that have been exposed to excessive heat or cold, that can have a negative impact on fruit quality and shelf life. The good news is this is usually the result of improper handling, which is typically fixable.”


But even if fruit goes through pre-conditions before retail, there are further measures that should be taken to maintain quality once it reaches stores.

For John Vena’s Kohlhas, the most important factor is maintaining proper storage temperatures by understanding the requirements of each item.

“For Hass avocados, unripe fruit should be stored at 42-45 degrees F to prevent chilling injury, while ripe fruit can and should be stored at 38-40 degrees F to extend shelf life,” she recommends.

“It may seem like a minor difference, but it can have a noticeable effect on shelf life.”

Kohlhas also recommends maintaining different temperature zones in store, especially for ripe mangos and plantains, which require storage at temperatures between refrigerated and ambient (52 degrees F for the former and 55-58 degrees F for the latter).

Tordoff at Fresh Del Monte explains that the company manually triggers ripening for avocados and bananas to ensure a visible uniformity of ripening stages within an entire load.

“At the commercial level, manual triggering is imperative,” he says. “Without manual triggering, there is too much variability during the natural ripening process.”

At the retail level, Tordoff recommends keeping produce storage and display areas at temperatures that maximize the longevity of the ripened fruit. He also emphasizes the importance of careful handling to prevent scarring and bruising, as well as frequent rotation to keep the ripest fruit at the front of displays.

Postell says Chiquita provides comprehensive training and guidelines to store employees who handle pre-conditioned fruit. This is aimed at helping employees identify key signs of ripeness, enabling them to accurately assess readiness for sale, while also focusing on minimizing any damage during transit and display.

At Mission, the company provides customers with “AvocaDOs and DON’Ts,” which combines best practices guidelines and hands-on training on proper storage and handling procedures.

Upon arrival in store, Hoefs recommends storing avocados at 38-42 degrees F to slow ripening and avoid cooler damage, as well as marking fruit as “ripe or ready to eat” once on display.

She also recommends placing riper avocados on top of firmer avocados to encourage shoppers to reach for the ripe fruit first, while at the same time keeping them away from other ethylene-sensitive produce, such as bananas, to prevent the acceleration of ripening.

Taken as a whole, Kohlhas describes ripening as an “art.”

“Sure, there is a lot of science that informs the process, but there is absolutely an art to predicting how fruit will react to the pre-conditioning process.”

“Technology in ripening has come so far from where it started,” adds Levin. “In the early 1900s, we ripened bananas in underground cellars. After that, we ripened them using plastic tarps and watering the floors. We now have pressurized ripening rooms with all the bells and whistles you can imagine. My great-grandfather and grandfather both would never have been able to believe that today we can ripen bananas from our cell phones.”