An Influx Of Exciting Specialty Items Attracts Customers And Stimulates Increased Ring.
Thanks to the growth of the foodie culture and soaring ethnic populations in the U.S., specialty items continue to gain in popularity. “In the past two decades, we have seen an increase in ethnic, exotic and tropical produce items distributed to mainstream retailers,” reports Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Inc. in Los Angeles, CA. “Retailers have increased produce offerings to cater to all types of consumers.”
North State Grocery in Cottonwood, CA, with 19 stores, received the benefit of ethnic cooking influencing the market. “Ethnic cooking has brought on a demand for what we would call ‘specialty items,’though, obviously, to ethnic customers, they are everyday items,” says Rick Rutte, produce/floral director. “Cooking channels have also been a big influence.”
Bashas’ Family of Stores operating 113 stores out of Chandler, AZ, credits the growing culinary trend and the rise of rock star chefs as powerful forces behind the burgeoning specialty world. As more specialties become available, more at-home chefs are tempted to try them in their cooking – particularly after seeing them made more approachable through media,” explains Gabe Flores, produce manager.
No longer relegated to special occasions, specialty items now frequently show up on shopping lists. “Specialty produce items have gone from ‘Holiday Only’ to mainstream foods consumed daily in homes and merchandised 52 weeks a year,” explains Rick Durkin, director of business development at Crystal Valley Foods in Miami, FL.
Richard Stiles, director of produce and floral for Redner’s Markets in Reading, PA, with more than 40 stores, highly recommends any supermarket develop a specialty line. “It’s always been a big source of extra income for us,” he explains. “It gets the stores excited. Our produce managers love to pick out different specialties from our list and put together fun promotions.”
John Vena Inc. in Philadelphia, PA, contends that specialty items have never been more important. “The nature of competition is rapidly changing and specialties are one of the best ways to enhance customer experience,” explains Daniel Vena, director of sales.
Specialties enhance profits and image. “Specialties are normally priced higher and allow for greater profit,” says Bruce Klein, director of marketing for Maurice A. Auerbach Inc. in Secaucus, NJ. “These items are usually newer items so they boost a store’s produce category.”
A Unique Focus
Any discussion of specialty produce is complicated by the fluid nature of defining what ‘specialty’ actually means. “There is a wide variety of specialty products without much of a definition,” argues Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties in Pompano Beach, FL. “We normally define ‘specialty’ as unique products we bring to market that are distinct from the usual fare, even though they’ve become increasingly common.”
Though the definition broadly revolves around availability and uniqueness, Vena asserts what really counts is the merchandising. “The definition isn’t as important as the merchandising and demographic work that must be done to select and sell the right products to the right people,” he says.
Specialty merchandising is ultimately about customizing to specific demographics. “When you offer a specialty product, your intention is to connect at a level that resonates at a very familiar level with the consumer,” says Peter Leifermann, director of sales for Brooks Tropicals in Homestead, FL.
Bashas’ recommends building visibility of the category at the store level and staying consistent. “Keep it well stocked and fresh at all times,” advises Flores. “These tactics will help any business become a specialty destination.”
“Items such as dragon fruit bring variety to the produce section,” says Adrian Capote, vice president of sales for J&C Tropicals in Miami FL. “Because of the appealing appearance, it triggers an impulse buy.”
“The main reason retailers should carry specialty items such as dragon fruit, guava, and starfruit is because of the health benefits they bring to consumers,” says Capote.
“Cultural diversity is growing throughout our country. Therefore retailers should look at the demographics of their stores to be able to cater to specific customers’ ethnic preferences for each area,” says Doria Blonder, sales and marketing director for New Limeco, LLC in Princeton, FL. “Carrying these specialty items attracts the ethnic demographic but also will attract the foodie who wants to try a recipe.”
Go Ethnic And Tropical
Brooks reports Hispanic and Asian items are at the forefront of the specialties trend. “Demand from Latinos and Asians drives the inclusion of specialties, but once in the store, these fruits and vegetables are generally embraced by any health-conscious consumer,” notes Mary Ostlund, director of marketing.
Hispanic items, including hot peppers and tropical fruits, are major players in the specialty space. North State reports chili peppers as probably the biggest growth category over the years, and Brooks sees significant growth in papaya. “Large papaya is virtually mainstream,” states Leifermann, “and the Solo papaya holds a lot of promise.”
The nutritional benefits of papaya offer a prime promotional opportunity. “Though papaya sales lag behind mango, we still see huge potential,” says Eagle. “Papayas are healthy and have such beautiful color and great flavor.”
Hearts of palm is an ethnic item more widely known as a grocery specialty, but has now become available in a produce-appropriate presentation. Pasco Foods in Spicewood, TX, markets a non-refrigerated, stand-up pouch presentation without a brine solution. “With this fresher presentation, retailers can still offer convenience and an extended shelf-life,” explains Johan Andersson, vice president of sales. “Hearts of palm now appearing in produce offers a lot of potential.”
“Merchandise these items in big, bulk displays,” advises Capote. “Most customers prefer to pick and choose their products. Store managers must interact as much as possible day-to-day with customers to understand their needs. Consumers overall are the key to success; they will tell you what’s right and wrong, how they prepare it and what their expectations are.”
“The best way to educate consumers on specialties and remove their fear is simply by educating them on the health properties and recipes,” says Capote. “We have seen some of our retail partners’ business skyrocket on these items simply because of the commitment they have made to educate the consumer at the store level.”
New Limeco’s Powerful Harvest line offers QR codes on its PLU labels. “These take consumers directly to the item’s page on our website where they are told how to store and prepare the item and given recipes,” explains Blonder. “We offer recipe cards with nutritional information to our retail customers to display with specialty items. We also try to make sure the produce managers know what the item tastes like and who uses it. This way when someone asks a question they know what the answer is.”
High Potential With Limitations
The increasing popularity of the starfruit will prove profitable. “Starfruit is a great seller when merchandised in the tropical section,” relates Karen Caplan, president and chief executive of Frieda’s Specialty Produce in Los Angeles, CA. “It’s important to label the fruit with proper informative signage so the consumer knows how to use it.”
Ostlund points out the product’s versatility. “Sweet-tasting Florida fruit can be eaten like an apple or sliced into almost anything,” she says. “It’s no longer just a garnish; they’re in salads, top entrées, and give a ‘star’ quality to desserts.”
Though starfruit is available year-round, sporadic dips in supply can affect consistent sourcing. “The limited availability of starfruit has slowed growth,” laments Stiles. “I wish we had greater availability. Just last week, a customer asked me for starfruit, but we didn’t have it.”
Guava, another tropical delight, is experiencing newfound popularity in the U.S. “Guavas, both red and Thai, are coming to the forefront as consumers are choosing fresher options after tiring from more processed versions,” says Leifermann.
Stiles warns stores to tailor guava offerings to store-specific demographics. “Redner’s always carries guava, but it can be a slow mover,” he explains. “We focus on it more in some stores based on demographics.”
The growth of the U.S. Asian population and Asian-inspired cooking has put a spotlight on Asian specialties. “An interest in Asian items, such as dragon fruit, kiwi, and lemongrass has grown,” reports Rutte of North State.
Dragon fruit’s appearance alone sparks consumer interest. “Dragon fruit cannot be ignored,” states Brooks’ Ostlund. “Make sure signage shows what it looks on the inside — a stark contrast to the shocking scaly deep pink skin.”
Redner’s considers dragon fruit a showstopper. “It is so much fun to have out and sample!” exclaims Stiles. “Many people aren’t familiar with it, and love experiencing it. The quality of dragon fruit has improved in recent years with much better size and color.”
Fresh ginger is a specialty item turned culinary staple. “Fresh ginger sales demonstrate the broadening of the North American palette,” declares Brooks’ Leifermann. “Ginger’s health benefits and versatility are widely touted.”
Ostlund recommends signage to help consumers understand the difference in taste between fresh and dry ginger. “Spice rack ginger differs from fresh ginger markedly since it undergoes a chemical change when dried,” she notes.
Showcasing ginger better and promoting its health benefits encourages sales, according to Auerbach’s Klein. “Often ginger is merchandised in a small, out-of-the-way location,” he notes.“Making it more visible encourages consumers to buy it.”
“Ginger should be displayed near other Asian commodities in the refrigerated case,” suggests Blonder of New Limeco. “It works great near boo chop, wonton wraps, tofu, peppers or specialty herbs.”
The advent of mini produce items caused a major new category to emerge. “Retailers can now offer a full line of baby vegetables, including baby zucchinis and baby Brussels sprouts,” points out Martin Maldonado, general manager/supply chain director at Pure Fresh LLC in Miramar, FL.
These miniaturized versions of common products can be used to amp up a department’s appeal, according to Caplan. “Miniature vegetables give a sense of culinary sophistication when included in produce sets,” she explains, “yet they also appeal to kids who love the small size. Any parent can appreciate anything that helps their kids eat vegetables!”
Steamed baby beets and mini cucumbers are other great convenience items, according to Schueller. “Melissa’s steamed baby beets
are ready-to-go out of package,” he says. “They can be merchandised next to variety beets, radishes and leafy greens. Merchandise mini cucumbers next to variety cucumbers, carrots and celery.”
Pure Fresh also suggests featuring super sweet baby corn, baby carrots, and bite-size potatoes in a variety of colors. “They can be sub-labeled as all natural, non-GMO, exotic, imported, or artisan,” adds Maldonado.
Specialty potatoes exploded in popularity. “Dutch yellow potatoes and baby red potatoes are the top selling baby potatoes in the U.S.,” reports Schueller. “They come in a variety of packages and should be merchandised next to a variety of traditional potatoes.”
Auerbach reports that marble potatoes are also gaining interest. “These are so small consumers can cook them quickly,” says Klein. “They make a great presentation in
foodservice or for entertaining. Baby potatoes are an impulse item so give them a prominent spot.”
Mind Your Peas And Beans
Specialty beans and peas persist as distinct and trendy items. “We see expansion in our French bean category and Snow peas remain a popular item,” says Eagle of Southern Specialties.
Crystal Valley reports virtually all major retailers added a specialty line full of these products. “This includes Snow peas and Sugar Snaps as well as French beans, yellow wax beans and shucked English peas,” describes Durkin.
Health considerations and increased packaging options propel sales. “Our French beans are successful, because they offer advantages over the traditional green bean,” explains Eagle. “They have no fiber, better flavor, a gourmet appearance, and they’re easy to cook. And the variety of packaging options stimulates sales.”
Southern Selects offers around 11 items in an 8-ounce microwaveable pack. “This unique, convenient packaging has created an entirely new shelf category,” explains Eagle. “This packaging includes English beans, Snow peas, Sugar Snaps and asparagus tips as well as hand peeled baby Brussels sprouts, rainbow baby carrots and baby squash.”
The extended shelf life bag has increased in demand, as evidenced at Crystal Valley. “Most are microwaveable and available in 6-ounce and 8-ounce packs,” says Durkin. “However, some retailers prefer a more modestly wrapped tray with a sticker to give the impression it was just freshly packaged in the back room.”
While many consumers have strawberries and blueberries on their radar, stores and restaurants can impress customers with an increasing number of specialty berry options, such as goldenberries.
Frieda’s mentions goldenberries (Cape gooseberries or Physalis berries) and baby kiwifruits (kiwi berries) as top specialty berries. Goldenberries connect with some Hispanic consumers, but in recent tastings carried out by Bogota-based ProColombia (the agricultural marketing arm for Colombian produce), the fruit has also been well accepted by the U.S. mainstream. “Its nutritional content, exotic beauty and versatility positions it to have considerable potential once better known,” says Juan Barrera, U.S. agribusiness director for ProColombia in Miami, FL.
The goldenberry is available year-round, largely imported from Colombia and California. Marketers suggest promoting its health benefits and merchandising it as a berry. “Though some retailers display goldenberries next to tomatoes, it more appropriately fits with other berries,” says Barrera. “The goldenberry should also be promoted as a nutritional powerhouse despite its small size (just half an inch): high levels of vitamins A, C, B12 and D; low in calories; rich in antioxidants; and a low-glycemic index.”
Render’s features the golden raspberry when available. “It’s only available in the late spring into summer,” says Stiles. “But it is one of those unique items customers don’t see every day. Customers get excited to try a colorful twist on an old favorite.”
Arouse Novelty Appeal
Educating consumers on the creative use of specialty items is fundamental to increasing demand. Redner’s emphasizes sampling and demos. “Anytime you get people to stop and try something new, it generates sales and excitement,” says Stiles.
Usage education helps people overcome their hesitation to purchase something new. “A lot of consumers are willing to try new products but feel ignorant about how to use them,” explains Pasco’s Andersson. “Cross-merchandising specialties to show how they can be incorporated into traditional dishes the consumer is already used to, such as using hearts of palm in a salad, will stimulate sales.”
To combat consumers’ sense of ignorance about exotic or unfamiliar produce, Frieda’s encourages consumers to gain exposure to specialties through social media campaigns and online resources. “Today’s shoppers are more open to trying new ingredients and seeking out authentic ethnic flavors,” says Caplan. “We’re providing inspirations for new food experiences.”
Specialty marketers provide ample support for retailers and foodservice. Frieda’s educates and trains via its website, social media videos, packaging, and custom signage and emphasizes the importance of training produce managers. “Training produce managers enables them to be more engaged with their shoppers,” says Caplan.
Brooks underscores the crucial educational component of signage. “Make sure the sign shows the inside of the fruit,” states Ostlund. “The appeal of specialty items can double if the consumer knows what’s on the inside. Just one suggestion of how a specialty item can be used will also make a big difference.”
Guatemala: Rising Specialty Supplier
A key specialty produce supplier, Guatemala continues to push for progress and innovation.
In the past two or three decades, Guatemala has expanded its economy, traditionally based on sugar, coffee and bananas, to become a widely recognized source of specialty produce. “In the late 1980s, a group of ag and manufacturing visionaries formed a ‘non-traditional products’ association, the backbone of which was agricultural specialty items,” explains Martin Maldonado, general manager/supply chain director at Pure Fresh, LLC0 in Miramar, FL. “Heavy hitters included Snow and Snap peas, French beans and berries.”
A crucial element included the collaboration of several U.S. importers who invested time and resources to help develop non-traditional products. “Guatemala is a land of rich volcanic soil, several microclimates and excellent growing conditions for many specialty products,” explains Robert Colescott, president and chief executive of Southern Specialties in Pompano Beach, FL. “Since the 1980s, executives of Southern Specialties have been involved in pioneering the growth of specialty produce grown in Guatemala and imported into the U.S.”
As the specialty produce markets evolved, Guatemala continued to innovate and improve production and distribution logistics. “Today, growers and importers of Guatemalan specialty produce have made significant investments toward food safety, sustainable practices, cold chain management and other areas of our industry,” says Colescott.
Maldonado reports Pure Fresh supplies products with 100 percent traceability. “We grow under the very close scrutiny of all federal agencies,” he adds. “The import process is also closely monitored by Homeland Security.”
In an effort to continue promoting trade, innovation and high standards, a group of Guatemalan exporters and U.S. importers formed the Guatemalan Produce Trade Association (GPTA) in October 2015. Priscilla Lleras-Bush, coordinator of the GPTA, states that the organization strives to facilitate marketing strategies for specialty produce in the U.S. “The exporters and importers involved in GPTA represent some of the most unique and interesting products in our marketplace,” she says. “Our mission is to better help those in the U.S. understand the value of these products.”
According to Colescott, a co-chair of the GPTA, the association is focused on increased consumption of Guatemalan grown fruits and vegetables throughout the U.S. “GPTA provides a forum for the association members to discuss and implement brand awareness, world class standards, coop promotional and marketing opportunities and government advocacy,” he says.